No farmer wants to ring in a New Year still worried about last year’s crop. Unfavorable weather and trade disruptions made 2019 a challenging year for farmers across Michigan, most of whom are hoping for a smoother 2020 after the ball drops in Times Square.

A member of the St. Joseph County Farm Bureau, Rich Baker raises seed corn, soybeans and swine near Sturgis. He said 2019 was his most challenging year to date.

“We fought mud all spring, drought mid-summer and mud all fall,” he said. “Everything took twice as long to do the same task.”

Ashley Messing Kennedy’s troubling year began at the end of 2018. The Huron County dairy farmer started 2019 battling her own postpartum depression and anxiety while grieving over a close friend and farm employee who died of suicide.

At first Kennedy coped by staying busy, fixing farm problems on her own and rarely asking for help. But six months later, she knew something wasn’t right.

“I realized I wasn’t okay,” Kennedy said. “I was sick to my stomach and not wanting to eat. I didn’t feel like being social, preferring to stay home and avoid people.

“For me — an extrovert — that was a big warning sign. I’ve always loved being around others.”

She arrived at that conclusion on her own, even though family members, especially her husband, had gently mentioned that she wasn’t seeming like herself.

“Even if you don’t say the perfect thing, it’s important that you still try to reach out when you see someone struggling.”

According to Michigan State University Extension, signs of stress differ, but some things to look for include:

  • Emotional changes — showing little enthusiasm or energy, anxiety, loss of spirit, depression or loss of humor
  • Changes in attitudes — becoming more critical or agitated over small things, lacking concentration, or having trouble making decisions
  • Behavioral changes — quieter than usual, trouble sleeping, missing social events or important meetings
  • Changes on the farm — increased accidents or declining care given to livestock, machinery, fields or even peers

It’s one thing for farmers to identify stress in themselves and others, but once recognized, action is then vital for managing stress before it’s beyond control.

Find Your Community

Baker manages his on-farm stress through a small community of peers he knows he can call on, even if he just needs to vent.

Some in his network have just been through more seasons than he’s seen, and help by sharing how they’ve weathered similar storms in the past. They offer support and help him identify stress in other farmers, getting his group together to take them out to lunch and work through whatever issues are keeping them up at night.

For Kennedy, having a community that understands you is huge. Just knowing you aren’t in it alone relieves a good deal of stress.

Find Your Joy

“One strategy for anyone struggling with stress is to find something that brings you joy — outside the farm,” Kennedy said.

For her, that’s her Saturday morning running group.

“Running’s been a game-changer for me. It’s so important to interact with people, face-to-face, that you don’t normally engage with. Whatever that is for you, do it — take time to get off the farm and walk away for a while. It will be there tomorrow.”

Let Pros be Pros

Baker’s stress-management tactic of choice is talking with others.

“You can’t just bottle things up,” he said. “If you don’t have a built-in network of farmers, go talk to a professional. In some cases that may be even more beneficial because their opinions may be more impartial.”

For Kennedy, seeing her doctor was crucial to moving forward.

“Even though I’ve always been a huge proponent of mental health, it’s easy to give advice and not take it,” she said. “Talking to my doctor about what was going on was tough — one of the hardest things I’ve ever done — but also one of the best.”

Kennedy said one of the important benefits of working with a professional is they listen and offer strategies without judgement.

“Talking to someone you don’t know well may seem overwhelming, but we often forget professionals have the training to give you the next step,” she said. “Giving them a chance to do their job is really valuable and, while it may not be comfortable, it’s worth it.”

Seek Resources

Providing Young Farmers with stress-management resources was a priority for members of MFB’s State Young Farmer Committee in planning the upcoming 2020 Young Farmers Leaders Conference, Feb. 21-23 near Traverse City.

On site all day Saturday at the event will be Barb Smith — a resource for anyone who wants to talk. Executive director of the Barb Smith Suicide Resource & Response Network, she will also present a breakout session about recognizing the potential warning signs of suicide. (More information about the workshop is available online. Register with your county Farm Bureau before Jan. 17 to attend.)

Kennedy recommends farmers seek out local resources as well.

“Even if you don’t use them yourself, you can share them with someone who might need them,” she said.

“As we move into the New Year, it’s important to resolve to prioritize your health, and direct other farmers who are struggling to people who can help them and recognize this is something everyone will face,” Kennedy said.

“That’s the thing about mental health: so often we just act like everything’s okay, but for most people, it’s not, and we need to embrace that it’s okay to get help.”

More resources are available through MSU Extension’s Managing Farm Stress program.

Megan Sprague is Michigan Farm Bureau’s new Young Farmer Programs Specialist.