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From costs to the weather, how stressed out are farmers?

From costs to the weather, how stressed out are farmers?

Analysis: farmers and farm workers have been found to experience high levels of stress and relatively low levels of wellbeing. This article by Mary Brennan, Emma Dillon and David Meredith, Teagasc and Thia Hennessy, UCC, was first published on RTÉ Brainstorm recently

The demands of modern farming can place substantial stress upon farmers and farm workers and adversely affect their wellbeing. Indeed, the challenging nature of farm work and a culture that generally emphasises tenacity, self-reliance and resilience results in many farmers prioritising farm productivity over self-care. In addition, current challenges around rising costs are a particular cause of concern for farmers.

Sources of stress

Farmers and farm workers have been found to experience high levels of stress and relatively low levels of wellbeing, two key indicators of occupational social sustainability. Sources of stress can be external (such as physical conditions or stressful situations), or internal (wealth and wellbeing). Occupational stressors which can affect farmer’s wellbeing include financial pressures, weather conditions, workload and lack of additional labour. In addition, concerns around animal health, regulation compliance, succession planning and a decline in the sense of security in rural areas can adversely impact farmer wellbeing.

Another important factor influencing farmer wellbeing are the intrinsic attributes of those farmers who experience occupational stress. Socio-demographic characteristics of the farmer, such as age, the type of farm enterprise in which they are involved and working hours, can influence their exposure to occupational stress. For a more holistic understanding of stress, it is necessary to examine the socio demographic situation of those who experience it.

Research findings

Research conducted by Teagasc and UCC in 2018 using data from the Teagasc National Farm Survey found that 57% of farmers experienced stress or anxiety as a result of their farm work over the previous five years. The figure was highest amongst dairy farmers, almost three-quarters of whom reported experiencing stress, followed by cattle farmers (57%), tillage (55%) and sheep farmers (38%). The most frequently occurring source of stress across all farms was poor weather (47%), followed by workload (32%) and financial worries (28%).

The identification of poor weather as the predominant source of stress amongst farmers was anticipated, particularly as a number of extreme weather events affected Ireland across late 2017 and 2018. This resulted in tightening fodder supplies on many farms with some regions impacted more than others.

Stress relating to workload was most prevalent amongst dairy farmers, an understandable finding given the rapid expansion of the sector in the aftermath of EU milk quota abolition in 2015. Dairy farms tend to be larger and more labour intensive than the other farm systems in Ireland. Duties, such as milking, are time bound, which can contribute to stress. The results found that farmers are more likely to experience stress as they age, although this plateaus in middle age.

An interesting finding is that Farmers with higher levels of formal agricultural education were more likely to have experienced stress in the running of their farm operations. While one might expect such farmers to be better prepared to manage adversarial events, those with specialised agricultural training seeking to optimise their production may be more susceptible to high levels of work and consequently work-related stress.

The results also found that the probability of stress declines as farm output per labour unit increases. This suggests that the profit associated with the additional work offsets the impact of workload on stress, and underlines the importance of farmers receiving a fair return on their labour.

Off-farm employment was found to reduce the probability of stress, providing farmers with an opportunity to ‘escape’ the various challenges related to modern farming, such as social isolation and loneliness. Moreover, the additional income stream may help to offset such risks to farm income as weather and external market influences. The results also found that more indebted farmers experienced greater levels of stress.

This research finds that farmers’ experience of stress is shaped by a number of socio-demographic and farm enterprise factors. To date, many farm assessments have focused predominately on economic perspectives, lacking information on alternative societal factors and inferring a somewhat arbitrary interpretation of standards of wellbeing.

Given the sustainability objectives of the new Common Agricultural Policy 2023-2027, farm surveys, such as that planned through the Farm Sustainability Data Network, need to be refined and adapted to gather more comprehensive data on socially-sensitive topics, particularly in the context of farmers’ physical and psychological health.

Additional work is also required to examine how stress manifests and how it may be mediated through resources, such as support from professionals and peers. Consideration of methodologies such as the Stress Process Theory (a framework used to derive hypotheses about social factors and depression) would also be worthwhile. Progress in this regard would assist policymakers in developing strategic and targeted wellbeing support for farmers, in an attempt to improve the overall sustainability and resilience of farms.

Mary Brennan is a Teagasc Walsh Scholar, at the Rural Economy Development Programme at Teagasc and the Department of Food Business and Development at Cork University Business School in UCC. Dr Emma Dillon is an Economist and Senior Research Officer with the National Farm Survey team at Teagasc. Dr David Meredith is a Senior Research Officer at the Rural Economy Development Programme at Teagasc. He is a former Irish Research Council awardee. Prof Thia Hennessy is Head of School, Head of the Department of Food Business and Development and Chair of Agri-Food Economics at at Cork University Business School in UCC.