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You can’t have a healthy farm without healthy farmers

Prior to producers’ most stressful seasons, experts suggest taking inventory of your stress levels and to plan ahead to avoid pitfalls that will impact your mental health

Don’t forget that third item that needs tending on your farm, says a rural health specialist.

“As many producers tend to their crops and livestock daily, they need to remember to also tend to themselves and their own well-being,” John Cale from Prairie Mountain Health told the Farm Outlook 2015 conference presented by the Dauphin Agriculture Society here last month. “The farm may not make as much profit without completing a few more jobs that day but in the long run, the farm won’t make any profit if the producer isn’t healthy mentally and physically.”

Farmers are well known for being independent with a tendency not to openly talk about problems or ask for support, while at the same time facing tremendous pressure as they try to balance work both on and off the farm.

A 2006 report by the World Health Organization (WHO) cited farming as one of the most stressful occupations. It identified risks including hazardous work environments, reduced access to emergency services, unstable and adverse economic conditions, long working hours, lack of social recognition, financial uncertainty and social isolation.

“Farmers are facing an immense amount of pressures from all different areas, weather, increased input costs, large debt loads, disease outbreaks, erratic markets, government regulations, long hours and uncertain yields,” said Cale.

That creates stress, which in turn can threaten physical and mental health, causing high blood pressure, heart disease, weakened immune systems, depression and even suicide.

A 2005 report in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry indicated that farmers experience one of the highest rates of suicide of any industry and there is growing evidence that those involved in farming are at a higher risk of developing mental health problems.

“If your body is a tractor, then stress can be compared to how hard you rev. Too little revs and you could be lugging yourself along; too much and you could blow a gasket; too long and you deplete your fuel. But revs are not your enemy, it’s revving too much, too long that becomes the problem,” said Cale.

Get ready for seeding

With the stress of spring seeding approaching, Cale encourages producers to evaluate their situation and stress levels.

“Everyone views stressful situations differently and has different coping skills. Many times you cannot control outside forces that affect the farm but you can control how they are handled and how you cope with the stress.”

Cale recommends assessing your thinking patterns, avoid all-or-nothing thinking, jumping to conclusions and disqualifying the positive or making mountains out of molehills.

“Once your stress alarms have gone off you need to check your thinking to make sure that you are not now fuelling the problem,” he said. “Fuelling the problem with your thinking is the difference between having stress that will push you to aspire to do better things and stress that can actually contribute to mortality.”

Cale offered up some real-life coping tools throughout his presentation, noting that farmers should give themselves credit for what has been accomplished, set realistic goals, prioritize tasks, delegate as much as possible and don’t set yourself up for stress — leave some time to deal with the unexpected.

In recent years, the changing global economy has affected producers’ relationships with one another, due to increased competition, increased farm sizes and further separation from neighbours. In many cases, farmers have lost the primary support of fellow farmers.

Agriculture, more than any other industry, is a community that is empowered by networking and communication. As the busy seasons approach, Cale urges producers to be open to communication.

“Farm communities in Canada were built by neighbours helping neighbours and keeping that bond strong will only lead to better profits and health for everyone.

“When talking to someone who is highly stressed, accurate empathy is the first place to begin,” said Cale. “Many of these producers are dealing with very significant and real losses. If you say, ‘it is all going to be OK,’ when they are losing what they are losing, it is not an accurate response to what they are dealing with.”

Cale encourages all producers to utilize Manitoba Farm and Rural Support Services online counselling, text, email and chat support lines as well as the organization’s free and anonymous application, Calm in the Storm.

“Ask for help. There are a number of resources available to farmers in all different areas,” said Cale. “Make consultation appointments even if you don’t think you will use the service. Talk to advisers, professionals and your neighbours. If they can’t help you, they may be able to direct you to the right person. You do not have to do everything on your own and it never hurts to ask.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Paige is a reporter centred in southwestern Manitoba. She previously wrote for the agriculture-based magazine publisher, Issues Ink and was the sole-reporter at the Minnedosa Tribune for two years prior to joining the Manitoba Co-operator.

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