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Behind the picket fence: The conversation of mental health and female farmers


When you think of a farmer, often a White, mid-50s male comes to mind. Although that impression isn’t wrong, it’s also true that new data highlights the changing demographic of those involved in agriculture. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the nation has 1.2 million female producers, accounting for 36 percent of the country’s 3.4 million producers. On top of that, more than half of all farms (56 percent) had a female producer.

So, with those high percentages of women having active decision roles on the farm, why is there a lack of resources for female farmers and their mental health? 

Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. More than that, it affects how one loves, how one works, and how one handles stress. And while any gender, age group, or socioeconomic class can struggle, women are known to have specific things that uniquely affect their mental wellness.

Poor mental health can manifest in different ways, but if left unattended, it can result in farm accidents, growing inattentiveness, substance abuse problems, suicidal thoughts, mismanagement of farm finances, distancing from loved ones, physical afflictions, trouble sleeping, and an increase in isolation, just to name a few. It’s important for farmers and ranchers to break the stigma of internalizing their stress and fears and instead ask for help and talk about their struggles to avoid these negative consequences. 

Ted Matthews is the Director of Minnesota’s Rural Mental Health and has more than 30 years of experience in counseling in rural areas. His focus for the past two decades has been farmer mental health support. 

He sees the biggest change to farming in the past half century as being the role of the female farmer.

The greater impact of mental health for female farmers

Fifty years ago, women were mainly a part of the household operation and raising future farmers. Now, women are involved in every aspect of the farm — planting, harvesting, driving tractors, keeping the books, supporting the farm with a second job for insurance and stability, taking care of household chores, and many other duties on and off the farm. 

That shift has brought an increase in sacrifices for the farm and their families. 

Everyone in a farm family makes their own type of sacrifice. However, the sacrifice of the women involved in the farming operation are substantial. Not only does she support the family, work an off-farm job, but with any extra time she finds, it is dedicated to her family and the farm. According to the American Psychological Association, 41 percent of rural women are depressed or anxious, as compared with their urban counterparts at only 20 percent.

family farms
Image By Mitch Boeck, Shutterstock

Not only do women make sacrifices for the farm and prioritize family, but research has also found that farm women are more likely to talk about their partner’s health and ignore their own. On top of ignoring their own health, when it comes to female farmers, that same research showed that they experience more psychological distress than male farmers. This all goes to say that the role and sacrifice of a female farmer can not be understated. We need resources specifically made for female and male farmers to best meet their needs and communication styles. 

So when things get rough, who is the one to fix it? Who says, something is not right and we need help? 

“The truth is, more often than not, it comes down to the matriarch of the family,” Matthews said. 

“In general, when stress on the farm is there, men — just in general as human beings — tend to pull back,” he said. “The higher the stress, the more they want to pull back, the less they want to talk about it. And women, when they feel stress, they want to talk about it. The more stress they have, the more they want to talk about it.” 

Communication goes far with female farmers

To address these issues, we need to understand what can help. According to Matthews, it is all about understanding women’s sacrifices and communicating appreciation. 

“[Women] need to have people recognize the fact that they are making huge sacrifices for the farm by working off the farm to pay down the debt,” Matthews said. “If men don’t understand that, then that is when the relationship starts pulling apart further and further and further.”

Since the female role on the farm has changed, those in the industry also need to update how communication is addressed on the farm. Realizing the difference between male and females on the farm will help navigate stressful situations. For example, when a problem arises, women tend to hit the problem head on and want to discuss it directly. Her partner, on the other hand, would rather avoid talking about the issue altogether, according to Matthews. 

It doesn’t have to be said all the time, but showing appreciation will go a long way for a woman’s overall mental health. 

“What we need is to say, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you for making these sacrifices to help the farm,'” Matthews said, emphasizing the sacrifices females make to ensure the success of an agricultural operation.

Self-care is necessary

Studies have been done on the many stress factors involved in the agriculture industry. Stress can be caused from farm loans, Mother Nature, land prices, increase in feed cost, death of a family member, business transition planning, family relationships, physical demands of the job, and an increase in prices. With these proven stressors on the farm, it points to the importance of prioritizing self-care.

Self-care is the practice of taking action to preserve or improve your health. Everyone’s self-care routine will look different, but it is important to some type of established routine. For some, self-care looks like journaling, photography, a bubble bath, breathing exercises, physical activity, hobbies, eating together as a family, and other stress relieving activities. 

One that can not go unmentioned is fueling our bodies with healthy foods. Farmers are notorious for skipping on healthy foods during stressful times. 

Image by Shyntartanya, Shutterstock

This is all part of a changing dynamic across the industry, one that has evolved much in the past couple of generations. With the introduction of more technology and decrease in available labor, women have sacrificed more for the family farm. With the increase of women taking on different roles on the farm, it is vital to record their experiences and cater toward their mental health as well as their male counterparts. We need more data to better serve our fellow farmers. 

Farming can be difficult, stressful, and burdensome. However, it is a rewarding profession that allows us the opportunity to work with our families, be stewards of the lands, and give back to an environment that has given us so much. To be good farmers and ranchers, we must keep our mental health in check and balanced in the best way we can. Whether that is through a healthy self-care routine, surrounding ourselves with loved ones, or visiting with a professional who can help during our times of need. 

American farmers and ranchers are more than our profession; they are human and need to realize that mental health is more important than any piece of equipment on the farm.

If you or someone you know is struggling with anxiety, depression or another mental health challenge, you are not alone. Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to talk with trained crisis workers who are available to talk 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Kacie Hulshof, the Associate Editor for AGDAILY, is a farmer’s daughter and farmer’s wife, but most importantly an advocate for farmers and ranchers. Growing up on a farm she was able to experience all the joys and hardships that comes with that life. Her passion for agriculture grew so strong she decided to dedicate her life to telling the story of the agriculture industry. 

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