Over the years driving any farm equipment has gotten easier and easier, especially when they are equipped with guidance systems that drive for us. So why is something that is physically fairly easy emotionally exhausting? It is not easy to put into words – and the degree of exhaustion depends on the individual, the situation, and the conditions – but the weight of the world sits on our shoulders. The long hours alone with your thoughts can cause a thousand questions to wander through our minds. Is the timing right? Is the seeding depth right? Is it worth the expense? Will the weather cooperate? Is it worth the risk to experiment? Should we buy that new (used) tractor? Do we have enough labor to get everything done? Should we seed next week or try and spray? When are we going to find time to re-build fences? Did we get the cows heat checked and bred successfully? Can we afford to be doing this? What is our contingency plan for a multi-year drought? These are just a few of the questions that run through our mind in the course of a day.
The Weight of the World
In my career in corporate America I worked in several high stress, high demand, and high expectation work environments. Both environments came with the expectation to perform and if you did not perform you risked your stock bonus and/or your job. None of the pressures that came with those jobs though could rise to the level of emotional exhaustion that can occur after a day of farming. There are certainly careers that are emotionally exhausting besides farming – but farming is not one that often comes to mind when people think of emotional exhausting professions. The exhaustion is probably a factor in the high suicide rate among farmers which I’ve written about before: linked here.
The extent and degree of emotional exhaustion depends on the individual, it also depends on the individual which activity bothers them the most. I can drive a combine all day and for the most part I am in my happy place, I love the combine. I do not do as well driving a tractor, during haying season, or while spraying. Many of the struggles emotionally are rooted in the shear cost of it all – and knowing that every decision we make costs money. In many cases these decisions aid the crop and we get a return on our investment – but that is not always the case – and the unknown weighs heavily on any farmer within the confines of a tractor cab. Despite the ability to lean back and put my feet up (which I honestly rarely do), our day is not nearly as stress free as it may seem.
Social Media Weighs In
I asked for opinions on emotional exhaustion on my Facebook page and got some good feedback and information from a few fellow farmers. The responses highlighted the different effects emotional exhaustion has on individuals. One commented that having their dog along makes them feel better. I have also loved having a dog that loves to ride in any vehicle and appreciates a good day in a tractor. He sleeps most of the time, but sometimes I can get him to sit up and have a “good conversation”. It is admittedly a one sided conversation, but there are few better chats than those you can have with your four legged pal.
Several others also commented on the stress of breakdowns, or worrying about breakdowns, as well as worrying that everything is functioning properly. Equipment today can be equipped with a large number of bells and whistles that alert us to malfunctions, but not every piece of equipment has every bell and whistle, and even with all of them we have to rely on checking everything at regular intervals to make sure they are functioning. Mistakes, especially during seeding are difficult to catch and even more difficult to fix, they also are really annoying to look at for the rest of the year. Seemingly small mistakes, or simply bad luck, can cost thousands of dollars and precious time lost that cannot be replaced. Last year we had an engine on a tractor that needed to be re-built, that was a low five figure expense we had not been expecting. We budget a certain amount every year for repairs – but when you exceed that budget in a single breakdown it is stressful.
Others commented on their concerns about performance. Is everything set right? Is the seed deep enough? Is the seed too shallow? Is the combine set right? Is my speed right? Are we throwing too much of the crop on the ground? Interestingly enough these are not factors that stress me out. I have the ability to set the combine, make adjustments, check my work, and not worry about it. Same with the air drill, if it looks good, then I get in my seat and keep moving. For many others that is not the case. They struggle all day, worrying that something could be adjusted and set at a better setting. The drill could be set just a shade lower or a shade shallower. The fertilizer could be set at a slightly higher or slightly lower rate. Is the seed “in moisture”? If it is not how long do we have to wait for it to rain? Should we seed deeper to get it in moisture and hope it makes it to the surface? Honestly, my anxiety is rising just thinking about these questions and the host of potential answers, but it is an area I am able to push out of my mind when I am seeding or harvesting crops.
So what does bother me? What does weigh on me? I struggle a lot with the expense of it all. The risks we take, the decisions we make on a larger scale. Are we making the right cropping decisions? Can we make it through the next few years of payments? Are our leases set up properly? Are we sure that we can get a return on our investment if we put down more liquid fertilizer? Will we risk quality if we do not put down more fertilizer? Are sure we used proper Integrated Pest Management before we applied this fungicide? Did we wait too long and irreparably harm the crop? Are we doing the right thing? Are we operating our business successfully for the long term? How do our short term capital investments effect the long term?
I also carry a certain amount of emotional stress as a result of my policy work. I worry about the politics of passing a Farm Bill, the implications of a trade war, our ability to resign NAFTA, rejoin TPP and a multitude of other issues. State and national issues are always evolving in the background and give me plenty to think about.
I tend to worry about problems that are far larger than the task at hand. I worry about long term decisions, the weight of maintaining a successful farm, the weight of successfully operating a multi-generational farm, the weight of policy decisions and actions that happen hundreds of miles away from the farm. I worry about a lot of “what if’s” and worst case scenarios. I worry about finding cutworms or some other pests, fungal and leaf diseases, and various other maladies that can impact yield. I worry about balancing farming, motherhood, housework, and all of life’s other challenges.
Is there a solution to the things that stress us to the point of emotional exhaustion? Sometimes. New stresses will likely take the place of the old however. Each season has its challenges. Each operation and each individual operator has their own personalities that impact the effect of emotional stresses. I do think it is important to talk about, important to convey to consumers, our friends and family, and other farmers. We all know it, we all feel it in some way or another, yet we rarely talk about it. Probably because in many cases it is difficult to put into words, and in many cases, you wonder why you even allow yourself to think about some of these issues, but the reality is – there is not much conversation going on so your mind can wander. It can easily wander to dark places. It can easily wander to places that cause a lot of emotional stress and exhaustion. It can easily lead to us climbing off the tractor after a long day and only having a few thousand steps on our Garmin yet we are absolutely exhausted. Despite all of the stresses and the emotional exhaustion, many of us (including myself) would not trade time in the tractor or combine for the world. The best sunsets are viewed from a tractor, the best animal sightings, and the best conversations with our bestest four legged pals happen there. Managing stress is part of the career, it is part of the industry, we take the good with the bad.