Report links business management, mental health of farmers

Farm women, young farmers report higher levels of stress, difficulties coping

Ottawa — A new report from Farm Management Canada (FMC) calls for action after determining 75 per cent of Canadian farmers reported being moderately to highly stressed about unpredictable interference, workload pressure and financial pressures.

But how a farmer plans his or her business — and associated risks — can help lower that statistic.

The report, titled “Healthy Minds, Healthy Farms: Exploring a Connection between Mental Health and Farm Business Management” sought to improve understanding of how business and lifestyles influence a farmer’s mental health.

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“The Canadian farming population is more stressed than the rest of the population within Canada, for sure,” said FMC executive director Heather Watson.

Ontario-based Wilton Consulting Group worked with FMC to conduct the study, which found 62 per cent of Canadian farmers are categorized with mid-stress scores and 14 per cent with high stress.

Watson said the report follows other recent studies calling for improved mental health supports for farmers, including one conducted by a parliamentary committee in 2019.

“We’ve kind of always felt that business management practices must be impacted by mental health, in terms of your ability to make decisions, think rationally, handle stress and have coping mechanisms,” she said, noting that was all more anecdotal. “We hadn’t really looked at it from an analytical point of view.

“Throughout the research, we kind of had two sides of the same coin: how does mental health impact farm business’ management, and how does farm business management practices affect mental health?”

Overall, the report indicated 21 per cent of farmers regularly follow a risk management plan, while close to half – 48 per cent – do not.

There is evidence suggesting that should change, as 88 per cent of farmers who reported using a written business plans say it contributed to their peace of mind.

“When they did do a business plan, it seemed to result in doing other business practices as well,” Watson said, noting those same farmers were the ones more likely to use advisors or do budgeting.

Watson said 88 per cent of those who had written business plans could look to those plans as a “guiding light” during difficult times.

“Having business management practices isn’t going to reduce the stresses out there. Stressors are out there, whether it’s the weather or markets or whatever, but it does impact how you react to those stressors,” she said. “We found farmers who had business plans had more positive coping mechanisms.”

‘Stuck in an office’

Those who do not have a written business plan often cite their success without one as the reason why – and the thought of making a plan can be stressful.

“I’m interested to see if the context we find ourselves in today (with COVID-19) might shift that thinking a little bit, because business isn’t very good for the majority of farmers right now and it’s a completely blindsiding situation,” she said, questioning if business plans that included a worse-case scenario contingency plan may have helped farmers now.

The report found some demographic differences, with women and younger farmers
showing signs of higher stress levels. For young people, the study suggests they are generally less effective at coping with stress and less likely to practice business risk management plans.

Business planning “is not something that farmers like to do, or want to do,” Watson said. “It doesn’t resonate with them, they didn’t get into farming to manage people or be crunching numbers stuck in an office, so how do we bridge that gap?”

To better support farmer mental health, FMC says continued awareness on the importance of it is needed alongside support in improving mental health literacy within agricultural circles.

FMC also says it and the broader agriculture community need to deliver business management advice, focusing on risk management literacy as a means to face uncertainty. It also calls for more advocacy to expand farmer-specific mental health support services.

“We’re hoping that a lot of groups will look at these recommendations and actions and say, ‘we’ll do a project on that,” said Watson.

In all, the report had 24 calls to action that resulted from an extensive survey involving 1,735 farmers, 14 focus groups and 72 one-on-one interviews with farmers and industry representatives.

Watson and FMC are hoping the study can be used as a reference during the next round of policy development for agriculture.

— D.C. Fraser reports for Glacier FarmMedia from Ottawa.

About the author

,

Reporter

D.C. Fraser is Glacier FarmMedia’s Ottawa-based reporter. Growing up mostly in Alberta, Fraser also lived in Saskatchewan for ten years where he covered politics, including a stint teaching at the University of Regina’s School of Journalism. He is an avid fan of the outdoors and a pretty good beer league hockey player. His passion for agriculture and agri-food policy comes naturally: Six consecutive generations of his family have worked in the industry.

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