Navigating Financial Stress in Farming

The farming industry is particularly vulnerable to financial fluctuations and uncertainty, which can be a major contributor to stress and mental health challenges for farming families. The Stigma-Free Society spoke with Gerry Friesen, also known as the “Recovering Farmer”, about managing the financial stress involved in farming. Gerry is a stress expert and public speaker who gives workshops and presentations related to stress management in the farming community.

Can you share your experience in the farming community and in helping people manage the financial stress involved in farming?

Since 2000 I have been involved in farm debt mediation. Over that time, I’ve helped over 500 farm families dealing with financial stress. Although many of these mediations involved creditors, most also involved conversations around the kitchen table. Through those conversations, farmers invariably spoke about the overwhelming stress they were experiencing.

During that time, I was also farming and experiencing high stress. As a result of the various stressors involved in farming, I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression.

What are some of the financial challenges involved in farming, and how can this impact farmer’s mental health? Has this changed over the years?

Farmers are in a unique situation of having to invest significant financial resources without knowing what the returns will be. Factors like weather events, trade actions, government policies, consumer demands, disease issues and others impact the bottom line. Added to this are ever increasing decisions that farmers have to make, and each decision influences the next. We are only one decision away from a completely different outcome, and the stakes are high.

As farming has changed over the years, research has shown that incidents of depression and anxiety have increased. A survey done in 2016 by the University of Guelph revealed that out of 1100 farmers surveyed, 45% of respondents had high stress, and 58% met the criteria for an anxiety disorder.

In your experience, how does stress impact farm business management?

Despite the stress, the business must move forward. There will continue to be risks and opportunities. But when we are unable to handle the stress, we run the risk of the following:

  1. Capitulation — just selling at whatever price is available today because you just can’t stand worrying about it anymore.
  2. Denial — refusing to accept that some unpalatable prices or government policies will just have to be swallowed.
  3. Obsession — not being able to stop thinking about the crops in the field or wet in the bin — what they could have been worth and what they might end up being sold for.
  4. Paralysis — being unable to make any choices because every decision seems too fraught with danger.
  5. Desperation — looking for a magic bullet, secret weapon or miracle to resolve the problem.
  6. Paranoia — looking for evil forces or conspiracies to explain unfortunate situations.

Farm Management Canada did a study called Healthy Minds-Healthy Farms that explores the relationship between mental health and farm business management. They define stress as “the personal, emotional response to external factors, or stressors.” Typically, when we make choices, we think about the pros and cons and reflect on past experiences. But stress has the ability to cloud a logical approach. When stress overwhelms us, we run the risk of making less rational decisions. In times of stress, we are more likely to overlook negative information that may clarify our decisions and would rather focus on a positive outcome from the past. Research has shown that rational, emotionally stable and conscientious farmers are more likely to have a profitable business.

What sort of tools can you share with farmers for managing financial stress and uncertainty, and for coping with the mental health challenges this can lead to or exacerbate?

It’s always advisable to remain aware of what your financial situation is. I know from experience that checking your bank balance can be difficult when things are tight. But I’ve also learned that it’s easier to deal with a known rather than the unknown. When we are unaware, we have a tendency to worry, which is simply our mind dealing with something we don’t want to have happen.

And as we do with equipment breakdowns or disease issues, it can be helpful to reach out for help. A farm business management specialist can help you compile your financial information, talk through options, and can critique business plans. It’s always helpful to verbalize plans with a neutral third party.

Are there specific resources you can recommend for farmers who want to learn more about managing financial stress and uncertainty?

Over the years, there has been a substantial increase in resources for farmers seeking to deal with financial stress and uncertainty. Lenders such as Farm Credit Canada provide resources to further educate farmers. Of note is a booklet called Rooted in Strength which provides anecdotal stories from farmers experiencing stress. Farm Management Canada has resources for farmers to use and regular webinars for those interested in enhancing their farm business management. Provincial Agriculture departments often have resources to help with financial management. The key is to seek out the information that can help you in your specific situation.

Do you have any tips for young farmers just getting started who might not fully understand the financial pressures involved in farming?

  1. Be aware of an ever-changing environment.
  2. Write a business plan to be cognizant of cost of production, margins, marketing plans, etc. Among farmers who use written business plans, 88% claim that it’s improved their mental health.
  3. Make sure your goals are achievable.
  4. Avail yourself to all the advice from experts. But also ensure that the advice you get can work for your farm.
  5. Always ensure communication lines are open, whether that is with business partners, creditors, or others.
  6. Be honest with yourself and others.
  7. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
  8. At the end of the day, don’t complicate or compound the challenges you may have. Keep it simple.

If you or your loved ones are experiencing overwhelming stress and anxiety, you can also seek mental health support resources here.