In the fall of 2006 when I was still dating my farmer, I’ll never forget the day we were lounging in his basement bedroom listening to music in the house he rented from in Edmonton. This house was a mere three-block stroll to the University of Alberta, where he was finishing up his crop sciences degree in agriculture. He got a phone call from one of his sisters and, to this day, it’s one of the few times in his life I’ve seen tears well up in his eyes. The news he had received was that after a busy harvest season, his parents were flying to Vancouver Island for a much-needed getaway, and his father lost consciousness on the plane warranting an emergency landing in Kelowna. It was very scary for my mother-in-law who was with him and for all of us anxiously waiting for an update. Nothing like this had ever happened to his father before, so it was very frightening and new. When all was said and done everything turned out fine, and he had no major medical events that caused his episode, it was attributed to stress and finally “releasing” that stress on the way to a relaxing holiday and time off from a tense and busy harvest season.
Needless to say, it was a huge wake-up call to the family on how stressful farm life can be, and that measures needed to be implemented to preserve mental health and decrease stress levels on the farm. The paternal side of my husband’s family has a strong incidence of cardiovascular disease, including high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke. It has been shown that the act of being stressed itself can change the way the body operates, which negatively affects your heart health by bringing about changes to the blood and nervous system. According to the World Heart Organization, studies have shown that acute stressful events reduce blood flow to the heart, can promote your heart to beat irregularly and increase the tendency of your blood to clot — all of which can trigger the development of cardiovascular disease. The link between stress, anxiety and the negative health effects on the body are clearly there, and I want to take steps early on in my husband’s life to make sure he’s as healthy mentally as he is physically so we can have him around as long as we can!
Most people involved in agriculture know that you practically have to drag a farmer off the farm for him or her to not be involved in the farm in some form or another as they get older. My grandfather-in-law, whom I never got to meet, was on the farm until he was no longer physically able to be there anymore. I’ve gradually seen the roles and responsibilities of planning and managing operations shift from my father-in-law to my husband and brother-in-law over the years. During this time I have also seen my husband’s stress levels rise, and he was never one to be easily stressed out.
Perhaps it’s because I’m from a non-farming background, but I have always thought and said that we cannot control the uncontrollable like the weather, so why worry and stress about it? Easier said than done! This I’ve learned too, as your livelihood and financial security are almost solely based on factors that you cannot control, but at the end of the day it is true, and is it worth risking our health over? I’ve recently talked with my farmer about my concerns about his stress levels and mental well-being. It’s the concerned wife, mother of his children, but also the registered nurse in me that perhaps cares the most. I’ve encouraged him to take the farm life day by day, even hour by hour if he has to. It’s so important to focus on the good and positive things in life and to take time away from the farm, even just a day or half a day, to enjoy life.
It is vital to have regular physicals with your family doctor to screen for potential health issues, including mental health issues and the effects of stress. Make sure, as much as you possibly can, to take steps as a farm family to decrease the stresses in your life and enjoy the farm life you’re living. I’ve seen over the years that my father-in-law has been proactive in getting away from the farm as needed and doing other non-stressful things that bring him joy. That is the main definition of farm sustainability to me: fostering a love of agriculture in our children and being around to nurture and mentor that love so that they can farm too.