Being more cautious can be a good thing, but letting the milk prices and low milk margins get you down is not healthy for you, your family, or your farm in the long run. There is plenty of advice on how to manage your margins and your herd. Now, it is time to talk about how to manage your stress.
Stress shouldn't be taken lightly or ignored. Stress can increase illness rates and farm accidents, which can then lead to additional stress and depression. Farm women are at particularly high risk for depression due to juggling the multiple roles of farm and family responsibilities and isolation (Lessenger, 2006). Farmers have one of the highest suicide rates in the U.S. (1.32 times more likely than the average U.S. citizen), which has been attributed to high economic stress, lack of resources in rural areas, access to firearms, working with family, and other factors like changing weather and markets. There is a lot about farming that cannot be controlled, but you can control the way you react to stressors.
Farmers are no strangers to hard work, hard times, and a bad economy.
If "Dairy Farmer" had a job listing, it may sound a little like this: Work 70 to 100 hours a week, little or no vacation or sick days; work is mandatory on all holidays and in all weather. You will be on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Compensation will change month to month and drastically from year to year with little or no notification and will range anywhere from "you owe us money" to "you'll be alright for now." Factors affecting your pay will include but are not limited to: weather, markets, disease, accidents, machinery breakdown, government regulations, and/or family relations. Performance reviews will be completed by strangers you will never meet who have strong opinions on how you do your job that will be made public via social media. PLUS day-to-day activities include dangerous and potentially life-threatening work. And depending on your situation, some of your family will live and work with you across different generations, possibly including your in-laws. And if you are lucky enough to be working on the same farm your great, great, great, grandfather farmed, you have the added bonus of pressure to keep the farm going for the next generation who may or may not want to farm.
Farming is not for the faint of heart, and farmers are seen as some of the strongest and most resilient and committed individuals. However, everyone has a breaking point and eventually stress can catch up to even the hardest working farmer. Working on a farm can be isolating, and reaching out for help can feel too vulnerable for most. If you or someone you know is feeling the stress of farming, you can do something about it today and work towards a less stressed life for the future.
What can you do to survive today?
Bills are piling up, pregnancy rates are going down, an engine needs rebuilt, the weather won't cooperate, and the milk check hardly seems worth it. You can have moments and days of feeling completely overwhelmed with what's going wrong. Take a moment to count your blessings, be grateful for the positives in your life and on your farm, and be thankful for all of them. We often focus and dwell on the bad, and it can be easy to forget and take for granted all that we do have in our lives. This "it could be worse" attitude will get you through the day or week, but being grateful is not enough to make it through extended hard times.
What can you do to thrive through the hard times tomorrow and beyond?
What big picture items bring you joy from your work? There is a reason why you farm and why it is important to you and your family. Maybe it's because you work at home with flexible hours and have every meal with your family. Children and other family members get to work alongside you. You work hard for an incredible feeling of self-worth and accomplishment in seeing your farm grow and produce. Know what is important to you so you can say no to the things that aren't a priority and, more importantly, say yes to those that are. If you know what you are willing to say no to ahead of time, it's easier to respond no in the moment rather than having to think about it or come up with an excuse.
Plan for the bad times
Develop a long term plan or least a 3- to 5-year plan, including a contingency plan. Set a date and time on your calendar and devote 1 to 2 hours to sitting down and talking with business partners, spouses, and family members to come up with long term goals AND how you are going to achieve them. Work with your lender or financial advisor to assess your current situation and come up with a plan for next year and the next 3 to 5 years. There WILL be years of low profitability in between high ones. Plan on a bad year AND how you will thrive through it.
Don't forget a contingency or exit plan. Everyone has their limits, and you should know exactly where the line in the sand lies. Having a plan like this may seem depressing or self-depleting, but it is easier to have the conversation with your family before you are forced to walk away from the farm. Having an exit plan can also help save money. If you exit at the right time, you can still salvage some equity versus piling up debt and being left with very little to live on or feeling like you are trapped by debt and can never quit.
Utilize all your resources
Family, friends, employees, consultants, and advisors all have something to offer you and your farm. They know what they can offer better than you, so let them know what you need help with. If you have bills stacking up, talk to the vendors and your lender. Set up a plan to minimize falling further behind and, more importantly, a plan to get ahead.
Communicate with family
Among intergenerational farming families, the younger generation experiences more stress than the older generation. Feelings of powerlessness, financial strain, management disagreements, and in-laws can contribute to the generational divide (Fetsch, 2014). Have a sit-down meeting with all family members and discuss roles and responsibilities. Talk about the future and possible transitions. In this initial stage no final decisions have to be made, but allowing the younger generation to have a voice and feel heard can make them feel like a bigger contributor to the operation. Likewise, respect the older generation and the amount of time and resources they have invested in the farm. Good, open communication between family members can be the most important ingredient to success for the farm and family.
Life beyond the farm
Be a part of a community
Being isolated on a farm or feeling isolated emotionally can exacerbate depression and the feeling of being overwhelmed. Go to church, volunteer, accept an invitation, or attend a community event. A sense of belonging is a basic human need according to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, proceeded by physiological (food, clothing, shelter) and safety (including health and financial). If that isn't enough connection, talk to a friend about what is troubling you. Join a peer or discussion group where you are encouraged to talk about issues.
Take a break
There doesn't seem to be enough time in the day to get everything done, but your farm and family will suffer if you don't recharge. Whether it is fishing, taking a nap, or just a break from the cows, set aside time to take a mental and physical break from the farm.
Take care of yourself physically
Famers tend to cope with injuries by pressing on and the "wait and see" approach. Working with an injury will make you more prone to other accidents and can be an additional source of stress. Treat injuries as soon as they happen, and if you don't feel right but are not sure what the problem is, no doctor will ever make you feel like you wasted their time.
No matter what, reach out for help
If you don't feel comfortable discussing these things with members of your community, seek out a counselor, doctor, pastor, or another professional that will keep conversations private. Asking for help can feel weak, but it can be the most courageous thing you can do to help yourself. To talk to someone anytime, 24 hours a day, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255 or visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org to chat with someone online.
The dairy industry is an exciting and risky business. There will always be unpredictable changes, but the farmers who react to them positively will be the ones who thrive, not just survive.
"The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company...a church....a home. The remarkable thing is we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past...we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude...I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it. And so it is with you...we are in charge of our attitudes."―Charles R. Swindoll