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Pushing too hard is not good for anyone’s health
When I was speaking last month at the annual meeting of the Women in Agriculture in Iowa, several women said their husbands don’t know when to quit working. The husbands insist they can’t take time away from the farm operation because no one else “can do it right” or “as well.”

One woman said, “I tell him he married me, not the farm.” Another said, “I buy tickets to football games and concerts so he has to go with me, or I go alone or with a friend. Eventually he starts to ‘get it.’ He knows we need to be together as a family.”

There are two sides to the matter, and I am familiar with both. For my first dozen years of farming I felt compelled to not take time away from farm work that needed to be completed. I learned the hard way; I lost several toes in a combine “accident” when I was overworking.

I have counseled many farm couples trying to resolve struggles over spending quality time together as a couple or family. The adage “The family that prays together stays together” can be adapted to “The family that plays together stays together.”
Why do farmers have a difficult time letting go, even if only for a few hours to days?  Dutch cultural anthropologist, Dr. Lizzy van Leeuwen suggests farmers are motivated by a genetic inclination toward perfectionism.

Lizzy stayed with Marilyn and me for 10 days in June this year. She interviewed dozens of farmers and scientific authorities, mainly in the Netherlands, but also in other European countries and, recently, in the United States. Her theory is consistent with psychological studies that showed successful farmers buckle down when faced with adversity and tenaciously rely on their own judgment.
In previous columns I often have cited Australian, Scottish and American studies that helped give rise to the contention that an inherited drive, called the agrarian imperative, instills farmers to work incredibly hard.

The traits associated with this drive have become concentrated in successful farmers and to an unknown extent, in other successful people who carry the same genetic expression. Research shows less successful people exhibit fewer characteristics of this genetic expression.

There is a downside to this genetic predisposition. Dr. van Leeuwen suggested successful farmers’ pervasive preoccupation with perfectionism and need for interpersonal control, even at the expense of themselves and their families, incline them to be more sensitive than usual to perceived criticisms.

Farmers, especially those who feel stressed, become angry toward those who disagree with them, or they assume others are judging them negatively and become unnecessarily harsh on themselves, even to the point of feeling depressed.

Dr. van Leeuwen theorized their sensitivity to criticism contributes to the high rate of suicide by farmers.

Problems in relationships and depression/suicide concerns are primary reasons farm families seek help.

An analysis of reasons why 44,000 people involved in agriculture called farm crisis hotlines and helplines affiliated with the AgriWellness network during a 26-month period (Sept. 1, 2005-Oct. 31, 2007) indicated callers were concerned about:

Marital/family problems (24.6 percent), problems in daily living (27.7), feeling depressed or suicidal (27.7), stress over finances (14.3), alcohol/drug abuse (4.9), gambling (0.6) and unclassified issues (0.2). Females initiated 54.5 percent of the calls.
The farm and ranch callers described their marital/family problems and problems in daily living as breakdowns in communication, angry outbursts – usually by an overworked husband/father – abusive treatment of others and growing disintegration of the family unit. Two percent of the callers who said they felt depressed also reported suicide attempts, plans or thoughts.

The cost of overworking is considerable. Spouses, children, parents and extended family members feel disregarded by the person who is overworking. Their willingness to help the distressed farmer gradually tapers off as they grow cynical that he/she will change.
The overworked and distressed person can experience deteriorating physical and behavioral health. Only the overworked person can decide how much work is enough. Taking time to recreate with the family and to restore one’s body and mind are investments in oneself. No one else can do that for the stressed farmer.
I have heard heartbreaking stories from aging farmers who said their main regret was they wished they had spent more time enjoying life with their families instead of working so hard. Regrets, instead of accomplishments, clouded their retirement memories.
There is still time before harvest begins, to take a vacation. There is no time like now to make a permanent behavioral change for the good of all.

Marilyn and I miss our stimulating discussions with Lizzy. She is back home, working on her next book (about farmer suicide).
Besides our intense debates, she told us her favorite times in the United States were her walks with Marilyn on the dirt road that borders the east side of our farm – she didn’t care that Marilyn had spotted mountain lion tracks on the road earlier!

Michael R. Rosmann, Ph.D. serves on the adjunct faculty of the University of Iowa, lectures across the United States and abroad and owns a row crop farm in Harlan, Iowa.
He is also a founding partner of the nonprofit network AgriWellness, Inc.

Send your thoughts and questions to him by email at – previously published columns are available for a small fee 30 days after they were originally printed, at www.agbe