The Farmer’s Mind

How Farm Aid addresses economic and emotional needs of farmers.

Posted Feb 15, 2019

“Rain on the scarecrow

Blood on the plow

This land fed a nation

This land made me proud

And son I'm just sorry there's no legacy for you now”

—From “Rain on the Scarecrow” by John Mellencamp

Farmers do not want help. Farmers do not need help. Farmers just want to be free to do what they love—grow the food that sustains us.

Photo by Lise Metzger
Source: Photo by Lise Metzger

Unfortunately, from the Soviet grain embargo that fueled the Farm Crisis of the ‘80s to the Trump administration’s current tariffs on products such as soybeans, there is a long history of government involvement that reduces farmers’ freedom to set what they consider to be a fair price. As a result, some farms—particularly smaller family farms—cease to be economically viable, such that farmers face not only severe financial distress, but also the emotional distress of losing their livelihood, home and community.

To better understand the unique financial and emotional stressors with which family farmers struggle, I spoke with several farmers affiliated with Farm Aid, an advocacy organization that brings attention to and provides support for the challenges farmers face. One of the first things that struck me was the special bond that a farmer has with his or her work. Farming is often a family business passed down through generations, in which the farmers both work and live on their land. The connection to one’s farm runs deep.

“I grew up on a farm. As I grew up, I always wanted to be a farmer … And I’m 69 now and we’ve been doing it our whole life. And even though we recently sold our cows, I still consider myself a farmer, and probably always will,” Joe Greenbacker of Brookfield Farm in Durham, Connecticut, told me. “I think what attracted me to it and what seems to give me enjoyment is the birth of a newborn calf, and the ability to work outside on a nice sunny day, the satisfaction of a completed harvest. Those kind of things have no monetary value, but have a lot of satisfaction involved with them.”

Much of the satisfying work of farming is done independently, such that sustained and solitary hard work can facilitate a very relaxed, meditative flow. And yet this independence can have a dark side, as farmers are often isolated, and the stress of farming can feel like a lonely burden.

“One thing that is different is that farmers tend to work by themselves. And it’s not like working for some big company. Even though there’s family nearby, there’s large sections of the day working by myself,” Greenbacker said. “There’s a lot to think about when you’re riding the tractor by yourself. What’s the milk check going to be this month? Am I going to be able to pay my bills? Harvest time is generally a very stressful time.”

One of the major reasons that harvest time can be uniquely stressful is that farmers must often leverage a great deal of money up front in order to pay for equipment, animal care and feed, seeds, etc., with the goal of making the money back after they sell their harvest. Farmers face many factors beyond their control that might interfere with their harvest. For example, the recent government shutdown threatened many farmers’ ability to get loans to buy seed and fertilizer for the upcoming season. Further, climate change including rising temperatures may affect crop yield and weather extremes can bring floods, drought, hurricanes and other disasters.

“What’s different about farming is that most often, farmers have to have money up front to get through the season. You can’t farm without credit up front. And in order to get credit, you have to leverage all of your land—all of your assets—in case you can’t pay the bank back. So they have to get credit. They have to have operating loans every year to survive. The vulnerability of farmers—they’re powerless to the forces that control their stability. Any weather event could wipe out a year,” Joe Schroeder, Farm Aid’s farm advocate, explained. “And it’s hard to come back from one year of crisis. It’s almost impossible to come back from two years of uncertainty. Maybe they’ve had a great relationship with a bank that’s trusted them. They get a new banker come in … and they want to get rid of all the risky loans on their portfolio.

“Most of us in our work don’t have those types of pressures.”

Adding to the sense of loss of control is the reality that corporate interests and government policies influence the price of goods. “The policies causing problems for the farmers are being driven by processors and corporate interests. They want to buy as cheap as they can buy because it increases their profits. And so to buy from a farmer below the cost of production—[processors and buyers] like it. And they think the government should send a subsidy check to keep the farmer in business. So low farm prices are bought and paid for by corporate America,” David Senter of the American Agricultural Movement and Farm Aid’s historian, described. “There’s no competition in the marketplace any more. You have a couple of companies that control 90% of all the grain that moves in the world. So they dictate what farmers get paid. Now if you have a farmers market, or you sell local … the farmers set a price on that product. And they set a price that’s livable for them … Other farmers, you grow a crop, and then when you take it into market you have no control over what you’re paid … so it’s out of their control.”

Farmers would often go bankrupt because of these financial policies, and blame themselves for their financial difficulties, rather than attribute the outcome to the external financial forces. “When Farm Aid got started in 1985, we were in the midst of a major farm crisis—farm foreclosures, suicides were increasing … What you find is that so many of these farmers are on inherited farm ground … passed through multiple family members,” Senter said. “When they lose that farm, when they’re facing foreclosure, then they’re told, and they believe, that it’s their fault, when it’s really failed policy. Low prices are the reason they went bankrupt. But they felt that it was something that they did wrong – that they didn’t protect it.”

More, because farmers often live on their farm, losing one’s farm can result in immediate loss of one’s home and community. “They lose their home too. If you’re working in town and the company goes bankrupt, you still live in a house, your kids still go to the same school. A family farm—they lose their home, they lose their land,” Senter described. “I’ve seen them find jobs driving trucks, welding, doing mechanic work, or construction work. They can sometimes find work, but not where they live.”

Further, while many people’s financial misfortune is private, farmers’ difficulties were often public. “When Farm Aid started, it was very desperate times. Farms were being auctioned off on the front page of the paper … There was a tremendous amount of victimization of the farmer at the time. The farmer was being blamed for being a bad business person,” Carolyn Mugar director of Farm Aid, explained. “So farmers were taking it upon themselves that they were failures. And that is an ingredient for going down the real wrong road. If you start thinking of yourself that way you can really land in a bad place.”

And this is where the independent spirit of a farmer may actually be counterproductive. “Farming was all they ever wanted to do. They wanted to farm the ground and pass it on to the next generation and when they lose that they have lost their way because they were independent people who made their own decisions,” Senter said. “And farmers are independent. They don’t want anyone to know their business. They are embarrassed if they are being foreclosed on and they don’t want neighbors to know about it. And they stop going to church … and so they disengage. And they turn inward.”

“They would just shut down.”

Mugar feels that the urge to isolate contributed to depression and suicide, particularly among male farmers. “A lot of times husbands wouldn’t admit that there was a problem—that there was despair. The women would talk about it,” Mugar explained. “Farmers are very independent—much to their credit. But anything taken to an extreme can be a disadvantage. Suicide is the last tip of the problem. If people feel that they have no power and no way out … hopelessness.”

The closing of family farms can impact an entire community. “The small rural towns have basically closed up. I used to go through rural America and I could go to farm meetings all over back in the 70’s and 80’s. And there’d be churches that would have their own community school. There’d be businesses. There’d be a store on Main Street,” Senter recalled. “You can drive back through those same towns. There might be a dollar store and there might be a place to buy gas where you can buy a sandwich out of a refrigerator. Nothing else—it’s all boarded up. Even the churches have closed. And now there might be one church where all the different congregations come together because they can’t afford … and there’s one county school. So these communities have lost farmers, they lost students in schools. They lost business in that community. Plus they lost that church community that they grew up with, that pastor that could talk and help and support a family in stress. There’s not a pharmacy in town, there’s not a doctor in town. There’s even counties without a pharmacy or doctor. So to get mental counseling, to get help to some of those isolated families it’s very difficult if not impossible.”

Compounding the difficulty is the lack of mental health services that farmers and their families could previously get through various government and private organizations. “In the 80’s farm crisis, when we were losing thousands of farms to foreclosure … we had an enormous network of mental health professionals,” Schroeder explained. “And we had vouchers issued by states and a huge host of organizations so that someone like me can pick up the phone and say I’m going to get you and your family therapy.

“That doesn’t exist anymore.”

So what can be done?

The overwhelming consensus of the people with whom I spoke at Farm Aid is that there needs to be recognition that family farmers simply want control over their own destiny, without government interference. Senter makes it clear that the subsidies provided by the current administration, particularly the “bailout” payments intended to compensate for the damage done to export markets through trade wars, do not reflect what he feels are the goals of most farmers.

“Farmers don’t want a subsidy check. They want a fair price in the market place,” Senter said. “I think that it’s a national security issue. We need to be self-sufficient in food production here in the United States … So why don’t we have a fair price for farm commodities? We could, and it would cost less than what we have now—sending checks to subsidize farmers.”

Schroeder’s experience of direct advocacy work with farmers has led him to the same conclusion. And he feels that it is critical that those providing advocacy have a deep understanding of what the farmers are going through.  

“They never ask me for money … Farmers don’t want money. They’re not asking for a handout. And I think that’s unique. They want to know how they can fight the bank. They want to know how they can work harder to get out of their scenario. They’re not looking for an easy way out," Schroeder explained. “They call embarrassed. It’s a brick wall until I start breaking it down … Asking a farmer about their finances is akin to asking someone what happens in their bedroom. They can tell I’m concerned about them. And that means something—it changes the dynamic. It shifts their energy and they open up. And they realize they haven’t talked to anybody about this. That process will often get them out of that mindset … You have to be genuine, you have to be there. You have to make sure they understand you’re there for them. If they call me, we’ve already broken through that isolation.”

“They’re on the path.”

Ultimately, Mugar feels that we must clear the pathway for family farmers by changing government policy to put the interests of family farmers, eaters above the interests of big agribusiness, as current US farm policy is wreaking havoc on farm communities across the country and around the globe. Farm Aid supports farm policy that secures the economic livelihood of family farms—not through subsidies but a fair price for farmers—and steers US agriculture in a new direction that restores our soil and water, provides good, healthful food for all, and that strengthens local communities.

“Right now, farmers need to know that they’re not alone—that their fellow farmers are experiencing the same thing. There’s so many ways of taking that first step. But ultimately what will make a difference is people realizing that they are not at fault—that this is a systemic problem, that farmers are not being treated fairly,” Mugar described. “And once you get people turned around that they can do something about it … People working together to bring about a change is what it is. Our whole tenet is that we must come together to bring about change, and you give people the ability to see that.

“And they can find out they do have a chance.”