Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Youth Asks Questions About Farm Crisis

January 24, 2000

I recently received some questions from a young woman who writes for her high school newspaper in Bismarck, North Dakota. Here are my answers.

What kind of emotional toll can operating a struggling family farm have on a family, in particular the children of the family?

The parents are subject to incredible money pressures in trying to pay off farm loans and other farm related bills along with meeting family living expenses. They also face the prospect of not getting loans renewed for the coming farming year and are worrying about their ability to farm. This represents a threat to a way of life they cherish and causes emotional turmoil, apprehension, depression, fear, despair, escapist and avoidance coping, irritability, sleep problems, anger and blame and marriage conflict.

Some of the chief ways children are affected is through their worry about parental conflict, being recipients of a conflict that spills over into parent/child relationships, and parental depression. Depression takes a toll on parent/child relationships because Mom and Dad aren’t emotionally available to able to tune into their children’s lives. They can’t monitor their children’s activities the way they should. Some teens, particularly young men, may have their hearts set on farming and are apprehensive - just like their parents - about their own future in farming.

How can the family - in particular the young - deal with the problems involved in a struggling family farm? How can they be cope?

They can cope by talking with each other and supporting one another. They can analyze their financial position, communicate with their lender, examine options either in or out of farming, and get as much advice or information about their situation as possible. It helps to find others to confide in regarding either their emotional struggle or their financial situation. They also need to be sharing the family’s dilemma with their children so they can understand the emotions and distractions whirling around in the family.

Teens need to be as supportive and as helpful as possible. Good memories can come from a crisis like this if children can pitch in and offer support to their parents. Children can ask hard questions and get Mom and Dad to share their thoughts. Children can consciously remove any guilt or pressure by letting their parents know they don’t need to farm for their sake.

Above all, they don’t need to be adding additional stress and worry by causing conflict or disobeying family rules and values. If there is anything farm families love more than a farming lifestyle, it is their children. They don’t need additional discipline problems.

What should a teen wishing to take over the family farm know and expect before getting into it?

Farming is a stressful profession subject to many forces outside of one’s personal control. It is extremely competitive. The work commitments are longer than others make in society. The asset base of the family farm should be sufficient to support the families who chose to farm, provide for the parent’s retirement and be capable of surviving "down" years in farming. Teens need to know the basic trends in agriculture: technology, marketing, global economy and getting bigger versus specialty crops. They need to be comfortable with a business orientation to farming.

They also need get as much training and education as possible before coming back to the farm so that they have options for supplementing farm income through auxiliary businesses and off-farm work. They need to size-up their parent’s willingness to share decisions in a democratic way so that they, as adult children, can have influence over their own futures.

With crop prices at rock bottom and equipment prices shooting through the roof, is there any prospect for a successful future in family farming? Is there anything to keep their spirits up?

Basic optimism is essential to farming. Farming runs in cycles and the good years have been a part of survival. The advent of computer technology, the global economy and communications means fewer windfall profits in the future. But there are also opportunities for niche marketing. Value-added products and cooperative arrangements among farmers offer clout in the marketplace.

Population growth and improving economies in certain countries in the developing world will lead to an increase in the quality of their diets. This will mean opportunities for continued export markets for farm products. The farm has to be competitive in this new economy and will have to be adept in finding and maintaining markets.

What misconceptions are there about family farms? What should teens like myself, who are not particularly involved in farming, know about family farms?

The biggest misconception is that life on the farm is peaceful and stress-free. It is complicated, stressful and extremely competitive. It is rewarding, but the family farm lifestyle comes with a price. It is difficult to make profits in a mature, highly competitive industry where one can do everything right and still fail due to the weather, lack of control over prices, international trade, government regulation and politics.

Should the terrible shape of family farms these days distress the public?

There are many families hurting and who need assistance through programs that help them transition off the farm. The government and public need to support programs to help these families make good transitions. It is a humane and compassionate response to the changes in the farm economy.

In the larger picture, the reduction of family farmers may eventually result in higher food prices to the consumer. From an environmental standpoint, nobody cares for the land like family farmers who are committed to long range productivity of their own land.

Does the ethnic background of North Dakota have anything to do with how farming difficulties are handled?

Germanic and Scandinavian farmers have family farming as a part of their heritage. As such, the commitment to farming is more tenacious and persistent and consequently the emotional fallout is greater when the farm fails. Their formula for success becomes a formula for pain when farming is no longer possible. They may be in denial longer and not be emotionally prepared to leave farming. There are feelings of failing both the past and future generations by their decision to quit.