STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — In every direction, coronavirus-related stress seems to be a common denominator of all segments of society right now.
Agriculture has not been immune.
While farmers continue to do their usual daily chores, plus prepare for the busy spring season of planting and harvest, the COVID-19 pandemic has dumped yet another load on their weary backs and minds. As equal partners, and sometimes the primary operator as well as family caregiver, farm women often bear more than their share of the mental and emotional overload.
“Women carry a lot of stress on a good day,” acknowledges Kathy Smith, clinical case manager at the New York Center for Agricultural Medicine and Health. “How many hats are you wearing today?” she asked farm women participating in a recent webinar.
Smith was the featured speaker during a “farminar,” an online seminar hosted April 15 by the Pennsylvania Women’s Agriculture Network and Penn State. The seminar focused on mental health and stress management for farmers during the pandemic, with suggestions from the mental health specialist on how to deal with the current “new normal” added pressures on farm families.
“It’s not the daily stress, but the continuing stress, that becomes so unhealthy,” Smith said. “We become miserable. We make bad decisions. Things can be even more stressful with having the family home all day. Or, for some, that might mean more help to get the farm work done.”
While farmers are still getting up and doing what they’ve always done every day, the societal stresses from the economic crisis spurred by unemployment, shutdowns and social distancing add additional burdens.
“Farmers have always been practicing ‘social distancing’ and that hasn’t been a big problem for them,” Smith said. “But dairy has been stressed in recent years due to the low prices and this is just making it more difficult for them.”
“We are hearing panic in our customers because they might not be able to find enough to eat,” said Sandy, a caller during the online question session, whose family sells meats at a farmers market.
“We have communicated with them that we will continue to serve our regular, loyal customers, and we’ve held things back for them,” she added.
Smith acknowledged that even going to the grocery store can be unnerving, and suggested that people make some effort to share their feelings with others about all the uncertainty.
Another caller, Joseph, talked about his concerns over farmers he knows that are having to dump milk.
“What do you say to them?” he asked, searching for words of comfort that could be shared.
Penn State’s Patricia Neiner, the host of the farminar, said that some organizations are working to get milk processed and delivered to where it is most needed. She said, however, that it may take voices from grassroots farmers to help get that process moving faster.
With dumping of milk, depressed grain and livestock prices, and produce growers uncertain about marketing, financial concerns are creating additional stress on farm families.
“Unemployment is high and people can’t pay their bills. Call your lending agencies, talk with them about possibly refinancing,” suggested Smith. She said she has heard that, in some areas, Farm Credit is working with some clients in deferring payments.
“To just sit down and not say anything about the financial issues is the worst thing you can do,” Smith advised. “Make the first call to them; don’t wait for them to call you.”
“Working at controlling emotions is important,” Smith said, of trying to counter the stress when it feels overwhelming.
“Take a deep breath, regain your sense of control over your feelings. Ask yourself how you are feeling right now. Validate and accept your emotions. Give yourself permission to reach out to others; you are not alone in this,” she reminded participants.
Deep breathing techniques, Smith said, can greatly help to ease stress and tension.
“Relax. Close your eyes. Get comfortable. Let yourself go blank. Or take a walk and practice deep breathing. Try meditation; it takes a little practice, but it can work.”
“Keep busy; don’t watch the news. It can give you COVID-overload. Don’t isolate from your family and friends. Get outside. Work on a project you’ve been putting off. Start a journal on this experience and how it’s changed your life. Your grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren will thank you someday,” Smith added, noting how much her family enjoyed reading the written accounts of personal history left behind by their 93-year-old grandmother.
“Enjoy some extra family time. Reassure your kids; give them enough information to ease their minds, but don’t overload them. Don’t feel like you have to do everything; delegate some work to them,” Smith said.
Helping others in some way can also relieve stress, said the mental health specialist.
“Let your family experience how good it feels to help others out. The more you give, the more you feel good about it,” she said.
For any farm women who wish to reach out for additional help or advice, Patricia Neiner invited them to contact her at PA-WAgN.
For additional assistance, contact these resources:
• Farm Aid Hotline at 1-800-327-6243.
• The Pennsylvania Farm Bureau at 717-761-2740.
• AgrAbility at 1-800-825-4264.
• PASA Sustainable Agriculture at 814-349-9856.
• National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), open 24/7.
• A text option is also available via the Crisis Text Line, offering free 24/7 support by texting “PA” to 741741 to text with a trained Crisis Counselor there to support people in crisis.