If the current protracted downturn in the agricultural economy, now compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, continues to be like the Great Depression of the 1930s, agricultural producers and many people in agriculture-dependent industries will not will not behave in the same way after the end of this crisis. Whether the current agricultural economy is in recession or depression is debatable; Either way, the survivors and victims of this agricultural crisis will not be the same after it is over.
This prediction stems from more than 40 years as a psychologist and farmer, and two longitudinal survey projects. The first was a three-year study of how 122 distressed farm clients from the Southwestern Iowa Mental Health Center behaviorally adapted to the farm crisis of the 1980s (Rosmann, MR and Delworth, U. , The clinical psychologist, 1990). None of the clients committed suicide.
Our research has identified five stages of adjustment that take place over several years:
An alarm phase first occurs when farmers face financial threats that could potentially lead to restructuring or the forced sale of their farms; sometimes they minimize their situation.
Second, as agricultural losses worsen, agricultural producers and businesses dependent on agriculture become more worried and desperate; they may pin their hopes on unlikely solutions, such as growing new, unproven crops.
Third, when loan restructuring or foreclosure cannot be avoided, farmers are usually overwhelmed with anxiety, followed by depression and sometimes suicide; this is the phase of greatest emotional distress, especially during legal proceedings and forced auctions; those in distress need emotional support from family and neighbors, and usually need help from professionals in the medical, behavioral health, legal, and agricultural fields.
Emotional and financial recovery characterizes the fourth stage, which follows the resolution of legal and business issues; settlement may result in continued farming or obtaining other employment; hope gradually returns as life goes on and finances improve.
The fifth stage involves permanent emotional scars, the satisfaction of surviving, and the development of wisdom, habits of frugality, and the transmission of acquired knowledge to successors.
The habits of those who survived the 1980s are similar to those of my grandparents and relatives who exemplify the farmers who survived the Great Depression of the 1930s.
My grandmothers got so frugal that they fixed homemade dresses with mismatched buttons and patches until their dresses got threadbare. They never took a vacation. My mother raised broilers and 200 laying hens; she canned most of the fruits and vegetables that my family ate.
My grandfathers and father didn’t buy land in the late 1920s when times were good. During the 1930s, they clung to most of their farmland by working extremely hard and postponing all but essential purchases until they had enough money. They were prepared to invest prudently in land and equipment as the Great Depression ended.
The character also played a role. When my maternal grandfather joined the US Army in World War I and was deployed to France, there was no one to farm the land he and my grandmother had purchased. The lender took over their farm but asked them to take over the loan when Grandpa came home.
The second major project evaluated agricultural crisis services in seven states (Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin) from 2000 to 2014 to determine the most effective services for farmers and families in distress. The Farm Bill 2018 Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network is based on our findings.
An in-depth evaluation found that many farmers used farm crisis hotlines in the seven-state area that were free, culturally appropriate to the farming community, and confidential. A sample drawn from clients who participated in counseling from licensed professionals who had received training in agricultural behavioral health found that 91% of those who rated their services said they would recommend counseling to others.
The development of support networks by distressed farmers and participation in community education workshops also emerged as best practices (Rosmann, MR and Stucker, S., NARMH Ratings, a publication of the National Association for Rural Mental Health, 2008; and Rosmann, MR, International Society for Agricultural Safety and Health Conference 2014).
There are lessons to be learned from the two major agricultural crises, but the current crisis is more like the Great Depression. Similarities between the two include persistently low prices for most agricultural products, massive unemployment, political isolation from the United States, and withdrawal from international treaties and trade agreements. In addition, farmers past and present rely on government-sponsored farm loans, federal purchase of surplus commodities such as milk, extra payments for certain crops and livestock, conservation and agricultural land set-aside payments.
Farmers are always challenged to undertake innovative efforts to survive. Using knowledge gained from both previous agricultural crises and research findings, producers must resist the urge to splurge when times are good, manage their behavioral health, and build a team of consultants with expertise they don’t have, in order to function optimally. History will judge whether farmers have learned from their predecessors and from the results of behavioral health research.
Mike Rosmann is a Harlan, Iowa, psychologist and farmer. To contact Rosmann, visit: www.agbehavioralhealth.com.