Soybean Business: Stress factor

Farm safety starts with a farmer’s emotional well-being

This story first appeared in the July-August 2016 issue of Soybean Business, the magazine of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association. Click here to read more articles from Soybean Business.

Imagine this:

It is the middle of October and a severe storm, including wind and hail, comes through your farm. The corn and soybean plants that were dry and fragile are now lying on the ground, making it almost impossible to pick, losing much of your crop to the ground. At the same time, the storm caused extensive damage to the grain dryer and bins, but the elevator in town is full and will not take the grain. What do you do?

In Minnesota, this is not an unrealistic scenario. On top of a busy season itself, high stress situations like this can be to blame for deteriorating physical and mental health in farmers, especially when not handled properly.

In order to understand how to best handle the stress these busy seasons and situations cause, it is important to be aware of the symptoms and their potential consequences. Michael Rosmann, Ph.D., executive director of AgriWellness, Inc., and clinical psychologist who manages the family farm near Harlan, Iowa, says trouble with relationships is the first sign of stress.

“Relationships with those close to you, like spouses, are the first thing to break down,” Rosmann says. “Blaming and disagreements grow and close relationships often worsen.”

Rosmann says anxiety, emotional fatigue, depression and loss of sleep are other signs of stress, and can be much more visual during planting and harvest season.

“One thing that I look at is a farmer’s sleep debt,” Rosmann says. “This means when someone normally sleeps eight hours per night, but during the busy season they start sleeping six, at the end of the week they will have a total of 10 hours of sleep debt. This equates to a 0.08 percent blood alcohol concentration, or being legally drunk. Reaction time, accuracy of motor movements, memory, judgment and mood control are all reduced.”

Startling statistics

According to the National Sleep Foundation, an accident involving drowsy driving, or operating a vehicle while tired, can happen due to chronic sleep debt. Those that work more than 60 hours a week also increase the risk of a crash by 40 percent, especially when working alone in the dark. Rosmann adds that as stress increases, farm-related injuries and illnesses also increase. This includes costly endeavors like viral infections, long-term illnesses and an increase in the number of rollovers and tips when working with farm equipment.

If stress or the symptoms of stress are not dealt with, physical harm can be the unintended result.

According to a 2016 report by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the suicide rate among people engaged in agriculture (farmers, ranchers, farm laborers, fishers and lumber harvesters) was the highest among 30 national Standard Occupational Classification groups, at 84.5 per 100,000 persons in 2012.

This report has been compared to a separate study focusing on suicides by military veterans

in 2014. Using the same data source and research methodology, the rate of suicide by all veterans in

2014 was reported at 35.3 per 100,000 persons, well below the rate of 84.5 per 100,000 for those working in agriculture.

“People engaged in agriculture also are more prone than the general population to react strongly to perceived threats,” Rosmann says. “For farmers, anything that endangers their economic well-being and capacity to continue farming is usually perceived as a threat. Th ey may begin to feel like there are few options and lose hope.”

Food choices matter

University of Minnesota Extension Educator Emily Wilmes says nutrition and making the right food choices during busy seasons is just as important as finding the time to sleep.

“Our brain has an absolute need for glucose, which we get from balanced meals,” Wilmes says. “It’s easy to grab a pop and a candy bar while running to get parts, but those only off er a quick shot of energy and lead to a sugar crash. Foods like sandwiches, beef jerky, nuts, and cheese can still be eaten on the go and offer a lot more nutrition for both your brain and your body. Along with eating right, drinking water will help your body stay hydrated, which in turn allows you to work harder and think clearer.”

Finding additional help

Wilmes adds that farming is not an easy occupation, and it depends heavily on factors that are outside of your control. If the stress is getting to be more than you can handle, or you are starting to feel depressed, there is help available. Minnesota Farm Advocates (1- 800-967-2474) and the Minnesota Farmer Assistance Network (1-877-898-6326) are groups that offer counseling, legal advice, and additional help and assistance.

What you can do?

While farmers may not be able to control the weather or commodity prices, there is some control on how to combat stress. Michael Rossman, Ph.D, executive director of AgriWellness, Inc., says there are fi ve simple things farmers can do to deal with oncoming stress and reduce the chance of an on-farm accident.

  • Keep the sleep debt in check. Make sure to get adequate sleep, even when busy.
  • Take short breaks. Allow yourself to leave the stressful environment, even if it is only a 10 minute break.
  • Physical contact with loved one produces serotonin. Ask for comforting physical ouches, such as massages, backrubs, stroking arms and aff ection. Th is also includes petting a dog or cat.
  • Physical exercise is important. Be sure to take the time to get out of the tractor or combine, take a walk and refresh your senses. Exercise reduces adrenalin and cortisol and encourages the production of serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine and oxytocin.
  • Talking is key. This allows the issues to leave the body. Don’t forget to ask for professional help when needed.

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