Raising food is good work, right livelihood, outdoor work in the rain, sunshine and fresh air. The physical tiredness at the end of the day can bring good sleep. Farmers contribute to production of healthy food, and get to enjoy extremely fresh food from very local farms.
And yet – some days this is not the whole story. Farming can be hard on the body, the brain and the emotions. It can be stressful trying to get a good outcome from a situation that went outside our control and took a turn for the worse. Some things we can control, others we cannot. Some things we will be able to do a better job of dealing with next time they come around. Our work is not punching out identical widgets. Seasons change, tasks change. Only for a short time each year do we need to know how to decide if a watermelon is ripe. Once in a hundred years we need to know how to deal with a one-hundred-year flood (hmm!). I have written about being prepared for and dealing with disasters in The Year-Round Hoophouse. Being prepared and having a plan of what to do when things go wrong is a very good way to manage mental and emotional stress.
First let’s talk about physical health of the musculoskeletal kind. Overdoing the hard work, making the wrong move, going beyond the limits of our bodies, and wow! Pain! Maybe even injury. After many repeats of the same action, inflammation and problems such as carpal tunnel syndrome, and over time, maybe arthritis too. Musculoskeletal pain affects bones, joints, ligaments, tendons or muscles. See the Cleveland Clinic information page.
Common symptoms include aching, stiffness, burning sensations in the muscles, fatigue, muscle twitches, pain that worsens with movement and sleep disturbances.
Home treatment can include hot and cold compresses, over-the-counter pain relievers (NSAIDs), strengthening and conditioning exercises, stretching exercises, and stress reduction techniques.
Professional treatments can include local injections with anesthetic or anti-inflammatory medications, physical or occupational therapy, acupuncture or acupressure and relaxation/ biofeedback techniques. Most people I’ve seen at physical therapy are there for sports injuries. Sports medicine offers many good exercises for people whose work has injured their bodies.
Prevention is definitely better than cure. I’m a firm believer in doing some stretches and strengthening exercises every morning. Yoga is great too. Going to the gym? Some farmers make time for this, others don’t. Here’s some more prevention tips: limit repetitive movements, or vary them, use good posture and practice correct lifting techniques. (I recommend the Alexander Technique). Alexander Technique teachers help you identify and change harmful habits of posture and body use, and learn to move more freely.
I have written some articles in Growing for Market magazine that are accessible for those with a Full Access subscription on the website. I wrote about stretching in April 2008. Julie Bradley Law wrote an article: A wintertime reset for our most important tool: our bodies. It is free to access, and recommends a few weeks of winter rest, yoga and attunement. Designed by a farmer.
For those with limited physical abilities, AgrAbility provides Assistive Technology, Resources, News, Training, Services in your State. The Toolbox: Agricultural Tools, Equipment, Machinery & Buildings for Farmers and Ranchers with Physical Disabilities is a resource that contains assistive technology solutions for farmers, ranchers, and other agricultural workers with disabilities.
Remember to get checkups. Be aware of ticks, mosquitoes, and rodents and the pest-borne illnesses they can cause. Read about Public health issues caused by pests. The EPA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have collaborated to create a thorough List of Pests of Significant Public Health Importance
Pests and diseases and climate change: as the climate chaos intensifies pests will move into new geographical ranges. We need to learn about the Zika virus, (cases in Florida and Texas in 2016-17, but none in the continental US since then). Chikungunya is another mosquito-borne virus. In 2014 and 2015, a few local-transmission chikungunya virus disease cases were found in Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Most of the cases in the US are travelers returning from countries where the disease is endemic.
Internal physical trouble
Let’s keep in mind the symptoms and treatment of heat stress. Heat stress happens when your body can’t cool itself enough. Physical activity during very hot, humid weather, and insufficient replacement of water and electrolytes cause heat stress. It can lead to heatstroke, which is a serious, life-threatening condition.
Home-made rehydration solution
Here is our recipe (“salty lemonade”):
- 8 oz water
- 8oz fruit juice (or mix concentrated lemon juice to usual lemonade strength)
- A pinch (1/8 tsp) salt
- 2 pinches (¼ tsp) baking soda
During watermelon season, a plate-sized slice of watermelon seems to do the trick!
At the other end of the risky weather is extreme cold, especially if it is wet and windy. Livestock farmers are more at risk of hypothermia, trying to save their animals under terrible conditions. Vegetable farmers don’t suffer the same degree of risk.
Our lungs are vulnerable to dusts, pollen, sprays, toxins, microbial pests like the Coronavirus, flu, prions (mad cow disease) and anthrax.. Good masks can guard against all these, as well as asthma and allergies. There are also some specific agricultural problems like farmers’ lung, an allergic disease usually caused by breathing in the dust from moldy hay, or other moldy crop.
You may remember hearing about problems with vermiculite in some potting mixes. Some vermiculite naturally includes asbestos. Farmers are at risk of exposure to asbestos through contaminated soil, vermiculite and dust from these products on farm equipment. The Mesothelioma Center provides free information: books, packets and a Patient Advocacy program that works with people individually to help them find local treatment, legal help, and support groups. If you may have been exposed to asbestos they help you find free care and support. They will send you a free printed guide to mesothelioma. Sign up at their website.
The site has a special section for farmers: Farmers and Asbestos.
New Mental Health Resources for Farmers in Stressful Times
by Matt Kneece, CFSA South Carolina Policy Coordinator Aug. 5, 2022
“However rewarding, the farming lifestyle often brings a compounding mental load that can be difficult to deal with. Fortunately, the stigmas around mental health and farm stress are breaking down, and farmers don’t have to deal with it alone. . . There are loads of resources to support producers’ physical health, but programs to support mental health are just as critical.”
South Carolina Farm Bureau is now offering access to a new program called AgriWellness including three online counseling sessions free of charge.
North Carolina Agromedicine Institute has compiled a list of resources here.
Another great resource is available through Rural Advancement Foundation International – USA, which offers a crisis hotline for farmers. When crises begin piling up, one of the most important things farmers can do is reach out for help as soon as possible. RAFI-USA’s hotline is designed to be a type of rapid-response available for farmers who need to talk to someone on short notice.
“Farming is a challenging job that can easily be impacted by factors beyond farmers’ control,” said Lisa Misch of RAFI-USA. “Anything from crop failure, natural disasters, market price changes, or family emergencies could lead to a farm crisis. If you are in crisis and need someone to talk to, please call toll-free at (866) 586-6746. The hotline is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.ET” They also provide in-depth assistance from a farmer advocate if you are in danger of losing your farm and/or home.
“In addition to the new therapeutic resources featured above, mental health experts have recommended several tips to farmers dealing with farm stress. Pursuing a healthy diet, staying active, cultivating social support, and getting enough sleep are all great steps toward protecting your mental health.”
I hope you will never need it, but if you get to that point, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or 1-800-799-4889 (deaf/hard of hearing) or text 741741 to the Crisis Text Line.
New 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Dial just 988. Available 24 hours. English or Spanish. Learn more The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline is a United States-based suicide prevention network of over 160 crisis centers that provides 24/7 service via a toll-free hotline with the number 9-8-8. It is available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress.
Veterans Crisis Line
1-800-273-TALK (8255), press ‘1’ Text 838255 Chat also available
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has info on warning signs, how to have a conversation with a loved one you are concerned about, suicide loss, and more.
I’ll leave you with this Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service link to Farm Stress Management Resources. There are educational resources, worksheets, articles, podcasts, links to support organizations, and other stress management websites.
I also took part in an interview with Jordan Marr for a podcast with The Ruminant: Audio Candy for Farmers, Gardeners and Food Lovers. It’s about farmers’ struggles with mental health problems, trying to cope with the many and varied stresses, while the public wants farmers to appear competent and blissful with all that time in the Inspiring and Nurturing Outdoors.
The Farmers Aren’t All Right. Podcast from the Ruminant. Episode 92.