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A farewell to Farmer
Say it isn't so! That's how longtime readers of Val Farmer's
weekly syndicated "Family Life" newspaper column reacted when he
recently announced his retirement.
For the past 28 years, Farmer's columns worked their way
from farm mailboxes to the heart of the home: the kitchen table. His advice
sparked lively discussions among families and helped to resolve thorny issues.
I met Val Farmer over 30 years ago when he was a psychologist
at a Huron, South Dakota, community clinic. He also was commuting 65 miles one
way weekly to meet with rural clients at a physician's office."Farmers
felt like there was a stigma to asking for help, and it helped to disguise the
reason for their visits," he says.
To begin to erase that stigma, Farmer agreed to take me into
the homes of farmers who were struggling with behavioral health issues
triggered by the farm crisis. I'm indebted to him for trusting me to tell their
stories without revealing their names in the February 1982 eight-page showcase,
"Stress."It wasn't just Farmer's last name that uniquely suited him
for a career as a resource provider for farm families.
He was born on a farm
near Fairfield, Montana. His father's work as a sheep shearer often took his
dad away from their small farm, so his mother handled the day-to-day work. His
family moved to Great Falls when he was 8 years old. "I never realized
until my father died at age 86 that we left the farm under duress," he
But he never completely left the farm. When Farmer was a
young teen, his dad took a job at Seattle Pack in Washington. "I helped
set up sheep, tie the wool, and stomp it into long burlap bags," he says.
Farmer went to college, and years later he earned a doctoral
degree in clinical psychology at the University of Arizona, where he made a key
observation. "I realized farming was almost a subculture with a value
system different from the urban population," he says.
An internship in Norfolk, Nebraska, brought him face to face
with farmers. "I began to feel I understood their issues," he says.
He also traveled to Cleveland, Ohio, to a seminar by Leon Danco, the first
adviser to recognize the unique interpersonal challenges of managing a
Farmer's practice of dispensing the written word began in
1982 when he wrote a column for Farm Wife News magazine. "The magazine
received feedback to reflect more about real farm life," he says.In 1984,
he began writing a weekly column for the Rapid City (South Dakota) Journal. By
that time, rural America was in the depths of the farm crisis. "My column addressed
the anger, frustration, and conflict arising from debt problems," he says.
Farmer began self-syndicating the column later that year. Before
long, his column appeared in 90 newspapers. At the same time, he continued a
40-hour week of counseling."People were hungry for information," he
says. "They felt they were in a new world and needed reassurance that
their feelings were normal and valid. They were empowered to talk with
neighbors or to get help."
In 1986, his article, "Broken Heartland," was
featured in Psychology Today magazine. "It helped bring an awareness of
the farm crisis to urban America," he says.
Farmer also authored two books, To Have and To Hold and
Honey, I Shrunk the Farm (www.valfarmer.com). He had a call-in show on AgriTalk
radio for several years.
His columns also addressed personal topics impacting farmers
and their businesses. Following are the four most popular issues.
1. Marital issues of inequality, lack of communication, or
destructive behavior. "Many men don't understand what it takes to be a
good listener or how to manage their destructive emotions," he says.
2. Inadequate balance of work vs. family. "Definitely
there are times when the farm comes first," Farmer says. "But women
lose patience when the marriage and family get short shrift year-round."
3. Complexity of family businesses. "Families struggle
with how to be in business together and keep strong family relationships,"
he says. "They need help cleaning up conflicts."
4. Rural social and community pressures. "Individuals
worry what their neighbors and relatives would think if they were more open
about their opinions and interests," he says.
Parenting and retirement also are popular topics. Farmer
says an emerging issue is generational conflict regarding lifestyles. "The
older generation doesn't always appreciate the younger generation's desire to
achieve a balanced lifestyle, with more marriage and family time," he says.
Since retiring from clinical practice and moving to
Missouri, Farmer has provided ag mediation and consultation. After a two-year
mission, he'll resume this part-time work.
That's good news. The ag crisis that drew Farmer back to
farming seems a distant memory, but the ups and downs of agriculture are here
to stay. And the human side of farm business remains a work in progress.