Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Why Don't Farmers Retire?

September 20, 2004

Why do farmers persist in working long hours, do physically demanding labor, fight the weather, and deal with financial uncertainty long after most other employed persons have retired from their jobs?

Lori Garkovich, rural sociologist from the University of Kentucky and her associates, held five focus groups with 43 Kentucky farm operators and their spouses during 2003 and 2004. The average age of the men was 65.7 and the women was 63.5.

To understand retirement, the researchers found that farmers had different definitions of "retirement", "good health", and "work" than others in society who plan to leave the work force and get involved in other life activities. Here is what the farmers say.

On being retired. "Well, I help my neighbors and son when they need it. Question: What do you do? Plowing, seeding, baling hay, mowing. And I still do some custom work. Wife: Don't forget the research plots. Right, we do some research plots for the seed companies."

"Well, I still do the mowingΒΌ, we have a garden and I put up hay - round bales now and I have my draft horses and I still raise some tobacco."

"I guess I'm the 'go-fer' now. I mostly do the tractor work - sow grass seed when we need to, cut hay and haul feed. I haul all the feed from town."

"I’m retired from the physical part of farming, but do all the management for the dairy (milking 160 head). I drive the tractor - we raise our feed and hay. I do the silage and rake the hay. But all I really do is manage the dairy."

"There are differences in kinds of work. If you are doing it because you want to, then it's not work."

"That's interesting. For me, retirement is when I cease to show up at the office. But the farm, it's not really a job, it's a love."

"I can't think of a time when I wouldn't be raising cows unless I was dead or disabled."

Work and health. "Sometimes I look at our situation (our health) and I wonder if it's not because of all the farm work. But then I look at others who didn't farm and they're worse off. So I believe that farming has kept us better off than we would have been.

"When you quit and sit down doing nothing, the truth is you haven't got long."

"We don't really want to be retired because that means sitting in a chair and withering away."

"Farmers are independent people, they can't imagine being in a nursing home."

Work and mental health. "You don't want to be idle. People say to me, 'Why in the world do you do all that work?' Well, if you don't work, what else would you do?"

Explaining why older farmers have higher suicide rates: "It would be hard to quit working. It would be depressing. Maybe that's what those suicide numbers are about, they just can't live with not being able to work."

"Farming has kept me healthy. I believe a person stays healthier by not pitying yourself and just going out there and doing what needs to be done."

"At the end of the day, you need to have a sense of accomplishment."

"Farm work is my reason to get up and get going and still be my own boss. You can always find something to do on a farm."

On being responsible. "Look, farmers are a proud people and most want to keep their farm looking right. You sure don't want someone going past and saying, 'Well, look at that place! Why don't he take care of it right?"

"You know with cattle you have to be there, you have a responsibility. The work needs to be done and someone has to do it."

From a wife: "Yes, there were times when I thought he was too sick to farm. But even if I said he had no business going out there to farm he would just say he was going out for a while. He would do this when he had appendicitis, after an implant and pneumonia."

"No matter how sick you get, the cows have to be fed and milked. You just do what you have to do."

Identity, love of the land and lifestyle. "You have got to have the love for it, for farming. If you don't, it would be hard for you to understand why we stay."

"How can you explain to someone the feeling of walking over your land and being able to say 'that used to be a washed out gully and I put in that waterway,' or 'that land used to be so tired but look at it now.' How can you explain what this feeling means? It's our life, our history, our home."

"A friend of my daddy's said it best and I say it all the time too. 'You feel closest to God out in that field.’"

"Farming is a habit, a way of life. We don't know anything else to do."

"The truth is, we wouldn't be happy anywhere but here."

"It's in the blood. We always liked it. It's part of who we are."

"If you don't farm, you are not a farmer. If you are not a farmer, what are you?"