The author is a former dairy farmer from Homestead, Iowa.
Being a farmer has many rewards such as working for yourself, being outdoors, watching crops and animals grow and prosper, and working with friends, family, and neighbors. However, there are also many stresses and risks in our business.
Growing up in rural Williamsburg, Iowa, and marrying a dairy farmer’s daughter, the farm life has been an important part of who we are. For a few years after high school, we moved south to the Atlanta, Ga., area for work, but we missed our families and the Iowa lifestyle. When we moved back to Homestead, there were just 12 other dairy farm operations in Iowa County. We farmed for seven years, managing a herd of about 40 dairy cattle and 160 acres of corn and soybeans.
My wife, Lynn, and I worked side by side for those seven years, milking cows three times a day, watching our budget closely, and praying every day for guidance as the dairy industry spiraled downward. She worked and still works full time in Williamsburg at our Iowa State University Extension office. Our kids helped every day, as well as my in-laws and extended family nearby. If not for our family support, we wouldn’t have lasted as long as we did.
Made an exit
We were and still are in love with dairy cattle, but we couldn’t make a living, support our three kids, and deal with the daily stress of the business. Having no control over the market, commodity prices, the weather . . . heck, control over anything . . . we made the heart-breaking decision to shut down our operation in 2009. We were losing money every single day, even though we worked as hard and as smart as we could, and it just wasn’t working.
Today, there is one dairy operation left in Iowa County. Other farm families like ours have followed suit over the years, making that terribly hard decision to get out of farming. Knowing that someone is always counting on us . . . our families, neighbors, and Americans who drink milk and eat from the Midwest’s breadbasket . . . puts an amazing amount of stress on many farm families.
I’m not suggesting that there is a stereotype of a farmer, but in our area, there are sure traits I see in others who have farming in their blood. We are hard workers. We’re proud, stubborn, smart, innovative, and will do whatever it takes to be successful. We are also stressed. Most farmers keep things bottled up inside, don’t complain out loud, and look at seeking help for their brain health issues as a sign of weakness or shame.
A more vocal proponent
After going through our own struggles, I have become a lot more vocal about brain health. As the former chair of the Iowa County Board of Supervisors, I have gotten connected with the Mental Health and Disabilities Services East Central Region (MHDS of the ECR). It’s a nine-county region in eastern Iowa that partners between counties to provide comprehensive brain health and disability services to people of all ages in the area.
Their focus is to help individuals and families find and use healthcare support for brain health and disability issues, like depression, anxiety, and much more.
Get some help
There has been, for years and years, a strong and negative stigma about “mental health” or “mental illness,” and that stigma keeps people from seeking the treatment and medication they need. Our brains are organs, just like the rest of the organs in our bodies. If we can seek help from a doctor for diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, or other illnesses, we need to change our thinking and reduce the stigma about seeking treatment for brain health issues, too.
As farmers, we are a proud bunch. For me and my immediate and extended family, we support each other as much as we can. Our church congregation is a great source of support, too, and our neighbors are tight. But when we need help with our brain health, we reach out to doctors and other health care professionals who can assist us.
What you can do
Our advice, after living through the good times and the bad of farming, is this:
- Don’t be afraid to reach out to someone else.
- Talk about what is bothering you.
- Be there for each other.
All of us are experiencing stress, anxiety, and depression in different degrees and at different times. Someone is counting on us. We can find the support we need to be healthier for ourselves and others. It’s out there. We just need to ask for support.