Tips to make it manageable

Jim Lutz, who has a small family fruit and vegetable operation, looks over one of the fields where heavy rains washed away part of his sweet corn crop. Unanticipated weather conditions, such as the major flooding in the Midwest last summer, can add a significant amount of stress to a farmer’s already stressful life. (Below) A closer look at Jim Lutz’s sweet corn field last summer. Lutz was lucky that he escaped the major flooding that devastated crops and resulted in the loss of homes in many parts of the Midwest.

Stress is a way of life for commercial fruit and vegetable growers. They are constantly subject to stressors such as changing weather conditions, insect pests and diseases, below-market prices, increasingly complex government regulations and failed crops.

A closer look at Jim Lutz’s sweet corn field last summer. Lutz was lucky that he escaped the major flooding that devastated crops and resulted in the loss of homes in many parts of the Midwest.

Most of the time, growers don’t even think about the stress they are under, until one day they wind up with a heart attack; a serious, preventable injury occurs; or, too many stressors at once result in an emotional breakdown.

“One observation I can make is that we have found that people on farms have often not considered that they may have stress-related problems. When they take a workshop or a stress assessment it increases their awareness, at least for a time. When they are reassessed, they report less stress. This has happened on every assessment. It would tell me that whatever it takes to develop awareness is OK and necessary,” says Pamela Elkind, director of the Eastern Washington University Center for Farm Health and Safety.

Elkind and other researchers have also found that stress can result in risky, injury-causing behavior. “As to connections between stress and risky behavior, I’ve stated in several places that people report taking risks when they are tired, overworked or working alone with a deadline,” she says.

Stress is a person’s reaction to something that is considered a challenge or a threat. When a person is under stress, their body begins reacting in different ways. Blood circulation may increase, but digestion may deteriorate. You may get headaches, be unable to sleep, or wind up with an ulcer or a heart attack.

Stress can also wear you down or cause you to make poor decisions, ones that could result in you or someone else losing a life. For example, you roll over your tractor at a high speed, back a skid steer loader into one of your workers, or even run over a child on your fruit or vegetable farm because you were distracted and didn’t take the time to make sure the path was clear.

Tips to manage stress

  • Make a list of what is causing stress in your life.
  • Determine how serious a problem stress is for you. For example, is it affecting your relationship with family members? Has it affected your health? Has it resulted in rushing, taking shortcuts or engaging in other risky behaviors that either caused an injury or other accident?
  • Learn how to recognize stressors. Stress might result in a physical reaction such as a stomachache, a severe headache or a tightening of the neck or shoulders.
  • Go back to the list you made and mark off which items you can control and which items you cannot control. You can’t control the weather or a death in the family, but you may be able to control machinery breakdowns by maintaining your equipment and machinery in good repair; determine your most profitable enterprises (by seeking assistance, if needed, from your banker or another person with expertise in financial matters); and watch your use of alcohol and other drugs. Then, focus on reducing stress from the stressors you can control.
  • Recognize any destructive behaviors you engage in to alleviate stress. Do you take it out on your spouse or your children? Do you drive faster than you should on the highway? Do you take shortcuts, such as failing to use the seatbelt and rollover protective structure (ROPS) on your tractor or fail to be sure the power takeoff (PTO) has completely stopped rotating before you get off?
  • Break down big problems into smaller parts, then tackle one part at a time rather than becoming overwhelmed.
  • Know your limits. There is only so much you can accomplish in a day. Don’t try to squeeze in even more work that can’t realistically be completed.
  • Delegate tasks to others when you can. Don’t take on everything yourself.
  • Allow yourself to take short breaks.
  • Take care of yourself. Eat properly, get exercise and try to get enough sleep at night.
  • Reach out for assistance when you feel the stress building up. Finding someone you can talk to about the cause of your stress can help.
  • Find some time for play. Whether it is going to a movie, coaching a school sports teams or engaging in sports activities you enjoy, it can help take your mind off of your problems and result in more balance in your life.
  • Take advantage of the resources that are available. Check with your county agent or extension service agent on whether any stress assessment workshops, rural hotlines or other resources are available in your area. Another good resource on job-related stress is the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s (NIOSH) publication entitled “STRESS … At Work.” This booklet (NIOSH Publication No. 99-101) can be downloaded at no cost in English or Spanish from

Barbara Mulhern is a Belleville, Wis.-based freelance writer.

Questions Used to Determine Farm Stress

Editor’s note: Various researchers and organizations have developed criteria to help determine the amount of stress a farmer is facing. The items below, reprinted with permission from Pamela Elkind, director of the Eastern Washington University Center for Farm Health and Safety, are among those that could potentially cause stress in managing farm operations.

    Management Scale

  • Determining the most profitable ranch and farm enterprises
  • Having enough information to make important decisions
  • Too much or too little time spent on record-keeping
  • Difficulty in establishing long-range farm operation goals

    Health Scale

  • Major illness or accident (yourself or others)
  • Alcohol and other drug use, abuse or addiction (yourself or others)
  • Death in family
  • Lack of health care providers
  • Transfer of farm from one generation to the next
  • Family conflicts
  • Responsibility for dependent relatives (young or elderly)

    Control Scale

  • Weather
  • Poor crops
  • Machinery breakdown

    Finances Scale

  • High interest rates on debt
  • Off-farm employment to make ends meet
  • Inability to obtain credit
  • Debt load

    Government Scale

  • Uncertainty of foreign international markets
  • Government regulations or policy shift
  • Transporting of crops (roads and rail)
  • Cost of machinery or production

    Farm Problems Scale

  • Soil erosion
  • Inability to hire and keep good laborers
  • Use of dangerous chemicals
  • Use of dangerous machinery
  • Death of a valuable animal