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During drought, farmers must also manage stress

Issue Date: March 26, 2014
By Christine Souza

Times are tough. Drought and resulting water shortages leave farmers and ranchers looking at unplanted fields, dried-out pastures and the prospect of reduced production and income. And it is only March, meaning there's a long way to go to get through the summer months. Stress and worry may build.

California Farm Bureau Federation Rural Health and Safety Committee Chair Stacy Gore, a farmer from Butte County, suggests that farmers, ranchers, family members and friends recognize and alleviate stress associated with suffering through this prolonged disaster.

"This drought is a statewide problem. It is going to potentially affect us all," he said. "It's going to be hard and stressful."

For Gore, this year's drought means less income for his family and the possibility that he may not hire as many seasonal employees as he has in the past.

"The stress for me is, I'm not going to pull in as many total dollars for my family. If I run the rest of my life pretty efficiently, I think I'll be OK, but I don't know about those seasonal guys that I am unable to hire this year," Gore said. "We've got to watch out for our friends and neighbors. If they are feeling down, give them a word of encouragement."

Farmers and ranchers must pay attention to stress and find ways to alleviate it, he said.

"We in agriculture talk about taking care of our families, our communities, our schools and other responsibilities, but don't ignore yourself," Gore said. "You've got to start with you first. You've got to take care of your health."

Water is the key to success in agriculture, so having little to no access to such an important yet uncertain resource is troubling.

"Even for people who have said, 'I have a pump and a well,' we're finding out that some haven't run them in such a long time, they are worried that the pumps are not going to work properly or they worry constantly about the potential for breakdowns," said Barry Bedwell, president of the Fresno-based California Grape and Tree Fruit League.

Marc Schenker, University of California, Davis, professor of public health, science and medicine and Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety director, said communication is an important tool.

"Facilitating that (communication) is quite valuable, so people don't feel isolated. It always helps just in a general sense with stress and isolation," Schenker said. "We know that isolation exacerbates, if not causes, the stress and depression that happen from things like this, and countering that is very important."

Sheep rancher Dan Macon of Auburn started a Facebook group, "Farmer-Rancher Drought Forum," to help farmers and ranchers cope with the drought.

"It is like a virtual coffee shop. There is a sense that, 'All of my neighbors are going through this, too, and it's hard on all of us,'" Macon said. "It can be very isolating if you are thinking you are the only one having to sell cows, sell sheep or fallow a field. When you start realizing that everybody else has to deal with the same stuff, it helps."

Macon also emphasized the importance for people to talk.

"Sharing what is going on not only helps other people realize that they are not in this alone, but it is therapeutic to talk about it," he said.

Talking to fellow farmers and ranchers, Macon added, can lead to idea sharing and problem solving.

"Part of the debilitating thing about drought is not making a decision. It really helps to see other people that are making decisions, even if they are tough ones, to know, 'That's what I need to be doing too,'" he said.

Impacts of drought or other natural disasters can strain a farming operation, but also individuals, their families and other relationships, said Robert Fetsch, professor and Extension specialist emeritus at Colorado State University, who has written about farm families affected by drought.

"Regarding the drought in California, we know from family stress research that if farmers and ranchers do nothing different than they usually do to address the drought, in three to five years about one-third will be better off, about one-third will be about the same and about one-third will be worse off than they are today," Fetsch said.

He said farmers and ranchers can improve their likelihood of being better off if they and their families do three things: manage the "pileup" of stresses and strains, use internal and external resources well, and shift negative perceptions and meanings of the drought to positive ones.

Fetsch's suggestions for coping with stress include: Make wise management decisions by choosing the best way to decide; draw strength from places of peace; make your relationship with a partner a positive strength you can count on; and listen to what others say and how they feel.

Past studies on the topic, Fetsch said, indicate farming is one of the top 12 high-stress occupations. In comparisons of rural and urban families, Fetsch indicated that rural husbands and wives reported that financial and business strains contribute to a majority of their stress, while urban families reported intra-family strains contributed to most of theirs. He also found that with unique stressors also come notable strengths in farm and ranch families.

"In addition to external support from family members, hardiness was identified as a characteristic of many resilient farm and ranch families," Fetsch wrote, adding that farmers have effective coping strategies such as "a sense of commitment to work together to manage and solve problems."

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Among available online resources for recognizing signs of stress and ways to cope:

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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