Farm & Ranch Life
By Dr. Rosmann
Sustainable agriculture, public health intertwined in Scandinavia
Agriculture and the well-being of consumers will improve together with advances in sustainable farming, according to scientific experts from around the world who met in person and by teleconnections to exchange information during a conference in Odense, Denmark, this past August. The conference was entitled: Public and Occupational Health in Sustainable Agriculture.
As one of several conference presenters, I had the opportunity to make the case that understanding behavior is central to agricultural producers’ profitability and well-being. Behaviorally healthy agricultural producers are more able to make sound decisions than troubled farm and ranch producers about how to maximize production and to undertake sustainable practices that regenerate the soil and protect other necessary assets to farm.
Agricultural assets needed to farm include, foremost, the producers themselves, as well as the soil and its microbial life, the air, water, the animals that producers raise, and importantly, the health and safety of farm workers and employees in agriculturally related occupations, and the consumers of agricultural products. This broad spectrum of impacts from agriculture warrants attention for the survivability of farming in a world that is changing rapidly due to climate shifts, an increasing population, wars, and in many countries, economic strife.
The behavior sciences, such as psychology, behavioral genetics and bioinformatics, are on the cutting edge of scientific research that is bolstering knowledge about behavior. New fields are likely to emerge as investigative techniques become more sophisticated.
A highly simplified explanation of behavior science includes research that (1) quantifies farmer’s behaviors, such as counting the number of times farmers check the weather, (2) qualifies these behaviors through self-reports of the intensity of worry about the weather, (3) measures what happens as a result of increases in worry, such as reductions in their sleep, (4) identifies sites on the human genome that regulate worry and (5) determines if, and how, treatments that regulate worry actually work, such as behavior management, anxiolytic medications, and a few other methods.
Following the conference, my wife Marilyn and I, our son Jon and his wife Amanda, toured Denmark, Norway and Iceland. By choice, we spent much time in rural settings to gain exposure to agriculture in these Scandinavian countries.
Denmark exports considerably more of its agricultural products than its 5.8 million residents consume, chiefly wheat, barley, pork, dairy and seafood. Food items produced in Denmark contribute to its many Michelin-starred restaurants.
Neatly groomed farmsteads dot the 70 percent of Denmark devoted to agriculture. Where else could we have enjoyed a farmstead B&B with Scottish Highlander cattle grazing outside one window of our suite, and a working commercial harbor outside another window.
Production of grain and livestock are not prominent features of agriculture in Norway and Iceland, largely due to the lack of arable land. Fishing in the North Atlantic Ocean is their main food-producing enterprise. The cod, shrimp and whale sausage we tried were tasty, but the pickled shark we sampled in Norway was a one-time experience.
Some farms in Norway are perched on steep mountainsides that furnish tiny parcels of usable land for raising grain, hay and maybe a few sheep, goats and vegetables. Yet, Norway imports only 10 percent of its food, because farmers make the best possible use of the 7 percent of terrain suitable for agriculture to feed its 5.8 million residents.
Iceland’s 2,000 farms in a country of 380,000 people rely on volcanic soil that is rich in nutrients but has limited organic matter; the short growing season restricts production mostly to wheat, sheep, dairy and beef cattle, vegetables suited to cold climates like cabbage, and trees. The country has launched a vigorous campaign to produce sufficient wood fibers for its needs.
I interviewed six residents of Denmark, four Norwegians, and three Icelanders about U.S. agriculture in contrast to their own countries. Everyone said that U.S. farmers produce much food, but rely excessively on pesticides. They said the mental health of agricultural producers is important.
When I asked the interviewees about their views of America, everyone answered my questions, including one Norwegian who said discussing personal views is considered rude, yet he seemed candid with me.
All but one person said the image of America has improved since President Joe Biden took office in 2021. Seven of 13 interviewees said they worry that democracy is endangered in the United States. They mostly blamed former President Donald Trump for this circumstance; the remainder didn’t have an opinion.
One person, a middle-aged pipe fitter who grew up on a farm in Iceland and moved with his family recently to Norway, stated, “Trump kept America out of war…he likes false news. Democracy, what’s that? I like socialism.”
My impressions from this two-week trip? Behavioral health is important to people in Denmark, Norway and Iceland. They are well informed about U.S. agriculture. They follow American politics closely and many are concerned about their environments. Many residents worry that America’s democracy is currently at risk and what that could mean for them.
The author is a psychologist/farmer at Harlan, Iowa. Dr. Rosmann’s email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.