Emotional Health and Mental Well-Being for Farmers

For farmers, finding a good balance between work and mental well-being is a necessity for a successful business.
By Keith Stewart
January 2014
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Allow yourself a day off each week – a day on which you don’t spend much time thinking about farming.
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A successful vegetable farm depends on business smarts accounting, marketing, customer service as much as planting and harvesting skills. Keith Stewart’s practical advice, detailed in Storey’s Guide to Growing Organic Vegetables & Herbs for Market, will guide you through every part of professional farming. This excerpt, from chapter 24, “Looking After Number One,” explains the importance of self-preservation when you work in a stressful field such as farming.

You can purchase this book from the Capper’s Farmer store: Storey’s Guide to Growing Organic Vegetables & Herbs for Market.

Mental well-being and emotional health

If you’re suited to it, farming can be a good life, a full life, a life you’ll be glad you chose. It will also be demanding and sometimes stressful. When you’re running your own business, failures or mishaps, when they occur, will rest squarely on your shoulders. This is something you’ve got to get used to.

Some days, there’ll be too much to do and not enough time in which to do it. You may have to practice some form of triage. And of course, things don’t always turn out the way we would like. These and many other troubles — a difficult employee, a devastating hailstorm, economic hardship, an extended period of drought, an aching back, a case of the blight — are likely to surface sooner or later. When they do, we suffer — sometimes a little and sometimes a lot.

But most problems are not as bad as they seem at first. Many can be solved quite easily once you stand back and take a clear-eyed, objective look at them. Some troubles simply resolve themselves with the passage of time and little or no intervention on our part. Others are more intractable and may take considerable effort to overcome. Unfortunately, all of them, even small setbacks, can cause stress if we let them. And stress can affect our physical and emotional well-being, which, in turn, can affect our ability to farm safely and effectively.

So what’s a farmer to do? Well, as stated earlier in this chapter, a healthy diet with three square meals a day, along with adequate rest at night, are a good place to start. But let me add a few other things you can do to stay on an even keel.

Develop a work schedule

Establish regular work hours and good work habits for yourself and your crew. Try to begin and end work at the same time each day, and allow for some downtime at night before going to bed. On our farm, we stick to a strict schedule on what we call “farm work” days — 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. with a 1-hour break for lunch or, in the heat of summer, 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. with a 2-hour lunch break. During the peak of the season, when there’s a lot to harvest and sell, we might work for an extra 1 to 1 1/2 hours on “pick days” (of which there are two each week) to put together a load for the next day’s market. As the days shorten and there is less to harvest, we usually finish pick days earlier.

The important thing here is regularity. Our bodies and our psyches like to know what is expected of them and when they will be rewarded with rest, food, or simply something different to do.

Stretch daily and exercise

Some form of daily exercise that focuses on stretching and flexibility will have a calming effect, dissipate stress, and keep your body in good form. Consider taking up yoga, chi gong, tai chi, or some other gentle practice with a meditative underpinning. You’ll find this is especially valuable as you get older. Our bodies really do appreciate being loosened, stretched, and warmed up before a day’s work. Encourage your workers to incorporate stretching into their daily routine. You might even try stretching with them for 5 or 10 minutes each morning.

Don’t sweep stress under the rug

When you face a particularly vexing problem, talk to a friend or family member. Often telling a trusted person will ease the load, provide perspective, and even shine light on a solution.

Small amounts of stress are part and parcel of life. They usually go away on their own or after a night’s rest. The important thing is to recognize when you’re experiencing stress and, if possible, find some way to alleviate it. Not acknowledging stress, sweeping it under the rug, or allowing it to build up, without relief, is a recipe for trouble.

Don’t rush in

When a difficult situation develops, it’s often wise to step back and let a little time pass, rather than try to tackle it while in an agitated state. This is especially true with issues involving employees or virtually any other human being. I’ve learned over the years to avoid confronting someone while in the heat of anger. Sometimes, a day later, I realize that my anger or irritation had more to do with me and the mood I was in, or other problems I was facing, than with anything the employee said or did.

On the other hand, after a short hiatus and some reflection, I might decide that there still is a legitimate reason for my displeasure and that it is necessary to address the issue that concerns me. When this is the case, it’s generally better for me to wait until I’m in a calm and clear frame of mind before speaking to the person. That doesn’t mean you should never express anger — there might be times when it is necessary — but when you do, it should be anger that you have full control over.

Organization helps: Good planning and good organization will reduce stress and keep unwanted surprises to a minimum.

Take time off

Allow yourself a day off each week — a day on which you don’t spend much time thinking about farming. On this day, read a book or magazine, go fishing, watch a movie, socialize with friends or family, take a walk in the woods, enjoy some of life’s simple pleasures. You’ll find it pays off. The next day, when you go back to work, you’ll have more energy and more clarity of purpose. You’ll be ready to take on what needs to be done.

A few more words of advice

I’ll end with a few more snippets of advice, some of which have already come up, in one form or another, elsewhere in this book.

• Divide tedious or difficult jobs into more manageable parts.

• Schedule tasks so that you are using your body in different ways throughout the day.

• Go easy on your back — when you have heavy lifting to do, approach it with caution. Always look for the smart way.

• Keep an eye on the weather so you can minimize outdoor work when it’s raining or extremely hot or cold.

• Drink plenty of water, especially on those hot summer days.

• Get a tetanus shot every 10 years (which reminds me, I’m due for one).

• Most of this advice is simple common sense, but it’s surprisingly easy to let common sense go by the wayside when we feel pressure or stress or are just plain tired. That’s when an accident is most likely to occur. The wise farmer keeps a measured pace and stays on guard at all times.

• There’s an art to being a good farmer, just as there is an art to leading an engaged and meaningful life. It is not learned in a week or a month or a year. You have to keep working on it day after day, until the very end. Never forget that looking after yourself is an important part of the epic journey you are on.


NYCAMH

The New York State Center for Agricultural Medicine and Health (NYCAMH) has plenty to say about preventing and treating occupational injuries and illnesses common to farming. This organization offers on-farm safety surveys and on-farm safety training to all New York State farmers, free of charge. You can learn about them on the NYCAMH website. Ask your state agriculture department if there are similar programs in the state or province where you live.


Recap: tips for physical and mental well-being

• Wear sunscreen, loose-fitting pants, a long sleeved shirt, and a wide-brimmed hat.
• Wear the appropriate type of gloves when necessary.
• Use earmuffs when operating machines.
• Wear goggles when using any pesticides and doing welding.
• Wear a dust mask when working in a dusty environment.
• Wear a back support belt when lifting heavy objects.
• Get into the habit of drinking water — at least eight 8-ounce glasses a day — whether you are thirsty or not.
• Develop a work schedule.
• Stretch daily and exercise.
• Don’t sweep stress under the rug.
• Don’t rush into a difficult situation.
• Take time off.


Excerpted from Storey’s Guide to Growing Organic Vegetables & Herbs for Market © Keith Stewart, illustrations © Elayne Sears, used with permission from Storey Publishing. Buy this book from our store: Storey’s Guide to Growing Organic Vegetables & Herbs for Market.


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