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Brian Ricker

Managing Farm Financial Stress

Recently I attended the Ohio Grain Farmers Symposium in Columbus. I participated in a presentation on current credit conditions and providing insight from a lender’s perspective. Balance sheet and income statement trends representative of many farm operations over the past four years were shared with the group. The trends (over the past four years) included earnings losses, declining working capital and reduction in owner equity. It was mentioned that some operations may be slow to recognize their situation, in denial or feeling uncertain about the future and their options.

After the presentation, one of the attendees came up and expressed appreciation for being so candid and sharing what we were seeing. He expressed concern for the current stressful times and how stress is affecting many farm families and their farm operations. He said farmers might feel isolated and have the impression they are the only ones struggling. He thinks there needs to be more talk and discussion about farmers’ mental health and the stress associated with farming. This made me realize we all need to be more aware of the struggles many farm families are going through and it prompted me to bring it up in this issue of the Leader.

We all know farmers are no strangers to stress. Farming ranks in the top 10 most stressful occupations in the U.S. Farmers cope with unpredictable weather, physically demanding work, soaring health insurance costs, and in recent years, financial pressures and stress. Many have experienced four or more consecutive years of stagnant prices, barely making a profit or losing money. This can be difficult to endure for anyone.

There can be a stigma around someone reaching out for help because farmers are independent problem solvers, with a geter-done mentality. Most farm meetings deal with production, marketing, outlook, succession and conservation topics and so, traditionally, not as much time is spent discussing the human toll of the work.

A recent survey by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture showed increasing levels in anxiety, financial worries and depression among farmers.

It is important to know we will all experience some type of stress in our lives. There are anticipated stressors brought on by the holiday season, marriage, birth of a child or, in my family’s recent situation, a new pet in the household. These are stressful events we plan for and want, but unexpected and more threatening stressors, such as an economic downturn, may suddenly disrupt our lives without warning. These significant stressors often lead to other problems including marital tensions, family conflicts, accidents or health problems.

Although we don’t have the ability to control many of the stressors we face, we have the power to manage how we respond. Stressful events are more likely to be resolved positively if we have a clear and realistic view of the problem, a strong support system, a history of managing stress successfully, a hardy disposition, an accurate understanding of our strengths and limitations, sound action plans and a proactive approach to tackling them.

The worst thing we can do when feeling overwhelmed is to react impulsively or to put our head in the sand and hope it will go away. By doing nothing we sometimes end up feeling like victims.

Below are tips on how to be proactive in difficult times from an associate of mine, Dennis Morris. Dennis has worked with many Farm Credit System associations across the U.S. in dealing with a variety of issues including stress and difficult conversations. His tips are worth reading and provide help for anyone who is facing stress in their lives.

  1. Outline the problems you face. Be honest and don’t avoid any issues even if they feel threatening.
  2. List all of your alternatives, strengths and threats, and think of them as unique opportunities to use to your advantage.
  3. Consider what might happen to you and your family if you don’t take any action.
  4. Communicate openly with family members.
  5. Remain open to any possible change. Focus on the best alternatives.
  6. Develop a written action plan to help you get through the current economic downturn.
  7. An action plan includes a list of goals, tasks and specific steps you will take within definite time periods.
  8. Remember that every problem has a solution.
  9. When evaluating your situation, think with your head and not just your heart.
  10. Review your plan with a trusted advisor who will help you understand your financial options. A trusted advisor is an agriculture and business expert who will look out for your best interests and critically assess your plan. You want an advisor who has the courage to question your action plan and to help you explore alternative solutions. They may not always say what you want to hear but they have the courage to be honest and to give you their best thoughts. They won’t tell you what to do because they respect your ability to find the best solution.