My interest in family stress led me to work with Dr. Bob Hughes, a Cooperative Extension faculty member, for my Master’s thesis. A few years before that, there had been a significant number of farm families who had financial difficulties, so he suggested studying how those farm families experienced and handled stress. Dr. Hughes helped me connect with several Cooperative Extension agents in the field, and they assisted me in reaching out to farm families.
A total of 39 families agreed to meet with me for an interview, and I spent the summer traveling around Illinois listening to their stories of unfortunate decisions, bad luck, treachery from long time business friends, and health problems worsened by the financial stress. Happily for some, I also heard stories of triumph in turning their operations around. The summer became intense when those who had been able to save their farms through bankruptcy restructuring were hit with a severe drought that growing season. These families were concerned that this set back just might be the one to take them down.
As I learned through my research on farming, the financial challenges and dealing with the drought were only two aspects of one of the most stressful and dangerous occupations in the United States. Think about it. Farmers use toxic chemicals that can cause health problems. They use large machinery that can amputate limbs or kill a person in an accident. Farmers and ranchers must either keep up with technical advances in machinery and selling in the market or be left behind by their competitors. Add to that the uncertainty of how the weather in any given year will affect the crops or animal growth, and it is easy to see why farming is stressful. Is it any wonder that qualities often associated with farmers and ranchers are grit, determination, and hard work?
One aspect of my research that I found especially interesting was looking at the diversity among farm families based on their attitudes towards farming. Using Dr. Sonya Salamon’s Yeoman/Entrepreneur model of understanding farm families (see multiple references listed in my thesis for more information), it was clear that some families approached farming like they would other entrepreneurial businesses such as running a shoe store or restaurant. They were open to different off-farm work opportunities and were more likely to take those jobs with an optimistic attitude. Other farm families, what Salamon called “Yeoman” families, felt more guilt about letting past and future generations down when they were unsuccessful in turning the operation around, and they had a harder time embracing off-farm work opportunities. This points to the importance of understanding and working with farm families as individuals with their own set of farming goals, approaches, and priorities.
Another aspect of my research revealed the role that governmental policy played in the experience of these farm families. Sometimes, in spite of their best intentions, law makers enact laws that have unintended consequences. Governmental policies that encourage expanding operations by increasing the percentage of land value that can be used for collateral or raising the amount of money that can be borrowed, may lure farmers to borrow more than is wise. Federal Land Bank policies encouraging loans, incentives for loan officers, and a freer flow of cash can also entice farmers to take loans for expansion that may not be in their best interest.
Several farmers I interviewed made business decisions and took actions based on handshakes with bankers they had worked with for decades. When policies at the banks changed in response to federal government policy changes, the farmers felt betrayed by the bankers who denied they’d made an agreement or treated them like they had no history together. This illustrates how important it is to be aware of current policy, analyze any potential unintended consequences, determine the best plan of action in correcting the problems, and work with government officials to amend existing or pass new legislation.
I still appreciate the farm couples who I met with that summer. They took two to three hours out of their busy, stressful lives to talk with me about their experiences. Some shared little gifts with me, like gourmet sunflower seeds, and others shared snacks and even meals. Some couples admitted that recalling those experiences was painful, yet they shared them with me anyway. I consider it to have been an honor to listen to their stories, and I will always remember them with deep respect and gratitude.
Lash, Amy, Cultural Influences on Farm Families’ Responses to Difficult Life Events, Masters’ Thesis, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.