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To everything, there’s a season and a reason.

We in agriculture focus on the seasons and we have a deep understanding of the reasons why we do what we do. We agonize over the optimal time to plant the crops, and sacrifice so much during the organized frenzy of harvest to beat Mother Nature’s clock. We have a smile when we turn the bull in with the cows, and a wry grin when we haul calves off to the sale barn. There’s always some task, some bit of work to do on any agricultural operation because growing and raising the food and fiber that sustains so many is highly labor intensive.

We tend to glorify the work, but we scorn any time “wasted” on resting. That’s how many of us were raised, I bet. Rest is for the lazy and the shiftless, right? Vacations are useless wastes of time and money. Recreation and hobbies are “acceptable” as long as there’s a livestock trailer involved. If you’re sick or injured, you work through the pain because the farm demands it.

“Just cowboy up.”

The lines between work time and family time get blurred in farm country. Now, most of the time that works out. Instilling work ethic in the next generation by bringing them with us in the field is admirable. Modeling appropriate care for the animals we rely on for our livelihoods through daily chores, caring for them at all hours when they’re sick or injured, is how we instill empathy and a sense of duty. Working to put food on the table for the family and pay one’s bills is a hallmark of the farmer ethic, and no one can fault folks for working hard to stay ahead of the bill collector in these times. But we collectively tend to let the work take over more of our personal lives than is frankly healthy.

And that strains mental health.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2020 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report reported a male suicide rate of 43.2 per 100,000 among farmers and ranchers in 2016, compared to 27.4 per 100,000 among males of working age across all occupations.

Look around our own families and our neighbors and you can see the effects of too much stress on work and not enough rest. Violent outbursts in the machine shed that involve flying tools are not normal. Chronic headaches and sickness or long periods of insomnia are not signs to push away and deal with some other day. Sure farmers tend to be a little antisocial, but completely withdrawing from even close friend groups should be a red flag for anyone. And if you or someone you know is throwing up red flags like those, or just if your gut is telling you something is off, please call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK or 1-800-SUICIDE.

Taking time to rest the mind, body and spirit off the farm is as critical to the health of the farmer and the farm family as a balanced breakfast and daily exercise. You cannot have just a season of work without the season of rest. That way leads to increased stress levels, which leads to depression and poor coping mechanisms like alcoholism and drug abuse, and even thoughts of suicide or self-harm.

The Ohio State University conducted a study looking into the mental health benefits of leisure activities. It found that enjoyable leisure activities are associated with lower levels of depression, and improved physical and psychosocial states. The researchers looked at a range of leisure activities, from visiting and dining with friends, to clubs and religious group participation, to vacations, sports and hobbies.

Now, I’m not saying that a vacation or a hobby is the cure-all for farmer depression, but it can and should be a part of an action plan for many. And we can do our part by not shaming those who choose to take time to rest and recharge.

There is nothing shameful in taking a weekend to go to the lake or go hunting with friends. Whether showing livestock or going to a softball tournament, taking the family off the farm gives everyone a different perspective. Find joy in a hobby that isn’t practical. Whatever leisure activity it is, it inevitably will give you a chance to physically and mentally refresh.

The work will be there when you get back. Friends and family will pitch in and help with chores because they know you’ll return the favor when it’s their time. Take the time away and you just might find an answer to whatever it is that you’re worrying about on the farm and ranch while you’re miles from it.

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or jlatzke@hpj.com.

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