Help Farmers Cope with Stress

July 10, 2013, 9:38 am | Malisa Rader, Laura Sternweis

AMES, Iowa — Farm life with its country setting often is idealized, but as the complications and pace of agriculture have increased, so have the physical and mental demands on farmers. It’s set up for stress that cannot be ignored, says Malisa Rader, an Iowa State University Extension and Outreach family life program specialist.

Malisa Rader“Farmers deal with everyday tasks of money management, decision-making and equipment maintenance,” Rader said. “Other stressors in farming include worry over large debt loads, government regulations, pest outbreaks, animal disease, negative publicity, rapid change within the industry and lack of control over the weather. Add to that the knowledge that most farmers work long hours in isolation near their home environment, leaving them no place to escape the stressors, and it is easy to see why farming ranks as one of the most stressful occupations in the United States.”

Rader noted that it does not help matters that “farmer personality” can prevent those in agriculture from seeking help when needed. Farm families’ perceptions of obstacles to seeking help include concerns about their reputation in the community or the financial cost of getting help, and lack of understanding about what service agencies do and how they work.

“It might be a matter of pride. Some farmers may have grown up with the idea that you don’t seek help from social agencies; that you have to solve your own problems. They might not trust helping professionals or they might fear being perceived as mentally ill,” Rader said.

“The physical and mental stress of farming can take a toll on a person’s health,” Rader said. “Ignoring those signs of stress can lead to fatigue and depression, increasing the risk for accidental injuries, poor decision-making, physical illness and more.”

Be attentive to signs of stress

Although adults involved in the agriculture industry may not come out and verbally share they are under financial or emotional stress, there are signs they may be in need of help, Rader said. These signs can be observed by friends, neighbors, veterinarians, physicians, clergy, teachers and other community members.

Suzanne Pish, a social-emotional health extension educator with Michigan State University Extension, encourages those living in rural communities to look for the following signs of chronic, prolonged stress in farm families:

  • Change in routines. The farmer or family no longer participates in activities they once enjoyed such as church, 4-H or visiting at the local diner.
  • Care of livestock declines. Animals might show signs of neglect or abuse.
  • Increase in illness. Stress puts people at higher risk for upper respiratory illnesses (colds, flu) or other chronic conditions (aches, pains, persistent cough).
  • Increase in farm accidents. Fatigue and the inability to concentrate can lead to greater risk of accidents.
  • Decline in farmstead appearance. The farm family no longer may take pride in the way farm buildings and grounds appear, or no longer have time to do the maintenance work.
  • Children show signs of stress. Children from families under stress may act out, show a decline in academic performance or be increasingly absent from school. They also may show signs of physical abuse or neglect.

“Many farmers who are used to working things out for themselves might be resistant to sharing their problems with others. Although asking for help might go against the nature of a strong, self-reliant farmer, obtaining support for stress-related problems usually provides the most effective and durable solutions,” Rader said.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recently examined 130 occupations and found that laborers and farm owners had the highest rate of deaths due to stress-related conditions like heart and artery disease, hypertension, ulcers and nervous disorder. In 2002, a rural Iowa survey showed that 16.4 percent of the responders had thoughts of suicide.

“That’s why it is so important to encourage and refer individuals and families under farm-related stress to needed resources,” Rader said.

Call the Iowa Concern Hotline

Iowa Concern LogoIowans can call the ISU Extension and Outreach Iowa Concern Hotline, 800-447-1985, for help and referrals for dealing with stress. The Iowa Concern website at has a live chat feature as an additional way to talk with stress counselors. Agencies and professionals serving individuals and families can contact local ISU Extension and Outreach offices about Iowa Concern hotline number business cards available for distribution.

The following publications can be accessed at Iowa State University Extension and Outreach county offices or from the Extension Online Store,


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