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By Mike Rosmann, Published April 19 2013

Are farmers and ranchers happy?

On Sept. 11, 2011, Michele Payn-Knoper of Cause Matters Corp., in Lebanon, Ind., wrote, “After a decade of working with agricultural advocacy, I’ve heard thousands of complaints from farmers and ranchers across the U.S. and Canada. Frankly, it’s tiring.

“It seems as though farmers and ranchers are never happy.”

Payn-Knoper was commenting about dissension among the many agricultural organizations and members of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, which was formed to strengthen the image of, and to enhance public trust in, today’s agricultural industry.

I wondered if Payn-Knoper’s comments in 2011 were as much about how farmers and ranchers feel about themselves as about how they want the public to view them. My wonderment about this was strengthened this past week when three newspaper reporters – one from Los Angeles, another from Washington D.C., and the other from Lincoln, Neb. – called to ask me how farmers and ranchers are feeling about themselves in these days of high land prices, combined with the uncertainty of what the next farm bill will look like.

How do farmers and ranchers feel about themselves? Several recent studies examined if people engaged in agriculture are happy.

Surveys by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health regularly report that farming is one of the most stressful and dangerous occupations, with high rates of fatalities due to stress-related conditions such as hypertension and nervous disorders. Agricultural work is strenuous and producers have little control over many of the factors that determine their success or failure.

According to CollegeGrad.com – cited by Krista Sheehan on April 14, 2010, at www.answerbag.com – “Although the job is difficult, many farmers feel that the disadvantages of the job are heavily outweighed by the advantages.”

Farmers, ranchers and agricultural workers feel a sense of pride knowing their hard work provides food and other important necessities of life, such as fuel and fibrous materials for their families and the larger community of consumers everywhere.

“People who work in farming, forestry and fishing are happier than others,” according to a 2012 survey of National Well Being published by the British Office for National Statistics.

Reviewers of the ONS study commented that they thought investment bankers and corporate lawyers would be happiest because of their large salaries, but the happiest workers in the U.K. were those involved in the agricultural occupations. Like in the U.S., fishers and foresters are grouped with farmers in the U.K. as part of the agricultural occupation.

Are organic farmers happier than conventional farmers? To the best of my knowledge, no studies have been undertaken that investigate this question directly.

However, analysis of both types of agricultural production yields interesting comparisons that might have a bearing on the matter.

Organic farmland currently comprises about 1 percent of the land farmed in the U.S. However, USDA statistics indicate the amount of land devoted to organic production methods doubled between 1990 and 2002, and doubled again between 2002 and 2005. This trend is advancing ever faster as the demand for organic foods increases in the U.S. and in many other parts of the world.

As conventional farms become larger and consolidated, job growth in this segment of agriculture is slowing, while job growth in the organic segment is increasing rapidly. I have heard claims that it is easier for the children of parents who farm organically to get started in farming than for the children of parents who farm conventionally because of higher start-up costs for conventional operations, but I have yet seen hard data about the subject.

Striving for happiness has lots of traps, for farmers and nonfarmers alike. How we evaluate ourselves is critical to being happy, says Dr. Russ Harris, the Australian physician and psychotherapist who wrote “The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living in 2008.”

Treat yourself kindly, says Harris. Allow yourself to mess up, make mistakes and learn from them. Happiness results from accepting yourself as a human being who is not perfect but who is capable of learning from your efforts.

Financial gain from our efforts is less important than liking what we are doing. It seems that agricultural production is an occupation that makes most of its participants happy.

Even though fraught with stress, farming is fulfilling. Life on a farm or ranch is a good thing!

Rosmann is a psychologist who lives with his wife on their Harlan, Iowa farm. Contact him at www.agbehavioralhealth.com.