SMITHFIELD, N.C.–Imagine a company came to you and offered you a job that came with no health insurance, retirement, vacation time, worker’s compensation insurance, or other typical benefits that jobs or careers offer. Imagine they told you that to get the job you had to purchase all the tools and equipment that you needed to perform your duties and then purchase or rent a place for you to do your work. At this job, you would need to produce a product and you would need to purchase all the materials that you needed to make the product and provide any additional labor, insurance, certification, or other resources required. Now imagine that you accepted this position in January knowing that you would only be paid in the fall or winter and that the amount of you pay would be based upon how much product you were able to turn out and the quality of that product.
As you are imagining this, pretend that what you are able to produce is highly dependent on the weather and that if it was too dry, wet, cold, hot, windy, humid or heaven forbid there was a hurricane or a hailstorm that your productivity could drastically decline. Now imagine that after doing this and being successful for years, trade wars and nuisance lawsuits threatened your continued business operation. This is exactly what a farmer does and is facing now!
In recent days, the profession of farming seems to have reached a stress level beyond what I have witnessed in my 24-year career as an Extension Agent. Please keep in mind that over these years I have witnessed some very stressful situations especially as they affected individual farmers or groups of farmers. I am reminded of Hurricane Fran that struck in September of 1996 and Hurricane Floyd in September of 1999. These storms caused extensive wind damage and flooding damage to crops and agricultural facilities and of course many homes and other structures across North Carolina. These were obviously quite stressful times for everyone. However, for most of us, storms like these do not threaten our livelihood the way they do for farmers. Despite the fact that my home was damaged during Hurricane Fran, and we lost power for days, neighbors were flooded out of their homes, and our daily lives were altered, I never had to worry about my next paycheck. Following these storms farmers had to deal with all the same things a normal family would deal with in addition to ruined crops, damaged equipment, lost livestock, and wondering how to make it all work financially.
Because of the stress that I have observed in farmer expressions and conversations in the past month, the thought crossed my mind that surely farming is among the most stressful professions. So, I turned to Google and did a search for most stressful jobs and careers. Doing this certainly yields results of jobs that I would consider to be very stressful like a corporate CEO, newspaper reporter, emergency worker, law enforcement, school teachers and most sources agree that enlisted military is the most stressful. In my own thinking, I had thought of the medical profession, especially for someone like a surgeon or oncologist who in cases may be holding the life of another “in their hands.” But in my searching, the career of farming does not appear in a list of stressful professions. Unlike these other professions however, farming is not only a career, it is a way of life that involves how an individual was born and raised. Most farmers are carrying on a tradition that has lasted for generations. However, I suggest that farming is among the most stressful careers but it can also one of the most rewarding. However, farmers represent a very small portion of our population and most folks are disconnected from the farm except when they eat.
What is stress?
So, what is stress anyway? Merriam-Webster defines the word stress in different manners but the ones pertinent to this discussion are, “a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation; or a state resulting from a stress; especially: one of bodily or mental tension resulting from factors that tend to alter an existent equilibrium.” I like an explanation in an eXtension article titled, Production Agriculture and Stress, which states, “Stress is a physical response to perceived life-threatening events.” If you think about this, many stressful events may not threaten our actual life but they do often threaten life as we know it.
Every year I have been a witness to the roller coaster of emotions that farmers face. During the late fall and winter crop producers generally relax a bit and work slows down. Then they begin to plan for the upcoming year which brings a certain amount of hope and enthusiasm. Farmers begin planting in April and they enjoy working in the field and seeing crops grow and flourish. By the time, we make it to August and September, farmers in our area have laid it all on the line. They have worked almost every day since March with no pay and no vacation. They are physically, mentally, and emotionally tired at this time. In addition, whether they are farming with their own savings or borrowing money, in financial terms they have laid it all on the line. Imagine that job again where you accept a position on January 1, 2018 and agree to spend everything you have in reserve and also borrow more money to go with it just to work each day yet not knowing with certainty how much your salary would be.
Time to sell the crop and collect the rewards…
When we reach August in tobacco country, it is time to sell tobacco and recover the money that has been spent along with some profit. This is normally a time of tremendous hope. For the past several years, tobacco sales have averaged between $1.90 and $2.00 per pound for the crop as a whole. This takes into account that lower stalk leaves will normally bring $1.50 to $1.80 and upper stalk leaves fetch a much higher price. This means that a tobacco grower is expecting to sell a 2,500 pound per acre crop for about $5,000 per acre. At this price and yield the crop would bring over $47 million in Johnston County alone making it the single largest contributor to local farm income. NC State budgets estimate the cost of growing that crop at $3,611 per acre. Now everyone does not make 2,500 pounds per acre but, typically the profit potential per acre for tobacco dwarfs our other agronomic crops (corn, cotton, soybeans, peanuts, and wheat).
What is different this year?
So, why is the farm situation today so stressful on the family farm in North Carolina? Our situation today goes far beyond the stress of inclement weather. In a previous article, I wrote about our drought conditions in June and July. Places in Johnston County went through a critical period of 6-8 weeks without significant rainfall. To make matters worse, when it started raining again it rained just about every day for 4 weeks. But farmers typically expect the weather to be a problem sometime during the growing season.
One thing that is different is that for now, is that at some locations, tobacco is not selling well. Our tobacco continues to set the standard for quality tobacco in the global marketplace. Other countries like China grow far more tobacco than we do but their leaf quality cannot compete with US leaf. Brazil and Zimbabwe have been US competitors for quality leaf for many years and due to exchange rates and labor costs in those countries their price is much lower than ours. At some locations in North Carolina this year, good quality lugs (lower leaves) have only brought $0.90 to $1.00 per pound. This price is at least $0.40 to $0.60 under what growers expected to receive when the crop was planted. At other locations, tobacco is selling like normal. However, growers are not able to just, “change horses in midstream.” Growers sign contracts to deliver their crop and these substandard prices are occurring in spite of the contract agreements that growers signed.
In addition, news of nuisance lawsuits that are putting farms out of business is very disturbing to all farmers. Even growers that do not produce hogs are concerned about what they could be sued for next. And on top of all this, China is using agriculture, one of their few US trade bargaining chips, against NC farmers. China has been a big customer for NC commodities and products like pork and tobacco over the past several years. This trade with China has really helped our farmers. As the Chinese standard of living has improved, they have a stronger demand for meat in their diet and for better cigarettes. So, while a trade war may help some industries like steel, it is negatively impacting agriculture. In addition, congress has taken steps to help with trade concerns for some farm commodities but not for tobacco.
The tip of the iceberg
All of these stressful items that I have mentioned are just the tip of the iceberg for farmers. Other items include lower commodity prices, expensive labor, labor shortages, expensive inputs, increasing regulations, rapid residential development and the list goes on. However you slice it right now, traditional farmers in our area are experiencing tremendous stress that exceeds what I have witnessed in my career as an Extension Agent.
What to do
Whether you are an individual facing stress or a family member is under stress, it should not be ignored. This is true for everyone and not just farmers. The consequences of stress to your health and wellbeing are real. I am certainly not a medical professional but sources of help do exist. Below I have noted a few items that you may find helpful but others also exist.
Sources of Help for Farmers and Others
Call your doctor, make an appointment, and follow their advice. Stress, anxiety, and depression are not to be taken lightly and to just keep trudging on is not a good strategy for you or those around you.
- Take care of your health. Get enough sleep, eat nutritious meals, take breaks if possible, exercise, find something that you enjoy and laugh, and allow others to help.
- The NC Agromedicine Institute is a wealth of knowledge regarding factors affecting the health of farmers and farm workers. www.ncagromedicine.org
- An article, “Production Agriculture and Stress” provides good tips information and references. You can read this article at: http://articles.extension.org/pages/70313/production-agriculture-and-stress
- Read a book such as, Honey, I Shrunk the Farm by Dr. Val Farmer. The book addresses some of the stresses that farmers may face.
Now, I do not want to leave you thinking that everything about farming is horrible. Like most other professions there are good times and bad times and they ebb and flow in cycles. Right now, our general economy is booming and the agricultural economy is typically opposite of the general economy. Most farmers that are in business now will tell you that they have enjoyed a great and rewarding career. In addition, agriculture is an exciting career field in which there are tremendous opportunities for young people and especially young farmers.
World population and food demand is on the rise and agriculture must meet that challenge. Right now, less than 2% of the workforce in the United States in employed directly in agriculture and the average age of farmers exceeds 58. We are depending on farmers to produce what we want and need. When you sit down to your next meal, think about the stress and toil that was necessary to produce that food. Ask yourself, “would I do a job like that?” If the answer is no, be very thankful that someone else does so that you can do something else.
–Bryant M. Spivey, Johnston County Center