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Mike Rosmann, Published August 29 2013

Rosmann: Farmers tend to push themselves too hard

When I was speaking last month at the annual meeting of the Women in Agriculture in Iowa, several wives said their husbands don’t know when to quit working. The husbands insist they can’t take time away from the farm operation because no one else “can do it right” or “as well.”

One woman said “I tell him he married me, not the farm.” Another said, “I buy tickets to football games and concerts so he has to go with me, or I go alone or with a friend. Eventually, he starts to ‘get it.’ He knows we need to be together as a family.”

There are two sides to the matter, and I am familiar with both. For my first dozen years of farming, I felt compelled to not take time away from farm work that needed to be completed. I learned “the hard way.” I lost several toes in a combine “accident” when I was overworking.

I have counseled many farm couples trying to resolve struggles over spending quality time together as a couple or family. The adage, “The family that prays together stays together,” can be adapted to “The family that plays together stays together.”

Why do farmers have a difficult time “letting go,” even if only for a few hours or days? Dutch cultural anthropologist Dr. Lizzy van Leeuwen suggests that farmers are motivated by a genetic inclination toward perfectionism.

Van Leeuwen stayed with Marilyn and me for 10 days in June this year. Van Leeuwen interviewed dozens of farmers and scientific authorities, mainly in the Netherlands, but also in other European countries and recently in the U.S.

Her theory is consistent with psychological studies that showed successful farmers buckle down when faced with adversity and tenaciously rely on their own judgment. In previous articles I often have cited Australian, Scottish and American studies that helped give rise to the contention that an inherited drive, called the Agrarian Imperative, instills in farmers the push to work incredibly hard.

The traits associated with this drive have become concentrated in successful farmers, and to an unknown extent in other successful persons, who carry the same genetic expression. Research shows less successful persons exhibit fewer characteristics of this genetic expression.

There is a downside to this genetic predisposition. Van Leeuwen suggested successful farmers’ pervasive preoccupation with perfectionism and need for interpersonal control, even at the expense of themselves and their families, incline them to be more sensitive than usual to perceived criticisms.

Farmers, especially those who feel stressed, become angry toward people who disagree with them or when they assume others are judging them negatively. Van Leeuwen theorized their sensitivity to criticism contributes to the high rate of suicide by farmers.

Problems in relationships and depression/suicide concerns are primary reasons why farm families seek help. An analysis of reasons why 44,000 persons involved in agriculture called farm crisis hotlines and helplines affiliated with the AgriWellness network during a 26-month period (Sept. 1, 2005, to Oct. 31, 2007) indicated that callers were concerned about marital/family problems (24.6 percent); problems in daily living (27.7 percent); feeling depressed or suicidal (27.7 percent); stress over finances (14.3 percent); alcohol/drug abuse (4.9 percent); gambling (0.6 percent); and unclassified issues (0.2 percent). Females initiated 54.5 percent of the calls.

The farm and ranch callers described their marital/family problems and problems in daily living as breakdowns in communication, angry outbursts – usually by an overworked husband/father, abusive treatment of others, and growing disintegration of the family unit. Two percent of the callers who said they felt depressed also reported suicide attempts, plans or thoughts.

The cost of overworking is considerable. Spouses, children, parents and extended family members feel disregarded by the person who is overworking. Their willingness to help the distressed farmer gradually tapers off as they grow cynical that he/she will change.

The overworked and distressed person can experience deteriorating physical and behavioral health.

Only the overworked person can decide how much work is enough. Taking time to recreate with the family and to restore one’s body and mind are investments in oneself. No one else can do that for the stressed farmer.

I have heard heartbreaking stories from aging farmers who said their main regret was they wished they had spent more time enjoying life with their families instead of working so hard. Regrets, instead of accomplishments, clouded their retirement memories.

There is still time before harvest begins to take a vacation. There is no time like now to make a permanent behavioral change for the good of all.

Marilyn and I miss our stimulating discussions with van Leeuwen. She is back home, working on her next book (about farmer suicide).

Mike Rosmann is a Harlan, Iowa, psychologist and farmer. To contact Rosmann, go online to www.agbehavioralhealth.com.