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How to Handle Tough Times in Farming

Stress goes hand in hand with farming and ranching. It’s built into the natural rhythms we live by: unpredictable weather, livestock that sometimes decides to live by its own rules, and plants that get derailed by disease, drought, rain, or cold.

Nevertheless, the rewards of a rural life and work on a farm or ranch abound: the natural beauties, the freedoms, and the opportunity to participate in nature’s circle of life.

Yet, sometimes the stress outweighs the rewards, bogging us down in emotional burdens. Most are precipitated by circumstances beyond our control, causing those feelings of helplessness that are particularly detrimental to emotional well-being.

“For individuals working in agriculture, emotional well-being is often tied to what is happening within the larger agricultural system; it’s beyond their immediate control,” says Sean Brotherson, North Dakota State University Extension family science specialist.

“The last two years, in particular, I’ve seen a substantial increase in stress levels and health concerns in farm families,” says Brotherson, who presents stress-management workshops and provides materials for rural families. “Agriculture tends to be a high-stress industry to begin with, and the last two years, drought has compounded farm stress in many parts of the Midwest.

“Along with that, there’s been a substantial drop in price for key commodity crops, and trade disputes have created difficult conditions in the marketplace,” he says. “All these things have combined to create an added load of stress.”

While the sources of the stressors are largely beyond control, Brotherson urges farm and ranch families to recognize those areas where they do have control and to be proactive in managing these in order to reduce personal stress.

“There are three big areas where you have control,” he says. “You can control your attitudes and mind-set; you can control the way you respond to stress; and you can control events occurring within your setting. Learning to take control in these three areas will help you manage the stresses of tough times.”

Managing stress well, he says, is even more critical than sound management of crops or livestock. That’s because stress is critically linked to your physical and emotional health.

“Stress is one of the most significant contributors to both physical and emotional health concerns in any population,” says Brotherson. “Stress can contribute to high blood pressure and heart disease, for instance. It can also lead to anxiety and behavioral changes that affect families and farm partnerships. An alarming outcome is that the suicide rate in rural populations has shown an increase in the last several years.”

Managing stress as a means of preserving physical and emotional health gains top priority when you consider that health of people is the most important source of wealth on a farm or ranch.

“When families list resources and assets of their operation, they typically include tangible assets such as land, equipment, facilities, and livestock,” says Brotherson. “But the human role in running an operation is the most important. The health of the people working on the farm and ranch is the most critical to the survival of the enterprise.”

That said, managing health becomes the top management priority of the operation. “Good health management needs to be among the most important daily priorities in the workings of a farm or ranch,” he says. “It’s a central component to effective management of the operation.”

Key to effective stress management is the practice of finding your loci of control – those areas in your life and work where you have the ability to control inner responses and to moderate the stressful impacts of physical circumstances within your setting.

Brotherson offers the following three ways to manage the stressors you can control.

1. Control attitude and mind-set.

Attitude and internal orientation toward a stressor can compound or reduce the stress triggered by the external circumstance. “Letting go of the stress can reduce anxiety,” says Brotherson. “Focus instead on the things over which you have more immediate control. You might focus on the things you can accomplish in one day.”

A switch in mind-set is also critical to managing stress. For instance, rather than dwelling on the seemingly impossible circumstances created by poor prices, plan and implement long-term ways to become more financially resilient. “Switch your mind-set from one of being inactive and problem-focused to a proactive, solutions kind of mind-set,” he says.

2. Control responses to stress.

The way we respond to stressful events or circumstances can magnify or diffuse the negative effects of stress, Brotherson points out. Drawing upon positive emotional or spiritual wellsprings within can help. As can practicing “conscious gratitude” as a means of counteracting negative emotional responses to stressors.

“Write down three things that you are grateful for daily,” says Brotherson. “Conscious gratitude calms your mood.”

Positive responses to stress are as unique as individuals. Daily exercise, socializing with friends or family, listening to uplifting music, or watching a sitcom on TV – all that can help. “You just need to find the tool that works for you,” he says.

3. Control events within your setting.

Brainstorming and implementing a strategic plan for your operation can help reduce the stress triggered by unexpected events. Plan ahead, for instance, to match labor availability to the most labor-intensive periods.

Or, service and repair machinery in advance of its season of heaviest use – typically the most stressful seasons. “These practices and others like them can help mitigate the coming times of stress,” says Brotherson.

Meeting with a health care provider to rule out or treat underlying physical causes for symptoms of stress is a point of control that could lead to helpful changes in diet or exercise habits.

“Just remember that good stress management will help you accomplish good farm management,” says Brotherson.


Words used to communicate with friends, family members, partners, and employees go a long way in magnifying or diffusing stress. “Healthy, positive communication patterns are a powerful resource,” says

But when unchecked, emotional responses to stress can cause these to break down into unhealthy patterns. “When stress levels are high, language can sometimes become inflammatory, accusing, and blaming,” he says. “This multiplies the stress – both in the person who is speaking and in the person being spoken to.”

Cultivating healthy communication patterns yields positive results that build a form of social equity by fostering a sense of mutual support.

“When you’re under high stress and need to talk to someone, you’re more likely to find someone who will speak uplifting words of encouragement if you have practiced healthy patterns of communication,” says Brotherson.


Sean Brotherson 


Email: Sean.Brotherson@


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