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Mike Rosmann, Published July 25 2013

Rosmann: Are farmers the biggest risk takers?

When I attended the International Society of Agricultural Safety and Health conference in Sandusky, Ohio, last month, it was made abundantly clear by several invited presenters that farmers are prone to taking risks with their farm operations, investments, health and general well-being.

Viewing the premiere of the 90-minute Iowa Public Television documentary on the farm crisis of the 1980s confirmed the impression that farmers take substantial risks, sometimes when they shouldn’t. The program was broadcast on IPTV on July 1.

Land prices rose in the 1970s when producers were encouraged to plant fencerow to fencerow by Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz. Farmers made profits at first.

Many purchased more land and larger equipment during the latter ’70s and early ’80s. Exports of grain soared when Russia made large purchases. Commodity and land prices ballooned.

Commodity prices fell after President Carter embargoed grain sales to Russia in 1980 to protest Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan. The subsequent Reagan era ushered in a period when the Federal Reserve allowed interest rates to rise, with some lenders charging up to 21 percent for marginalized borrowers.

Many farmers couldn’t make their payments. In two years, Midwestern farmland prices plummeted to half their earlier peak.

Why do farmers take risks? Presenters at the ISASH meeting indicated many farm youths, especially males, think it’s cool when a person they admire takes chances and escapes injury. So what if their hero tempts a mean bull in a rodeo or races an ATV on dirt roads without a helmet.

A psychological explanation called social learning theory purports that observers are inclined to watch and follow in the footsteps of admired persons. They want to do daring things too and reap similar esteem from observers.

Psychological trait research suggests farmers are among the greatest risk-takers. Taking risks, along with high tolerance for adversity, self-reliance, and capacity for hard work and perseverance are traits that are linked with success in farming, according to studies of Australian and Scottish farmers. Taking risks is more characteristic of farming than many other occupations.

Genetic research indicates taking risks is encoded in some people’s genes, especially farmers. Dr. Dan Eisenberg, an anthropologist at Northwestern University, studied Kenyan nomads who herded livestock and who recently had settled into villages in their country.

In his 2008 study, Eisenberg found nomadic farmers had a surprisingly high (1 in 5) rate of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which is associated with a specific gene mutation.

ADHD, as is well-known, is associated with a high activity level, reduced need for sleep, and a greater propensity for injuries than for non-ADHD, probably due to impulsiveness and risk-taking. Eisenberg speculated nomadic cattle herders with the ADHD gene were more alert for dangers to their livestock.

Eisenberg also examined Kenyan nomads who still herded cattle and goats. Those with the ADHD gene were better nourished than those without the gene. Perhaps the genetic mutation contributed to higher success raising livestock, thereby producing more available income and food.

Other researchers reported investigation results to Eisenberg’s findings, giving rise to the speculation that many of us may carry remnants of the ADHD gene in our makeup, and even more likely for farmers. If we look at who constitutes North American farmers, we find many European and Asian ancestors who took the risk of emigrating from countries where they had little chance of owning land to find opportunities for farming their own land in a foreign location. That took courage and willingness to assume risks.

The explanation is different for most Africans who were forced to come to North America to work as slaves. But the argument can be made that those who survived their harsh treatment aboard slave ships – and later – on plantations, were probably better nourished and able to endure adversities. Perhaps the ADHD gene had a role in those who survived.

A May 2013 article in Psychology Today suggests people with ADHD are better suited for life in open spaces with a variety of activities and hard work, such as are entailed in farming, than in cubicles with repetitive sedentary jobs.

Taken together, there is considerable evidence that farmers and ranchers today are high risks-takers. If anything, selection of the most successful agricultural producers across previous generations has probably concentrated risk-taking proclivities in the agricultural population.

The IPTV program, “The Farm Crisis,” accurately tells the story of the 1980s’ agricultural turmoil that reduced the number of Midwestern farm operations by one-third and it asks what, if anything, we learned from the crisis. See the program yourself for the answer.

“The Farm Crisis” takes a calculated look at government actions and agricultural producers to reach its conclusion. Perhaps ask your state public television station to contact IPTV for rights to show the documentary. IPTV says it will repeat the broadcast in Iowa.

Rosmann lives on a farm near Harlan, Iowa. He contributed to ‘The Farm Crisis’ program, produced by Iowa farm resident Laurel Burgmaier for IPTV.