Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Helping Farmers Make A Transition

June 7, 1999

The global economy creates opportunities and hardships. With technological advances in agriculture, the marketplace is highly competitive and favors high/volume, low/cost producers. This economic reality along with favorable growing conditions worldwide for the past few years has resulted in many basic food surpluses and consequently low prices.

Mid-size and small North American family farmers are reeling and looking at unfavorable forecasts. Policy-makers are concerned about how to help farmers stay in business. Most farmers want to stay in farming because they love farming and the rural lifestyle. They are emotionally tied to the land.

Coupled with efforts to help farmers survive in farming, there also needs to be a parallel track of helping farmers make a transition out of agriculture. This is not throwing up a white flag of surrender to the forces working against family farming, but compassionate realism for the casualties of the global economy.

Like very few other occupations, leaving farming or ranching requires the great lifestyle and personal adjustments. Farmers have to deal a with painful emotional loss, problems with indebtedness, and grave uncertainty about the future. Here are some ideas on what is helpful to farmers in transition.

- Information about resources. Resources need to be set aside for training and higher education on a regional basis. Using regional resources as a base, innovative programs using a combination of "distance learning" technologies and commuting can help farmers retool their skills without disrupting their families.

Job and higher education fairs specifically targeted at farmers can help a farmer see the possibilities of a new career. Farmers need information about these particular resources and career opportunities to help them overcome their fears.

- Support for family living. There should be family living support to accompany any job training or higher education programs for ex-farmers. If farmers knew they could support their families during their efforts to establish new careers, they would access these programs with enthusiasm. Tuition waivers and other benefits that don't address family living fall short of what is needed.

- Planned departure. Farmers need information about taxes and the legal consequences of leaving agriculture. The best transitions take place over a two to three year period so future liabilities can be minimized. Off-farm work, selling or leasing a part of the land and retraining while still being on the farm makes a transition smoother. Preserving as much equity as you can also helps make any transition easier. Fighting too long and then being forced into a quick decision works against the farmer.

- Finding hope. "Life after farming" stories need to be told. Research shows that upward of 80 percent of ex-farmers are satisfied with their new lives within three or four years of leaving farming. They can and do connect with new careers that satisfy them and adjust to a new lifestyle.

For ex-farmers and their families, there is a predictable period of adjustment that will be painful. This transition period out of farming needs to be researched and explained to farmers who embark on this path.

- Special support. Ex-farmers need to be connected with other families who are in the same situation. Support groups are wonderful. There are ex-farmers who have made successful transitions who are willing to be mentors to new families leaving agriculture.

Congregations and communities need to be alert to new families moving in and connect them with each other in small groups. Colleges and technical schools can provide specialized services, support, and networking to link former farmers together.

- Addressing fears. Myths about the depravity and dangers of city life need to be debunked. People can live good lives and can be just as happy in the city as they are in the country. A move or two during childhood can be beneficial to the development of self-confidence and social skills. Children adapt. It is the parents' fears that need to be overcome.

- Going through it together. Farmers need positive communication and coping skills to help them support each other in the family during a transition. Change is stressful and impacts each family member differently. Husbands and wives often reach the decision to leave on different timetables. There can be periods of estrangement and irritation when they have different goals and priorities.

Farm families can get help through counseling, retreats, and educational programs on stress management. Effective communication and mutual support are important keys to successful transitions.

- Saying goodbye. There is too much shame, hurt and bitterness connected with a silent exodus from the community. There is nothing to be ashamed of. The forces that dictate the transition are far beyond the farm gate and catch even the best in their sweep.

Churches, friends and caring communities can provide a non-judgmental atmosphere for the families who leave farming. Farewell parties, support during auctions and on moving day allows farm families to grieve and to say goodbye. The community needs acknowledge the loss, show that it cares, grieve and say goodbye too. It makes healing easier.

Leaving farming doesn't mean failure. It means coming to the end of something and beginning something new. A transition. It is during those times in our lives when we grow the most. Leaving farming is tough. A caring society can help ease the way.