Young farmers more stressed, less able to cope, study finds

Business planning and other management practices contribute to peace of mind, but younger farmers less likely to engage in these for several reasons

A recent study has shown that young farmers are more stressed than older ones — and less likely to be effective at dealing with that stress.

Jake Ayre.
photo: Jake Ayre

“Have you ever heard a farmer say, ‘I have peace of mind’”? said Jake Ayre, a young farmer and second vice-president of Keystone Agriculture Producers (KAP).

His tongue may have been in cheek, but only slightly.

Over three-quarters of farmers surveyed were moderately to highly stressed, found the study released by Farm Management Canada on May 19. Fourteen per cent said they were highly stressed.

The study surveyed over 1,700 farmers across Canada and conducted focus groups and interviews with another 185 people.

Three out of four said they were moderately to highly stressed because of the unpredictability of their work, financial pressures or their workload.

Of those surveyed, farmers under 40 were most likely to report high levels of stress (17 per cent). Farmers over 60 were the least stressed, but over two-thirds of each age group were at least moderately stressed.

Why so tense?

Beyond the pressures of weather, workload and money, young farmers have a few added stressors in their lives.

Heather Watson.
photo: Farm Management Canada

“I think a lot of young farmers are, you know, starting families and trying to figure out their own path through life,” said Heather Watson, executive director of Farm Management Canada. “I think that adds a little bit of pressure especially on the family side.”

Younger farmers were more likely to be stressed about farm transitions too, said Watson.

“I think again, it has to do with that sense of uncertainty about the future of the farm and their role in it,” she said.

Just eight per cent of farms have written transition plans, according to the report. A lack of plan might leave younger farmers unsure about what will happen to them when their parents decide to retire. They may be less able to plan for the future.

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Though his farm is in the midst of reworking an existing succession plan, Colin Penner, who farms near Elm Creek, said the financial responsibility of the upcoming transition weighs on him. He’s doing his best to plan for when the time comes, but it will be a lot of equity to take over from his parents.

Younger farmers may be also stressed because they’re taking on a huge legacy in the family farm, said Watson.

“Some of these farms are five, 10 generations old and there’s a huge stress on the young farmers not to be the generation that lost the farm,” she said.

They may also be worried about decision-making. The study found that sole decision makers, like a patriarch or matriarch, were less likely to report high stress. Adding in another decision maker, like a son or daughter, added stress.

This might be because the younger farmer lacks confidence in their own capacity or because their voice isn’t being heard, said Watson. The generations may also have different expectations or values, which can add to tension.

“I think it’s always going to be that tension between the generations and understanding where the other one is coming from, which really comes down to open and honest communications and being able to articulate your principles and values,” said Watson.

Younger farmers are also more likely to be working off farm for additional income, said Thea Green, program manager with KAP.

The study did not ask producers about off-farm work, Watson said.

Less able to cope

Additionally, younger farmers were more likely to adopt negative coping habits. Two-thirds of farmers under 40 slept less when stressed, were less likely to attend social or family gatherings, less likely to feel in control of their emotions, and less likely to make informed decisions in a timely manner.

“This is a cause for concern since these changes in behaviour may further impact the mental health of young farmers and leave them ill equipped to manage their farm,” the report said.

The study found that written business plans and other management practices contributed to peace of mind and mental wellness, but younger farmers are less likely to engage in these types of activities.

The survey looked at practices like seeking training and learning, using detailed accounting systems to make decisions, working with business advisers, following a written business plan, assessing risks and using a budget and financial plan to make decisions.

While younger farmers are more likely to seek training, knowledge or advice, they’re the least likely to use other practices (though most still do use some of them).

The study showed that 21 per cent of farmers have a written business plan they regularly follow. Of those who said they don’t have a written plan, one-third said they didn’t have time to dedicate toward it.

“I try to keep the books up to date, but when it gets busy, that is the first thing I drop,” said one person quoted in the study.

For younger farmers, time might be even more strapped because of their stage of life, said Watson. They may have less time to work on business plans and budgets because of young families — or working off farm, as Green noted.

Another 26 per cent believe business plans requires constant updates when things change — and change is a constant.

“It’s hard in our industry (to plan) because everything changes,” Ayre told the Co-operator. No one saw the drop in oil price coming, for instance, he said.

Young farmers might want to have a business plan but find themselves shut down by their elders, Watson added.

However, the study found 88 per cent of farmers who had a written business plan said it increased their peace of mind.

“By putting plans in writing, farmers and their farm teams have a reference point in times of uncertainty. This helps to give clarity in uncertain, stressful situations,” the study said.

Those who followed a business plan were also more likely to engage in other business management activities like updating records, monitoring markets and benchmarking performance.

Penner, who teaches farm management at the University of Manitoba, said his farm has an unofficial business plan and is working on putting together something more formal.

Though by nature a “fly by the seat of my pants kind of guy,” said Penner, he’s become more and more interested in mapping things out.

He’s hung a whiteboard in the shop where he can write the next day’s to-do list before going in for the evening, and that’s helped him sleep better, he said.

Making a plan also helped when he and his family weren’t able to finish fall field work and fertilizer application last fall.

“That stress of not knowing what to do with that, that weighed heavy on me,” he said.

They assessed the situation and decided to switch from anhydrous ammonia fertilizer to urea, which they then stockpiled on the farm. They bought a spin spreader, and called it a plan.

It wasn’t a perfect strategy but it helped him sleep at night, Penner said, and made him easier to live with over the winter.

How to support young farmers?

The study recommended several ways to support farmers and benefit their mental health.

The first two involved increasing awareness and literacy about mental health issues. The study suggested that agricultural diploma programs might provide opportunities to educate young farmers, spread awareness and give mental health resources they could bring back to their families.

Study participants said students were interested to learn about mental health issues. “Unfortunately, cost and time remain barriers in terms of bringing in additional courses and units on dedicated mental health first aid training,” the study said.

The study also called for business management advice and training that focuses on risk management and preparedness.

“Convey the message to farmers that business planning is not meant to be static or rigid and that it can help to be prepared or get ready for the future,” the study said.

It called for risk management and scenario planning tools to be more widely available to farmers.

The older generation also has an opportunity to mentor young farmers in business and stress management, said Green.

“The more that you can involve the next generation in awareness of what farm management tools are available and how you use them, the more they are ready to adopt those when it comes time,” she said.

She suggested the older generation should work on modelling how to keep stress levels manageable so younger farmers can see this in action.

“This means keeping workload and financial pressure… manageable under normal circumstances, and making adjustments when they’re not,” she said.

She also suggested involving the younger generation in farm planning gradually. This could begin with discussion around the dinner table, like about which bull to buy this year, or which canola variety to use, so young people can see decision-making in action.

Communication is also key, especially regarding transition.

“Explain the process of transition even if you don’t have a firm plan in place,” said Green.

Resources for Mental Health and Business Management

Mental Health Training

Living Works: Livingworks.net

1. START: One-hour online training in basic suicide awareness ($20 w/coupon – COVID-19).

2. SAFETALK: Four hours – basic suicide awareness and connecting people to resources.

3. ASIST: Two-day in-depth suicide awareness, prevention and intervention.

Mental Health First Aid: www.mhfa.ca. Mental Health First Aid: Two-day training to recognize signs of changes in behaviour, respond, and connect person to resources.

Klinic Community Health Trainings: klinic.mb.ca/education-training. Trainings in suicide prevention, sexual assault awareness, crisis, trauma, and more.

Mental Health Apps and Resources (Free, publicly funded)

Psychological First Aid: redcross.ca (digital booklet).

Calm In the Storm: Free (made in Manitoba) app for coping with stress. IOS and website calminthestormapp.com.

Mindshift: App for anxiety (uses cognitive behavioural therapy) anxietycanada.ca.

Mood: Tracks moods and sleep patterns; youth oriented mindyourmind.ca.

Moodie: Mood tracker for people with mood disorders mdsc.ca.

Crisis Support (Free, publicly funded)

Manitoba Farm, Rural & Northern Support Services: 1-866-367-3276 supportline.ca.

Manitoba Suicide Prevention & Support Line: 1-877-435-7170 reasontolive.ca.

Other Klinic Crisis Lines: klinic.mb.ca/crisis-support/.

Canada Suicide Prevention Service: crisisservicescanada.ca 1-833-456-4566. Text: 45645.

Mental Health Services (Free, publicly funded)

Complete list of free mental health services for youth, adults and seniors within each RHA: gov.mb.ca/health/mh/crisis.html.

Virtual Mental Health Therapy: manitoba.abiliticbt.com/home.

Business Management Training and Support

Farm Management Canada: Provides resources and training, including for transition planning and farm leadership. fmc-gac.com.

KAP Manitoba Young Farmers: Provide training and networking opportunities for young farmers. kap.ca/youngfarmers.

Canadian Young Farmers Forum: provides training and networking opportunities for young farmers. cyff.ca

Manitoba’s Outstanding Young Farmer program: Provides mentorship and training for young farmers. manitoba.oyfcanada.com/about-us

Ag Action Manitoba Program for Farmers: Provides funding for training and consultation related to transitions, farm management, risk management and human resources.

gov.mb.ca/agriculture/farm-management/ag-action-manitoba-training-and-consulting

Farm Credit Canada: Resources on transition planning. fcc-fac.ca/en/resources/transition-planning

About the author

Reporter

Geralyn Wichers

Geralyn Wichers grew up on a hobby farm near Anola, Manitoba, where her family raised cattle, pigs and chickens. Geralyn graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in 2019 and was previously a reporter for The Carillon in Steinbach. Geralyn is also a published author of science fiction and fantasy novels.

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