New sense of openness finds its way into farming culture

Farmers have gone soft, in the best possible way.

With the continuing evolution of the western Canadian farmer, topics that were once considered awkward, unmanly, weak or part of the “woman’s department” now seem eagerly embraced by many male farmers.

I’ve come to this conclusion after talking to a retiring farm safety expert, from speaking with a farm succession evangelist, from watching farmers chatter on Twitter, and from hanging around with lots of farmers at lots of conferences and meetings, and from visiting many farms.

I was particularly surprised recently to see an #AgChat discussion on Twitter that brought up the crucial role of psychological and spiritual centeredness in successfully managing and leading a farm.

It wasn’t a therapeutic session or an advice lecture but a bunch of farmers talking about how taking care of psychological and spiritual needs were important to running a farm well.

“People are more willing to open up and talk with people they know truly care about them and want nothing from them,” said Louise Carduner, a Manitoba-based ag business person and regular volunteer host of the weekly Tuesday evening Twitter discussion led by @AgChat.

Social media forums like Twitter allow farmers to talk with each other and share situations in ways that didn’t used to exist. They can be safe environments where it isn’t experts talking at farmers, or people yelling at each other, or where vested interests control the discussion.

Social media, used properly, can give farmers the space they need to share.

That might be part of the new openness of farmers, Carduner said.

The kind of open, public and online sharing you see today is absolutely not the kind of thing most farmers seemed comfortable with 25 years ago, when I started covering farming and rural Western Canada. Psychological balance? That was for weaklings to worry about. Spiritual needs? Better leave that to Sunday mornings at church.

The same attitude shift seems to have occurred with farm safety. At meetings I go to today and at farms I visit, farm safety is a big topic. People like to talk about what they do to keep everybody on the farm safe and how nothing is as important as keeping yourself and your loved ones safe.

It wasn’t much of subject of discussion 25 years ago, even though farmers with missing fingers and arms were more common. (At least in my memory.)

I recently interviewed farm safety expert and proselytizer Glen Blahey, who was retiring after 35 years of working his farm safety mission, and he recalled how resistant most men were to even the mention of personal safety when he began. Their wives were keen to protect their husbands and children, but the men often had the idea that injuries were just part of being a farmer. Some even had a perverse sense that injuries were like war wounds that proved you were doing the job.

There have always been committed farm safety advocates among farmers. I remember back in the mid-1990s, when I started working for The Western Producer, hearing the incessant ringing of phones and the apologetic and chastened tones of my editors following editions of the newspaper in which we had run a photograph of a farmer doing something dangerous. The images ranged from depicting empty beer cans in the front of a combine cab to kids riding in the bucket of a loader.

But that general concern was not nearly as big a deal with Joe Farmer then.

The same seems to go with uncomfortable discussions about farm succession.

It’s still an awkward area for many families, with lots of farmers unwilling to talk about retirement or death. However, it’s become more common for farm families to talk about this stuff, or at least they are talking about why they should be talking about it.

Succession evangelists like Elaine Froese have worked hard to break down the resistance to many farmers’ longstanding resistance to the issue, and it’s good to see farmers becoming more willing to think about it.

It’s been amazing to see how farmer depression and suicide have become a big, mainstream issue for farmers in the last few years. It just wasn’t something you’d often hear about when farmers gathered 25 years ago. I did a project looking at the phenomenon back in 2005 and it was still a pretty rare topic.

There again, a few crusaders had taken up the task of trying to clue in fellow farmers about why this needed to be discussed. But progress seemed slow, despite the existence of farm stress lines and the recognition that farmers often went through times of incredible strain.

Now, sessions on farming and mental health are common out in farm country and people actually talk about it.

So, farmers seem to have softened. Or they have broken that old, hard shell that once covered those softer places in the farmer psyche. They’re strong enough to go places that previous generations just didn’t seem to have the guts or the will to face.

That’s a good kind of softness to have.

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