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The Burden Left for Future Farmers When a Past Generation Doesn’t Plan

You’ve worked so hard to build your operation – make sure you are protecting it.

The deepening struggles in American agriculture have raised the issue of suicides and mental health across the industry. Rightfully so. Many in agriculture are urging struggling farmers to talk to professionals and lean on their neighbors in times of need.   

The issue is real: Research by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) suggests that the suicide rate for farmers is double that of the general population. (In November 2018, the CDC retracted 2015 numbers of suicide deaths by Americans, who were classified in the Farming, Fishing, and Forestry occupation code, as being five times higher than the generation population. The revised CDC data shows that the rate is closer to double instead of being five times higher.)

Because the numbers were gathered from only 17 states – even when revised – they are not a true picture of the total national farmer suicides. Also, because many farmers cover up suicides to look like accidents, the exact number could be even higher.

Whatever the true number is, the tragedy of farmer suicides is real. Farmers do need to lean on each other in hard times, and they need to speak up and ask for help. I believe farmers are the most stubborn and independent group of people I know ... that’s why we get along so well.

Mary Jo Irmen
However, what I am not seeing publicized is how we can stop the cycle of farmers committing suicide.

There are many factors at work here. Some of this may be due to mental health issues. I respect that each farmer is on his own journey, and I don’t know every farmer’s journey. However, after meeting with thousands of farmers, I attribute part of the factors influencing suicide rates to finances, frustration, and guilt.

Farm Aid indicated it has seen a 30% increase in calls to its Farmers Resource Network hotline in 2018. How many suicides did we see when corn was $7 a bushel? Farm suicides have moved to the headlines once again now that prices have fallen and farmers are struggling financially. Today, much like the 1980s, we are seeing tough times financially and farmers and ranchers are struggling to keep the family farm – the farm their grandfather or great-grandfather homesteaded.

There really are two questions here:

  1. What brought us to this point today?
  2. What can we do to stop this in the future?

Commodity prices, bad weather, and bad luck are not the only things causing this financial stress. A part of it is the lack of planning. Today’s generation of farmers between 40 and 60 years old carries the weight of the generation before them. The weight of sustaining what was built by their family. The weight of siblings who want to keep the farm in the family but are not the ones farming. The weight of horrible financial situations that happened because they had to buy out family members to keep the farm in the family. They are carrying the weight of the generation before who did not properly plan to hand that farm down so the next generation could be financially strong and secure.

Don’t misunderstand me and think it is just the past generation. Go back to the start, to those who homesteaded it. We do what was done – and change is rare. If the previous generation expected the farm kid to buy out the nonfarm kid, that has continued with every generation. If the previous generation doesn’t plan, the next generation most likely will not plan either.

This can all be stopped if eyes are opened and if strong, stubborn attitudes are put away for the good of what has been built. This is not a new issue – it’s as old as this country, and I hear about it with nearly every new client I have. It really hit me hard when I heard the song, “S Lazy H,” by Corb Lund. At the end of the song, the young man who took over the ranch lost it because he had to buy out his sister. Hearing that truly hit me like a brick. The generation left is the generation carrying the guilt for losing a farm. That guilt comes from the financial burden, frustration, and the mess left behind because the previous generation didn’t plan.

This is the guilt making them feel like a failure, and pushing them to suicide. They feel they are a failure to themselves, their family, their community, and their industry. They would never blame anyone else – they just don’t do that. They make it work. But when they can’t, they feel it’s all their fault.

Yet, they are not telling themselves the full truth. Were they dealt a fair hand or was it rigged? Rigged to be even for everyone to get equal parts even though some don’t farm? Like Corb sings in his song, “sometimes right isn’t equal, sometimes equal’s not fair.”

When I discuss this with my farmer clients, I always note that in the best-case scenario, they get the farm, but with that come expenses. Should the off-the-farm kids get money, they get the money without expenses. Those who remain on the farm may not have a land loan but they do have operating expenses – along with property taxes they never had before. That is rarely taken into consideration by the other family members.

There may come a point where there will be a last generation on that farm, and today you have to consider if that will be your generation. When you leave this earth, will you have planned so your family will be OK financially and able to sustain what you worked so hard to build?

Or do you feel they truly need to endure the same struggle you did? Many feel those taking over should also struggle to appreciate it. Yet, we don’t know if the next struggle will be like ours. Each generation to come has bigger issues to face. The struggle will never be the same, and will most likely be much harder.

As my good friend, Jolene Brown, speaker and farm business consultant, says, “A successful Business-First Family doesn’t sacrifice family for business, but it honors the family and has the family's best interest at heart. That’s why they do the business correctly.” Farming truly needs to be treated like a business to succeed. You must run it that way and passing it on with that business in mind.

So I ask: Will your next generation be carrying guilt from financial burden, frustration, and the mess you left behind? The farming industry is in enough trouble, and it’s a hard industry to get ahead in. We don’t need to add suicide to the mix.

There are many areas to consider when estate planning, and in my book, Farming Without the Bank, I touch on just one area. To do this correctly you must have a circle of trusted professionals to help you. In addition, you will want someone like Jolene Brown, a good accountant, and an estate attorney. When we all work together, your next generation is guaranteed an opportunity to continue the legacy.

Note: Mary Jo Irmen is the author of the books Farming Without the Bank and Farm Finance Strategist. She grew up on a farm ranch operation where her parents and brother still farm. Her books are available on her website,

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