Down on the Farm
The Burdens and Joys of Modern Farm Life
It’s a story of haunting dualities.
Beginning late last year, a series of news articles was published alerting the public to a disturbing pattern happening across the United States: farmers committing suicide at worrisome rates. Reported reasons for the untimely deaths included financial problems, especially among dairy farmers in the Northeast who struggle to stay afloat as milk prices drop due to a global oversupply and lower prices overseas, and feelings of torment and paralysis when it came to making decisions for the farm.
One dairy farmer from Warren, Massachusetts, interviewed for a story airing on NPR described his work as life-sustaining, and yet an unfortunate contrast is at play as many dairy farmers in his region find it difficult to make a living. For an Iowa farmer described by news reports as progressive, being one of the first in his county to practice the farming method known as “no-till,” an ironic psychological reality revealed itself when he took his life in 2011, after 35 years of farming. As is the case of many successful farmers throughout the United States, the same work ethic and reliance on personal judgment that leads them to succeed can also work against them when things don’t go as planned.
“Many of the inputs and outputs of a farmer’s business are out of his or her control,” says Robert J. Fetsch, professor and extension specialist emeritus, Department of Human Development and Family Studies, Colorado State University.
“Weather is one example of something that we worry about but we have no control over. Then there are prices, which are dictated by the going market. If the market is willing to pay $4 for a bushel of wheat, for example, but it costs $6 to produce it, requiring the farmer to charge $7 in order to make a profit, the farmer is at the mercy of the going market, which will only pay that $4. So the price the farmer pays for his or her supplies are set by other people, and the prices consumers will pay for the farmer’s products are also set by other people,” says Fetsch. “Look how many things in their lives are out of their control.”
Despite the vibrant farming community and local food movement in Maine, Abby Sadauckas, farmer and co-owner (with her fiancé, Jake) of Apple Creek Farm, an organic and grass-based livestock farm in Bowdoinham, Maine, admits that “society in general doesn’t pay the true cost of food. As farmers we market direct to consumers so we’re always in the position of educating the public about what it costs to produce it. Simultaneously, we genuinely want to feed people.” When considered from Sadauckas’ perspective, farmers are “constantly trying to reconcile these dualities—and that’s a tiring process.”
To fully understand any disparity, you have to start at the beginning. For Michael Rosmann, PhD, an Iowa farmer, psychologist, and one of the nation’s leading farmer behavioral experts, the beginning started with a look at territoriality. While taking some undergraduate courses in animal ethology at the University of Colorado, Rosmann learned about how animals secure territories in which to reproduce their species by marking their land with urine, for example. Although we’re more likely to mark our territory with things such as fences, legal documents, or a name tag outside of our cubicle, Rosmann’s research has led him to believe that humans also instinctually seek territories in which to reproduce, an ancient means of survival.
“Originally humans were hunter-gatherers, following the animals around and shifting territories frequently to survive,” says Rosmann. “But agriculture made it possible to stay in one place because you could produce enough food to store it to get through lean times.”
As history tells it, many people had to leave Africa because the best territories were already filled with people there, forcing others to spread across Asia and Europe.
“Being able to stay in one place gave tremendous survival advantages to the human species and allowed our population to expand very rapidly,” says Rosmann.
He found that human genetics also favors the establishment of territories for the purpose of life-sustaining agriculture, “an instinct that has supported Charles Darwin’s survival of the fittest theory for thousands and thousands of years.”
These discoveries eventually gave way to Rosmann’s theory, the Agrarian Imperative (AI). “It’s a theory only,” he says, “and an attempt to explain why people farm but also why farmers have a high suicide and stress rate when farming isn’t working out for them.”
Rosmann’s theory explains that historically, the traits of the most successful farmers (the capacity to work very hard; tolerate adversity; depend on personal judgment; work alone; and be innovative and take risks) all have survival value. Some of those same traits, however, work against the farmer because he or she is less likely to reach out for help, turning inward when the going gets tough and working harder. Consequently, such a strong reliance on the self may not be the most effective solution to the farmer’s problems or to saving the farm.
“We lose more lives to suicide on farms than to physical causes that result in fatalities, such as a tractor roll-over or getting hit by a large rolling bail. There is a need in many parts of the country to have a service that farmers can contact when they are distressed and need to figure out how to deal with the stress and obtain behavioral health counseling,” says Rosmann.
Heather Donahue, dairy farmer and co-owner (with her husband, Doug) of Balfour Farm in Pittsfield, Maine, says that dairy farmers in particular feel this pressure to keep the farm running.
“Dairy farming usually requires a different scope of investment compared to other types of farming because it’s traditionally a generational endeavor,” Donahue says. “There’s often that pressure…‘am I going to be the one who causes it to go under?’”
According to AI, losing the farm is perhaps the most stressful event on a scale of various events that contribute to farmer stress. During the farm crisis of the 1980s—an economic crisis in the United States considered to be worse than the Great Depression, leaving many farmers in financial ruin—rating scales were developed to measure farmer stress. One of the scales subsequent to the farm crisis showed the loss of a farm and the loss of a child in a terrible farm event to be ranked highest.
“They are not necessarily correlated, but those who had experienced both unfortunate events were unable to determine which was worse,” says Rosmann.
It’s no surprise then that most farmers won’t give up without a long, hard fight.
“One of the largest stressors of farming is that you’re never done; you just have to choose a quitting time for that day, season, or project,” says Jo Barrett, Maine field agent for Land For Good, a New England-wide nonprofit that specializes in farmland access, tenure, and transfer. “There’s that ongoing decision-making process of ‘when do I say this is good enough and spare myself the burnout of continuing trying to polish it?’”
Barrett co-owned King Hill Farm in Penobscot, Maine for 21 years with her husband and her husband’s brother. In 2009, her husband suffered a disabling stroke, leaving Barrett to manage the farm alone and also become a full-time caregiver. Unable to juggle the two, she had no choice but to sell the business and transfer her portion of the land.
“I didn’t know what all my options were and I didn’t understand who should be on my team. I was really shooting in the dark and it took its toll.”
Barrett’s work with Land For Good allows her to help others who are in her situation. The organization’s mission is to put as much farmland as possible into the hands of farmers and help break down the barriers and hurdles that prevent that from happening. Land For Good (landforgood.org/) works with people who are looking for farm land, farmers who are looking to retire or transition and want a successor, and even non-farming landowners who want to see their land be put to good use.
“The biggest part of our service is to help farmers who need to transfer or sell their land understand what some of their options are, helping them understand agreements or what is reasonable to ask for, and what’s reasonable to offer,” says Barrett.
Sadauckas says that there is also a real need to support new farmers, a popular demographic in Maine, which has the second highest percentage of beginning farmers (those who have farmed for less than 10 years) nationally, according to a 2016 impact report published by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA).
One program that has largely contributed to the growth in new and first-generation farmers is MOFGA’s Beginning Farmer Training Program, which includes a three- to six-month on-farm training apprenticeship experience, and the Journeyperson Program, which provides two-year intensive production and business training for farmers with three to five years of growing experience looking to build their own organic farm business.
Finegan Ferreboeuf, farmer and co-owner (with her partner, Jason Gold) of Steelbow Farm, an organic vegetable farm in Norridgewock, Maine, refers to the Journeyperson program as “a huge support web for beginning farmers.” After moving to Maine from Austin, Texas, the couple joined MOFGA’s program to help them get their business started, and in the winter of 2017, Steelbow Farm was established.
This summer Steelbow Farm ran into a few challenges as a result of the drought, one being that some of their crops experienced deficiencies because “it’s difficult for plants to uptake nutrients without water,” says Ferreboeuf. But after having farmed in and around Texas for close to five years before coming to Maine, the couple is a little more comfortable with growing in the dry season. Although not much can be done about the unpredictability of the weather, Ferreboeuf says that her relationship with Gold is a constant that she relies on. “We agreed early on that we would quit farming before we quit each other.”
Barrett has worked with many of MOFGA’s Journeyperson participants and says that she’s pleased to see this younger generation approach farming differently than her generation.
“For my husband and I, the farm was the blood in our veins and the blood in our veins was the farm. The three of us were all interconnected like one organism. It sounds lofty but it was actually really exhausting and made it hard to have any perspective.”
Ian Jerolmack, vegetable farmer and owner of Stonecipher Farm, an organic vegetable farm in Bowdoinham, Maine, has learned that “you have to remain agile all the time. No matter how well you’ve done, you always have to be ready to change it and change it with tenacity.” He advises other farmers to “be open to the fact that your market, your climate, and your particular traits may determine your success more than your choices will.”
Having learned from her experience, the key, says Barrett, is viewing the farm as a business, and your role in it as the business owner. Many new farmers today are taking a holistic approach to planning, she says, which requires new farm owners to consider how they want their life to be in relation to their business. Barrett teaches a course supported by MOFGA that helps new farmers create a business model using a funnel mentality.
Participants are asked to consider their life in general terms at the start of the course (i.e., children, marriage, lifestyle) and by the end of the course, the funnel is narrowed so they understand very specific aspects of their business, such as how much it costs to grow a row full of carrots.
“I think it’s brilliant and a wonderful change in how people approach their careers as farmers to take their life and family into consideration rather than having to be ‘all out all the time’ for their farm. In my generation, the farm was too tightly woven into the fabric of the family. Even though it sounds like a wonderful idea, it was tough,” says Barrett.
Sadauckas recently partnered with Leslie Forstadt, University of Maine Cooperative Extension professor with a focus on human development, to work on another project that recognizes the diverse needs of farmers at various stages within the first 10 years of farming.
“In creating Supporting Relationships for Farm Success, we were very interested in the non-technical skills related to agriculture,” says Forstadt. “Farmers are resourceful and creative and while some prefer to work in isolation, successful careers in farming are interdependent on their communities. In that respect, farming cannot be done alone, and nontechnical support and resources for farmers who feel alone should be available and accessible.”
Sadauckas and Forstadt discovered that interpersonal and relational skill development—inherent components of farmer training—were lacking for Maine’s current new farmer generation.
“Traditionally those skills and values were taught through on-farm mentorship. If you grew up on a farm, you saw how your parents interacted with the veterinarian, the guy who came to pick up the milk, or customers who visited the farm every week. As society has changed and inheriting a farm or growing up on a farm has become less common, figuring out a way for people to develop those skills has had to change,” says Sadauckas.
Forstadt notes that in talking with other farmers, “there’s a definite desire to connect with one another,” an achievement that starts with establishing a universal vision of sustainability.
“We’ve come to use the term sustainability in such a rote way. True sustainability means balancing the financial, social, and environmental aspects all at the same time; not prioritizing them when it’s suitable for society’s demands,” says Sadauckas.
For most farmers, their lifestyle choice is much more than a response to the demands of society—it’s an urge, says Rosmann. “If you look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs, at the very top is the need for food, because it’s essential for life. I think that makes farming, [a fulfillment of that need], a perilous but important calling.”
With programs provided by organizations such as MOFGA, the hope is that new and generational farmers alike can become more comfortable reaching out to others for help with a variety of challenges, including staying both financially and mentally well. A large part of providing solutions to these challenges lies in consumer education.
“I think it’s important to talk to consumers about what we do on a daily basis so they understand that we do everything from start to finish, including raising the cows,” says Donahue, who knew that as a small farm, she and her husband would need to get a high dollar value for their milk. They decided the best way to do this was to get an on-farm creamery and process their milk into yogurt, which has a 1:1 ratio and zero waste. The couple then moved to soft cheeses and most recently incorporated hard cheeses into their offerings.
Donahue explains that Balfour Farm raises their cows from a calf, “and it takes two years of caring for that animal before we even get a drop of milk from it.” This time investment made by the farmer before any product even reaches the plate or market is essential for consumers to realize in order for them to fully understand the farming cycle.
Donahue notes that a lot of dairy farms in Maine, especially those producing organic products, have gone under recently for a variety of reasons.
“When local suppliers close due to lack of business, it increases the cost for farmers who now have to travel further to get supplies,” she says, emphasizing that when you support a local farmer, you’re not just supporting one business; “you’re also supporting all of the other businesses and families that support that farmer, including the people those businesses employ. It’s far-reaching.”
While many Maine farmers find that the best opportunity for consumer education happens at the farmers’ market, Jerolmack says it can be incredibly underwhelming to witness someone buying their first farmers’ market zucchini because “they feel like they’re changing the world and are ready to put a bumper sticker on their car, but they’re still probably buying most of their vegetables somewhere else.”
Jerolmack’s blunt perspective may come off as harsh to some, but when you consider the pressure farmers are under to provide food in order to make a living, playing the role of making other people feel good for buying your product can be “utterly exhausting.”
Choosing not to do something that makes him unhappy, Jerolmack shook up his marketing strategy and found a unique niche in selling his vegetables strictly to Portland restaurants. He now enjoys having an impact on the creative ways the chefs use his ingredients to serve their customers. In addition to the joy he gets from sharing his vegetables with a familiar crowd of talented chefs, Jerolmack finds real pleasure in his experiences with landscapes that are neither purely natural nor purely man-made.
“I’m aesthetically driven in a lot of ways. When I go out there and I’m on my tractor and messing up nature, I’m also making it attractive and productive, which feels like the best way of interacting with the world. The man-and-nature symbiosis at its finest, when we actually do it well, is what we’re trying to do.”
It’s Jerolmack’s suggestion of symbiosis that requires room for pause, and opens the page to a different story. One where the farmer feeds the people, and the people feed the farmer in return.
Editor’s note: Recent media coverage of farmers in the United States has relied on statistics from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to paint the picture of a “farmer suicide crisis.” These statistics have since been found to be misleading. The CDC’s results, which reported that persons working in the farming, fishing, and forestry groups had the highest rate of suicide in the country, actually excluded farmers, instead including the suicide rate of agricultural workers in the “farming” category. Agricultural workers are considered to be those not in a managerial position and typically perform labor tasks such as planting, picking, and packing crops at a much lesser salary than farmers and ranchers. But farmers themselves are not immune. This article was inspired not by the CDC statistics but by numerous conversations with Maine farmers and service providers about the stresses of farming in Maine today. It intends to help explain the complicated factors that contribute to, as one anonymous farmer put it, “staying well through the slog of it.”