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When Being “Tough” May Be Too Much

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

By Bob Kemerait

They tell me it is a good life, but life as a farmer is filled with hardship and stress many Americans can never fully understand. We admire those involved in the ag industry for many reasons, not the least of which is their tenacity. 

They remain stoic in handling the challenges which come their way. Many of them grew up believing “to be tough – both physically and mentally – was a virtue.” To soldier on through adversities and having a desire to never quit is something many people look for in their heroes.  

Personally, my heroes are farmers, and being “tough” is a double-edged sword for farmers. On one hand, it allows them to find success where others would quit in failure. On the other hand, a farmer may be unwilling, or unable, to seek help, especially when it comes to their mental health. 

The hands of a farmer

The adjacent photo is a picture I posted to social media of a farmer holding an arrowhead he had just found in his field in Georgia. 

I shared this picture because it is a “Dalton” point, which are especially old and not often found. 

Among the comments was one saying, “The arrowhead is not the only story here. The hand of the farmer tells its own story. A person’s eyes are the only thing telling more about a person than their hands. I wish I knew his stories.” 

The hand in the picture is calloused and cracked, with a hint of dirt and grease. If, as my friend believes, the hands tell so much about a person, then this hand speaks of a man who is no stranger to hard work – it speaks of “tough.” 

Tom Hall sang about such a farmer. 

“His face was lean, and his hands were rough. His way was hogs, and his nature was tough. His doctors tried to tell him he may not live at all. But, all he ever talked about was who’s going to feed them hogs.” 

Across the Chattahoochee River, another man’s family has been farming in Alabama since the 1930s. As a boy of age seven, he was being checked out of school to help with the work required at planting and harvest. 

Later, while farming on his own, he grew peanuts, wheat, oats, cotton and soybeans, while also raising cattle. Together with his wife and children, he also grew vegetables.  

As his son reminisces, it was just an ordinary day during harvest season, but is there truly an “ordinary day” given the stresses and demands of gathering a crop? 

While attempting to dislodge debris lodged in equipment, the farmer’s hand was caught resulting in the loss of a significant portion of his thumb.  Though bleeding profusely, the farmer was unwilling to leave his crew and family as they struggled against approaching storms.

Stopping to go to the hospital was out of the question. It would take too much time.   

Instead, he wrapped the wound in rags and Duct tape and continued on. Later, the thumb was beyond repair, and it took a year for the wound to heal. 

The farmer’s son says loss of fingers was not uncommon in the older generations of his family. 

“They were tough,” he said. “They had a job to do, and they kept at it. These were the hands of farmers in my family.” 

The silent killer 

Based upon the results of a survey conducted by the American Farm Bureau in 2020, an overwhelming majority of American adults – 88 percent – have trust in American farmers, likely due in part to their image of strength and resilience. 

But, there is a darker side to being tough, as explored in “A Death in Dairyland Spurs a Fight Against a Silent Killer” by Elizabeth Williamson from the New York Times in April 2023. 

As reported in the article, “The rate of suicide among farmers is three and one-half times higher than among the general population, according to the National Rural Health Association. Suicide rates in rural communities increased by 48 percent between 2000 and 2018, compared with 34 percent in urban areas.”  

Williamson goes on to say, “Raised to value stoicism and self-determination, farmers and ranchers often avoid seeking mental health treatment out of shame and the erroneous notion depression is not an illness but a state of mind, fixable through attitude, faith or hard work.”   

One farmer, Leon Statz, did seek help, but in the article, “The doctor basically told Leon to ‘chin up and face it like a man – in a year, you’ll laugh at it,’” Leon’s wife recalled. “I will never forget it. Because then Leon’s like, ‘Now it falls back on me again. It’s my fault I can’t get out of this.’” 

Leon Statz, like too many American farmers and ranchers, ended up taking his own life. 

American farmers and ranchers are a tough breed. They soldier on through pain and adversity in their lives, which most of us cannot imagine, and we respect them for it. We trust them for it.

However, knowing when to ask for help and the willingness to accept help are not signs of weakness – they are signs of strength. I encourage anyone, especially our farmers and ranchers, to seek help when needed for depression and, especially, for thoughts of suicide.  

Help can be found in many places, for example at this website through University of Georgia Extension.

The hands of farmers and ranchers are calloused and their ways tough, but there are many hands reaching out to help, both in the home and outside of the home. 

We need farmers and ranchers here with us.

Bob Kemerait is a plant pathologist at the University of Georgia. This opinion column was originally published in Southeast Farm Press on June 2.

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