Weathering the Storm in Agriculture

By Melissa Burke

“Stress is defined as a need or demand that people confront which is perceived as burdensome or threatening,” Adele Harty, South Dakota State University Extension Field Specialist, said. “Stress affects our bodies, our minds, and even our actions.”

By nature, agriculture is a stressful occupation.  Carrying too much stress can lead to reckless work habits and affect overall health. According to U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, the ag industry is ranked third in numbers of fatal work injuries, and every day nearly 100 ag workers suffer from an injury that leads to loss of work time.

Root causes of stress among agriculture workers are many and varied, including large debt loads, machinery breakdowns, livestock illnesses, poor crop yields, family disagreements, weather events, and market prices.

“The two big ones are weather and commodity prices,” Harty said at a recent stress mitigation workshop in Rapid City, South Dakota.

Presenting at “Weathering the Storm in Agriculture,” extension educators tackled the tough topic of mental health on farms and ranches.  Speakers addressed causes, symptoms, and finally management techniques.

An understanding of the farm economy is an important aspect of agriculture stress.

“Knowledge always provides us with the power to deal with things,” Ken Olson, PhD, Extension State Beef Specialist, said.

From 2000 to 2010, there was a buildup in national net farm income, then came the boom years of 2011 – 2013, Olson explained.  But since 2013, according to Olson’s graphs, net farm income has declined by half. South Dakota’s net farm income alone declined 45.4 percent from 2008 to 2017, decreasing from $2.6 billion to $1.4 billion.  Cash grain income has also been declining.

Extension State Range Specialist Krista Ehlert, PhD shared another set of graphs demonstrating median farm incomes by ag sectors in 2017.  Sectors included dairy, cash grains and oilseeds, hogs, poultry, other field crops, beef cattle, and general livestock.  One line on the graph represented median household income from farming while the other represented median total household income.

The graph illustrated that beef cattle income is the lowest of all commodities, with median household income from farming being negative.  This can be explained in large part by the fact that hobby farmers with limited numbers of cattle are included in these statistics.

“The national average is not on a scale representative of all beef producers,” Ehlert pointed out.

Dairy farmers, on the other hand, rely on over half of their total income from farming – the only sector that demonstrated this.

“Dairy is so labor intensive that it is difficult to find time to work a second job,” Ehlert said, making commodity prices and farm income a major mental health factor.

The second of the major stressors for agriculture workers is weather.  Extension State Climatologist Laura Edwards explained that weather events such as flooding can prove to be both a short- and long-term stressor.

“A long-term stressor like snow melt or drought may have more predictability, so it may be easier to prepare a plan of action,” Edwards said.

Edwards explained that producers should use more than one tool to monitor weather conditions.

“This can include social media, television, and cell phones when possible,” she said.  She also suggested the use of National Weather Service station reports, as they are credible sources of information funded by tax dollars.

Agriculture stressors may be acute or chronic, and sometimes both.  An acute stressor has an immediate effect and can be very traumatic, but it is generally something that can be worked through.  A chronic stressor is longer lasting.

Stress can cause physical symptoms such as fatigue, high blood pressure, headaches, upset stomach, and lack of or increased appetite. Emotional symptoms include irritability, depression, difficulty concentrating, or even difficulty making simple decisions. In severe cases, individuals may resort to drugs or alcohol and withdrawal from people or activities that are typically enjoyable.

“High stress levels can have an effect on our long-term health as well,” Harty explained.

Cortisol is a hormone secreted by the adrenal glands, and during periods of stress its level in the blood increases. Too much cortisol can lead to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), heart disease, digestive problems, weight gain, and ultimately a lower life expectancy.

There are three specific strategies that may be helpful in managing stress, according to Extension Food and Families Program Director Suzanne Stluka, PhD.  The first is to use self-talk.  A positive mindset can have a positive effect on the body.  It can be empowering to keep in mind that an obstacle or challenge can be overcome because it has been done in the past, Stluka explained.

“The second strategy is to use our breath,” she said.

Deep breathing calms the mind and can promote focus.  It can also lessen chronic pain and improve sleep.

Finally, Stluka said, is accepting the issues.  Many stressors in agriculture are beyond the producer’s control, so accepting them and instead controlling the response to situations is important.

Stluka concluded the workshop by addressing suicide.  When recognizing another person struggling, it is important to assist them as talking about the subject may bring them much relief.

“Ask them directly if they’re having thoughts of suicide,” she advised.  “If the answer is ‘yes’, do not leave them alone.  Call a family member for help and/or take them to a healthcare provider.”

Counseling is an option to help people cope with stress and depression.  Stluka said finding the right counselor can be like shopping for shoes.

“Sometimes it takes a couple trips to find the right fit,” she said.  “Don’t get discouraged, but never settle.”


If you or someone you know is struggling with depression, here are some resources that could help:

  1. Crisis Text Line: Text “GO” to 741741
  2. Iowa Concern, 24-hour hotline: 1-800-447-1985
  3. Farm Aid Hotline: 1-800-FARM-AID (1-800-327-6243)
  4. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK  (1-800-273-8255)



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