Farming is such a difficult job mentally because of the number of factors that are simply out of producers’ control
Tia Schram recently presented this speech at the Alberta Young Speakers for Agriculture contest at the Calgary Stampede, where she was a finalist in the senior category. She is currently working on her family’s North Hill Simmentals farm near Bruderheim, Alta., but will be attending college in the fall.
The market is down, two waterers are frozen, the barn is full with cows to calve, the tractor won’t start, and the meteorologist is calling for the coldest winter to date.
You have put in a 24-hour day, and it’s not over yet. You are exhausted, mentally drained and feel as though nothing can go right. Although tomorrow is a new day, nothing is going to change. Try feeling like this every day. Helpless, exhausted, alone.
Mental illness is a rising issue in today’s society and is becoming more apparent within the agriculture industry. The next big things for the future of agriculture is addressing the mental health of farmers and starting a conversation about it. The health of livestock producers goes beyond the physical risks and needs to consider the long hours, taxing work, and uncontrollable factors that farmers face on a daily basis.
Farmers work in acres, not hours. Whether it be getting hay off the field before it rains or waiting for a cow to calve, farmers do not complete a day’s work until they are satisfied that their duties have been fulfilled for the day. When looking for a job, one would often consider the number of hours required to work, the salary, benefits, and holidays. With a job as a livestock producer, one sacrifices all the flexibility and stability of a 9-5 job. From an urban perspective, a career this demanding may seem crazy, but to agricultural enthusiasts, this is our lifestyle.
The combination of physical requirements, broad knowledge, and emotional situations make any job in agriculture extremely difficult. It is required that one be able to pull a calf, lift large amounts, and fix everything with their hands, in addition to having an understanding of mechanics, animal science, plumbing and nutrition. On top of all these requirements, it is expected that little emotion is displayed when something does not go as anticipated. The work a farmer does is not easy, and often goes unnoticed, therefore making farming one of the most physically and mentally taxing jobs in the world.
What makes farming such a difficult job mentally is the factors that are out of our control. As much work as one puts in, and as much as they try to prepare, the weather, health of livestock, and markets are uncontrollable. There is a constant uncertainty regarding profit or loss for a year’s work because of these factors. With farming, there is no guaranteed paycheck, regardless of the amount of work put in. It takes extremely strong people to work in agriculture.
This generation seeks stability, and that is a leading reason why fewer youth are staying on the family farm and pursuing careers in agriculture. It is not a matter of work ethic, but rather economic stability and flexibility.
When a 25-year-old, passionate about agriculture, takes his own life, we are forced to reconsider why we chose to work in this industry. Mental illness is a big part of the well-being of farmers, and should be considered to the same extent as physical risks. In 2018, three of my role models attempted suicide. It came as a shock to the farming community, as these men were some of the most successful producers. There was no sign that they were hurting, and they had too much pride to ask for help as many farmers do.
The cowboy mentality is to never show emotion or weakness. Expressing a need for help, especially for mental illness, is often viewed as a sign of vulnerability. Detecting a mental health issue is much more difficult than diagnosing a physical injury or disease. This makes it that much more challenging for a farmer to ask for help.
Although mental health concerns do not show the same visible symptoms of a physical injury, that does not mean that the level of treatment should change. Depression and anxiety are diseases, not impairments, and are not something to be ashamed of. Farmers need to understand and embrace that.
Treatment begins with a conversation. Communication is the root to providing a support system for farmers and members of the agriculture industry. It all starts with ending the stigma around mental health and creating an environment where farmers can feel comfortable expressing concerns regarding their mental well-being, and an atmosphere where they feel safe asking for help.
“We need to keep our people in society, but help them through society. We also have to help society learn about mental health, mental health issues and how to deal with them…. It really hurts to hear of losing people that I have been associated with because of something that we are not doing enough about, in my opinion. Mental health isn’t something we should be hiding.” –Bryce Morland
Mental illness is a rising issue in today’s society and deeply affects those involved in the agriculture industry. Although seeing baby calves running around in the spring and finishing a long harvest in the fall are extremely rewarding experiences, getting there is never an easy task. The daily grind, exhaustion and uncontrollable factors take a toll on mental health. No other career path offers so many risks and so much economic uncertainty. There are several cases of depression and anxiety that go unnoticed and untreated within this industry, with a handful of them ending tragically.
When you are thinking about the future and sustainability of agriculture, you must consider the men and women behind the industry because the next big thing is addressing mental health issues, not hiding them.
So even though the markets are down, the waterer is frozen, and nothing is going as it should, you are not helpless, and most importantly, you are not alone.