Dairy calf and farmer (copy)

Working with animals is one of the benefits of life on the farm.

Coal mining, high finance and professional sports have something in common — they make awful retirement careers.

You know what type of work people do take up when they retire? Volunteering and light retail, of course, but sometimes also farming.

No wonder. The Washington Post reported Jan. 6 that agriculture and forestry are the fields where people say they find the greatest happiness, most meaning and least stress in their jobs.

This makes sense. Livestock farmers often tell me how much they enjoy working with animals. Crop farmers speak with almost parental affection for soil microbes invisible to the naked eye. And many farmers consider feeding people to be nothing less than a divine calling.

But wait. We’ve spent the past five years talking about how many farmers are stressed out, burned out and ready to give up. Have we poured thousands of taxpayer dollars into suicide hotlines for the happiest people in America?

Yes and no. Agriculture’s potent rewards are inseparable from its heavy challenges, such as farmers’ limited control over the prices they receive, and the long hours and hectic pace of planting and harvesting.

The blessings and burdens of agriculture are most clearly combined in the sense of responsibility farmers feel for sustaining a family legacy and passing it on to their children.

Farmers’ deep attachment to their work gives them a sense of purpose, but it also means that if they must leave their job, they will probably be giving up a bigger part of their identity than the average warehouse worker who gets laid off.

Agriculture is well known for having one of the highest suicide rates of any industry, but we shouldn’t frame this as a uniquely agricultural problem.

Construction, resource extraction and automotive repair all have higher suicide rates than farming, and age, race and sexual identity are important variables too. Farmers are not alone in feeling alone.

But if we know the conditions that may get people down, we also have some ideas about how to lift people’s spirits.

As part of its work-satisfaction analysis, the Post analyzed the locations where jobs were performed. Work done in houses of worship scored the best on happiness, meaning and stress, but outdoor jobs were a close second.

Getting into nature, whether in the backcountry or a city park, has been linked to reduced stress, improved mood and other benefits, according to the American Psychological Association.

The Post didn’t assess whether working with plants and animals correlated with positive outcomes, but some research points in that direction — as would any number of testimonials from farmers, gardeners and pet owners.

So while any kind of job can provide fulfillment, farmers get to work in a peaceful setting, with family and living things, and to grow food for others to enjoy. That’s a combination that few people have access to these days.

This might be stretching the Washington Post data here, but there’s a chance that even in the bad times on the farm, when machinery breaks or a heifer escapes, you still might be happier and less stressed than if you were working anywhere else. That says something about the profound value of life on the farm.

To reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, dial 988. You may not be connected with a counselor immediately, but according to NPR, the average wait time is less than a minute.