Is your behavior making you sick?
If someone asks why you became a farmer, you may say, “Farming is in my blood.” If so, you may not be too far off the mark. Psychologist Michael Rosmann says the drive to farm may be linked to a cluster of genes. Rosmann, director of AgriWellness, Inc., Harlan, Iowa, suggests that this genetic selection is revealed through personality.
For instance, a study of 252 farmers in Scotland in the late 1990s found three traits predictive of farm success: conscientiousness, risk-taking, and self-reliance.
But other studies indicate that these admirable personality traits, along with others, may pose a double-edged sword.
“The same traits that motivate farmers to be successful are associated with depression and suicide if their farming objectives aren’t met,” Rosmann says.
The suicide rate among farmers is higher in nearly every country, including India, Japan, the United Kingdom, Australia, and the U.S. The higher incidence often is tied to severe economic stress. In 2001, the suicide rate of livestock producers in Great Britain rose as much as 10 times the usual rate when sheep and cattle were killed to prevent spread of foot-and-mouth disease and bovine spongiform encephalitis.
Compared to rural nonfarmers, studies indicate Australian farmers had significantly higher levels of conscientiousness and lower levels of an ability to admit mental health problems and seek help.
Biology isn’t destiny. In the larger scheme of life, being hardworking, tough, and self-reliant are advantages. But taken to an extreme, workaholic farmers often engage in unsafe and unhealthy behaviors, and they leave their spouses feeling emotionally abandoned. The problem is exacerbated by a lack of behavioral resources in rural areas. The Farm and Ranch Stress Network, approved in the 2008 Farm Bill, has not been funded.
“Farmers have little control over the weather, ag policies, global food production, and consumer demand. But they do have control over how to farm, manage resources responsibly, and govern their time and energy,” Rosmann says.
“Farmers choose whether to get adequate sleep and whether to compromise on safety,” he says. “They’re in charge of how to deal with frustrations – whether to share with people who can help or whether to let stress overwhelm them.”
A 2001 University of Queensland study shows these five personality traits of motivated farmers:
1. Capacity for hard work.
2. Confidence in making own decisions.
3. Great capacity to cope with adversity.
5. Diminished need for companionship.
“Perseverance and self-reliance can work against good behavior health,” psychologist Michael Rosmann says. “Stress won’t go away even though farmers are currently doing well financially.”