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Taking care of emotional needs of farmers

While they may not be able to manage supply chain disruptions or commodity prices, Kewaunee County UW Extension Human Development and Relationships Educator Renee Koenig believes farmers can keep tabs of their stress. Over 40 million American adults have an anxiety disorder and the added unknown of COVID-19 has only added to the long list of concerns of farmers including low prices, high debt load, and wet weather. Koenig says taking care of yourself, connecting to others, tapping into resources, knowing the warning signs of mental illness are all ways to fight back.

The UW-Madison Division of Extension has developed the Resilient Farms and Families project to give farmers the resources needed to help address their stress. You can learn more about the website and read more about managing on-farm stress below.



Supporting Farmers During Challenging Times: Managing Stress

By Renee Koenig, Associate Professor and Extension Educator for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Division of Extension in Kewaunee County.


Farmers have always had to deal with a lot of uncertainty, even before the COVID-19 pandemic.  Unpredictable weather, changes in the economy, accidents, health issues and other unplanned events make farming a stressful occupation.      


Stress is a normal part of life and can even be helpful when we need to meet a deadline, for example.  If stress happens too often or lasts too long, it can have bad effects.  It can be linked to headaches, upset stomach, back pain, and trouble sleeping.  It can weaken your immune system, making it harder to fight off disease. Medical research tells us that unrelieved stress is a known risk factor in many of the leading causes of premature death among adults such as heart disease, hypertension, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. Chronic stress is also a potential risk factor for depression, addiction, and suicide.


Too much stress also affects our thinking and decision-making.  To learn more about some amazing studies of stress and its impact on the brain, watch the short videos on the University Extension’s Farm Stress Management website


The good news is there are many ways to reverse the effects of stress.


What can we do to support farmers who might be caught in a cycle of stress?


Take Care of Yourself


You probably heard of phrases like, “You can’t pour from an empty cup” or “when on a plane, put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others.” A visual of this might be a fuel gauge on empty. When we’re running on empty, and we don’t take the time to “fill up” on healthy practices, then we are going to struggle to be helpful to those around us.


You can take care of yourself by focusing on your body, mind and spirit.  To take care of your body you need to eat well, drink plenty of water, sleep enough, avoid tobacco and drugs, and limit alcohol.  To take care of your mind use positive self-talk, mindfulness, meditation and prayer, deal with conflict appropriately, write in a journal, enjoy music, find fun and humor.  Taking care of your spirit means living your life in line with your values and beliefs, and finding sources of comfort and hope.  Some people find it helpful to read a favorite Bible passage or quote. 


Connect to Others 


We know we have to be physically distant right now, but it is so important to pick up the phone, call, text or check in with others. One of the key factors for how well we cope with stress is how connected we feel to those around us.  Having many strong relationships equals healthier coping with stress.  The stronger our resilience is, the better we cope with stress. Social isolation weakens resilience, while social connection strengthens it.

When you check in with a farmer you know, offer them hope.  Sometimes stress stems from grief.  Farmers might be experiencing grief over a loss of what they wanted, and a feeling of loss of how successful their business could have been. One way to offer them hope is to talk about the things they can control.  You can mention the Serenity Prayer, “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change” or another popular saying is, “Just Do the Next Right Thing.”  You might ask them, “What does your head say is the next right thing to do?” and “What does your heart say is the next right thing to do?”  They have the control to decide to pick up the shovel and move the pile, or go make a sandwich because they haven’t eaten for over 11 hours.  They have the control to start a new budget spreadsheet or go to bed and get enough sleep. They have the control to start fixing the truck or go hug their spouse first.


When you are having these conversations, it is possible that they will share with you some hard things and you will want to be prepared. There are many resources available to you.


Tap Into Resources


Your UW-Extension county educator is a resource.  You might also refer them to a therapist, doctor or clergy.  The Department of Ag Trade Consumer Protection is a resource and so is Harvest of Hope.  The is for Wisconsin’s benefits and 2-1-1 is a helpful directory of resources.  There are many new disaster relief resources that you can tap into at  You don’t have to know all the solutions, but you can be a connector.


Learn the Warning Signs of Mental Illness and Ways to Respond


You can learn QPR Suicide Prevention, the QPR stands for Question, Persuade, Refer and it is like CPR but for helping someone in a crisis of suicide. It is a short training for any adult to learn.  Mental Health First Aid is another course available from UW-Extension.  Learn a crisis hotline number, your county crisis number, or a national number or save the number in your phone contacts. 


It is important to learn about mental illness because it is more common than many people realize.  Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health concern in the United States. Over 40 million adults in the U.S. have an anxiety disorder.  An estimated 17.3 million adults in the U.S. had at least one major depressive episode.  Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death overall in the U.S.


Anyone can be the one to help.  You don’t have to be a mental health professional.  You can make a commitment to end the stigma of mental health and suicide.

For more information, contact Renee Koenig at or visit the University Extension’s Resilient Farms & Families website at




Extension’s Farm Stress Website


Extension Responds to COVID-19


Wisconsin Farm Center  1-800-942-2474 or


Crisis Text Line  Text 741741


Suicide Prevention Lifeline  1-800-273-TALK(8255)

En Espanol 1-888-628-9454



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