Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Why The Farm Comes Ahead Of Family

February 5, 1996

Farmers, how would you like to work 3,000 hours a year on the farm and donate 500 hours a year to community service?

That is a benchmark figure to avoid problems with work, family and health as recommended by agricultural economist David Kohl of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. That boils down to a combined 67 hours a week or five 13-hour days with weekends off. Many farmers and farmers' wives would love to have that schedule.

Why is the farm put ahead of family? Besides the heavier workload, there are important psychological reasons why farmers put themselves and the farm ahead of their primary relationships.

1. On the farm, the home and the workplace are in the same location. Work is tempting. Farmers may not know how to quit? Shut down and come in during the evening. They may not know how to enjoy Sundays or take time off for vacations.

A farmer can justify the extra time because the work is there. The Dad can be an absent figure in the family by virtue of the long hours he puts in. Many farmers do not understand leisure, family fun, and balancing their work with other priorities.

2. Farming and the farm may give the farmer an unrealistic view of entitlement when it comes to his needs and the farm's needs. He feels his work is most important. This interferes with a feeling of equality and respect a husband and wife need for a successful relationship.

The capital expenditures of the farm may take priority over family living. Money is freely invested in equipment, land or livestock without enough attention paid to living conditions and conveniences that make the homemaker’s life adequate for her needs. If the decisions consistently favor the farmer's needs for doing his work at the expense of the family, resentments develop.

3. A farmer may see himself as an extension of the farm and his wife and children as extensions of himself. If they act like dutiful cogs in a machine, sacrificing for the farm, then things go smoothly. If they somehow detract or slow the farm work, he feels frustrated and angry.

Wives sometimes bear the brunt of displaced anger and feel criticized and judged when they attempt to work with their husbands. Not being treated with respect, even under stressful conditions, takes an emotional toll on the marriage.

If the father approaches his work as a hurried, driven perfectionist, he won't be patient and understanding of the developmental and emotional needs of his children. Instead of the children feeling valued and loved, they are chided for their mistakes and inadequacies.

4. With all the creative opportunities, financial pressures and rewards that come with being a self-employed businessman, the farmer may be investing too much of his emotional energy into farming. He doesn't give enough attention to the human needs of his wife and children for attention, conversation, interest, love, relaxation, and pleasure.

Personal life gets crowded out by work demands. He may be too mechanical in how he looks at his wife and her role - meals, childcare, homemaking and lovemaking. He expects her to perform in those roles to his satisfaction and not place additional demands on him to share an emotional life together.

5. There are times when the needs and timing of farm work take precedence over family time. Spring work, planting and harvesting are time and weather driven. Livestock always need feed, protection from storms, calving and lambing, milking etc.

The vast majority of farm women understand this and cooperate with the time crunches that occur. It is a different way of life. Problems come when the farmer routinely justifies farm work for his non-involvement in the family.

Womens' needs and expectations. Farm women have higher expectations of what they want in marriage and family life. They are more assertive in voicing their issues. Relationships matter. They don't want the tail (the farm) wagging the dog (the family) when it should be the other way around.

Farm women have entered off-farm employment in unprecedented numbers. They need an environment that supports the additional demands on their time and energy. The dynamics of family life are forced to change to accommodate the reality of their lives.

Farm families can work it out. Work and family can be compatible - as attested to by thousands of farm couples. They find pleasure in their association while working together on the farm, Husbands and wives work for common goals, share a love for agriculture and mesh their roles to make the business work.

Children are taught the work ethic and contribute to the farm in big and little ways as they are growing up. There is the pleasure and strain of being in business for oneself and building a dream that they can pass on to the next generation. The commitments and sacrifices family members make for each other are powerful and bring them closer together.