As a millennial, one of my super powers is social media mastery. I know what hashtags will gain me followers and I know what filters will make the sky that perfect colour of blue.
And as a millennial farmer, I know how to befuddle non-farmer types into thinking I live an ideal lifestyle.
What they see is a fully feathered, healthy hen, boasting high egg production and happiness.
What they don’t see is the carnage left behind after a hungry great horned owl got into my coop and killed 13 of my birds, The rest have since lost most of their butt and breast feathers from trauma-related moulting.
The non-farming public sees trays upon trays of baby plants reaching for the sun, not the ones scattered on the greenhouse floor after a cat decided to make it its playground. They see the perfect broccoli florets, not the ones eaten by cabbage moths. They see a five-pound chicken, beheaded, plucked, and roasted. They don’t see the hours spent chasing cannibalistic, modern-day raptors around their outdoor pen rubbing featherless behinds with the spiciest mustard my small town could provide.
They don’t see the tears; the “I give up” moments and the “I feel so alone” talks to myself.
I follow hundreds of farming accounts on Instagram — in some cases farms sponsored by huge companies like Subaru and UPS, and farms that have a professional photographer on the payroll — and it’s hard to imagine they have as bad of days as I do.
Study after study links social media use to anxiety, jealousy, unhealthy comparison and loneliness.
But this is only adding a new dynamic to an onslaught of mental health issues that already exist for farmers.
In a survey conducted by Ontario’s University of Guelph in 2015 and 2016, out of the 1,100 Canadian farmers surveyed, 35 percent suffered depression and 58 percent some level of anxiety.
What’s worse, 40 percent felt uncomfortable getting professional help. And when it comes to being young and farming, we’re not just isolated, we’re socially isolated. It’s our millennial farmer curse.
“It takes hours to set up a perfect photo and it’s not reality,” says Lesley Kelly, mother to two boys, a farmer in northeastern Saskatchewan and co-founder of Do More Ag, a foundation dedicated to the mental well-being of Canadian farmers.
Last October, Kelly and her husband posted a live video on Facebook, discussing their struggles with mental health, and they received hundreds of positive responses. In January, she and three others launched Do More Ag.
Kelly says farmers need to normalize conversations around mental health, and by using social media to showcase that “realness,” these conversations can create community.
“The most important tool on our farm is the phone,” she says. “It allows us to connect to not only our friends but a network of millions of people.”
The pressure young farmers face to portray their farm, and farm life in general, as pleasant, is intense. We’re not only aiming for positive reinforcement from our former work colleagues and college friends for our own well-being, we’re seeking a customer base and trying to avoid hateful feedback.
When I hear my non-farming friends say things like “it’s so incredible you’re living your dream” and “your farm looks amazing,” I don’t want to disappoint them.
They’ve never had to “pick a kitten,” after the barn cat had a litter of 10 and you only get to keep three.
Or wring a chicken’s neck after its legs were crushed under its moveable pen, just to “protect” it from the roosters who kept mounting it.
I don’t want to disappoint, just as I don’t want to discourage young people from pursuing a life in farming.
As farmers age and as we encourage more young people to join the ranks, we need to share both the horror stories and the heroic ones because the reality is just as important as the romance.
Like that of my friend, who lost $30,000 worth of pigs in one month and another $7,000 on fruit trees that didn’t take but remains dedicated to learning best practices in agriculture and sharing them with other young farmers.
And the one who had a fox get into her chicken pen and kill 40 in one night and still raised another 1,000 the next year.
The friend who dehorned calves without a plan to stop the bleeding, rolled a post pounder and burned a baler to the ground but is currently in the process of buying the family farm.
And the one who has to work off farm so much that his farm, and his farming realities, are on the back burner, yet he still makes time to network with and prop up other young farmers.
“You can post something that is real, but also heartbreaking and heartfelt,” Kelly says, “and it’s an opportunity to take something and learn and grow and instill change, and positive things can come from that.”