Clubroot is a potentially devastating disease for canola growers in Western Canada. Severely infested fields may not be able to grow canola in the foreseeable future. Less-severe fields may see yield drops without a change in farming practices.
That adds up to a financial hit for affected farmers. But while the economic and agronomic realities are acknowledged, the psychology of dealing with a clubroot infestation has gotten less coverage.
John Guelly, a farmer from Westlock, Alberta, compares it to going through the grieving process.
“When you first find out, you’re kind of upset about it, and mad, and wondering how it got there,” says Guelly. Guelly discovered clubroot on his farm in 2013. At first, he didn’t quite believe it was clubroot, and wanted to downplay the situation, he says.
That rings true for Dr. Greg Gibson, a psychologist with Prairie Mountain Health in Manitoba and assistant professor at the University of Manitoba.
Clubroot is a practical problem and “an emotionally laden problem as well,” he says. Gibson hasn’t worked with farmers facing clubroot specifically, but he has worked with producers dealing with other issues.
The first four stages of the grieving process include shock and denial, pain and guilt, anger and bargaining, and depression. Once a person works through those four stages, they are on a better footing, moving towards acceptance and hope.
Guelly says it’s something he went through, to a certain extent.
“You go through it over a long period of time. It’s nothing something you digest and say — Boom! — I need to do this or do that. You have to work it through in your head and get things ironed out before you can actually come up with a full plan.”
- Read more: John Guelly’s six-step management plan
But if a person gets stuck in one of the first four stages, Gibson says, that can lead to more problems in the future.
Shock and denial followed by pain and guilt
The shock and denial stage is an issue because if the farmer isn’t awake to the problem, he might not deal with the clubroot quickly enough, says Gibson.
That’s critical because when clubroot spores are low, the disease is still manageable. Dan Orchard, Canola Council of Canada agronomist, has cited research showing that a two-year break from canola can cut viable clubroot spores by over 90 per cent. But if spore loads are sky-high, even a two-year break leaves too many viable spores in the soil.
In the shock and denial stage, other people may need to “shine a light on the issue,” says Gibson. “Sometimes it’s needed when folks are in denial, especially when it’s emotionally-laden.”
But once a farmer has pushed through (or been nudged out of) shock and denial, pain and guilt waits. This is especially true if farmers feel they are partly to blame, because of something they did or didn’t do, Gibson explains. Concern about what others might think about them, or how others might be affected, can also create shame.
“Farming families are highly pro-active, industrious, and self-sufficient,” says Gibson. “And if they found that they in any way are the catalysts to other people’s concerns–whether that be other people, their own families, or what have you–that can create a tremendous amount of guilt.”
The pain and guilt in these situations can also increase the likelihood that someone remains in denial, Gibson says.
Guelly sees the social stigma surrounding clubroot as part of the problem. “It seems to be something that nobody wants to talk about. It’s like mental health.”
Along with worrying about what the neighbours will say, farmers also worry about land values dropping and the county’s reaction, says Guelly (although he notes clubroot hasn’t cut land values in his area). But the best thing farmers can do is talk about it, he says.
“You can learn more from neighbours, agronomists. Know what you’re looking for in the first place so you can catch it early,” says Guelly.
Gibson tells farmers to think of themselves as engines that need to be maintained. They can watch for check-engine lights to catch problems early. The early stages of grief may come with negative coping strategies, such as self-medicating with alcohol or drugs, or perhaps smoking more than usual, says Gibson.
“Sometimes when people are stuck in that shame mode, it’s almost like they feel that they’re not worthy of looking after themselves,” he says.
Gibson advises people to avoid these negative coping strategies, to keep exercising and to take care of themselves.
Anger and bargaining, followed by depression
Once people are noticing there’s a problem, they might try bargaining (perhaps in vain) with the powers that be, such as county officials, says Gibson. Or they may go into panic mode.
Another common behaviour is lashing out. Or people may try to come up with a solution, but it won’t be done in a healthy way, says Gibson. “Rather than accepting the issue, they’re fighting against it.”
After the anger and bargaining stage comes depression. Depression is a huge one for many farmers, says Gibson. “Farmers are very self-sufficient folks and sometimes they don’t want to burden other people with their issues.”
People suffering from depression tend to isolate themselves. Hard-working people might face a lack of motivation, as though they’re all in, Gibson says. This might spread to relationships and finances as well. They almost check out of life, he adds.
Even if a person doesn’t feel suicidal, depression can be serious and extremely debilitating, says Gibson.
How can farmers avoid getting mired down in the first four stages? And how can their families, agronomists, and friends help them?
Gibson says it’s hard to think clearly in the early stages of grief, and to separate emotion from logic. Farmers will likely need help problem-solving from people they trust, whether that’s an agronomist or neighbour.
Guelly suggests getting farmers talking to clubroot experts and agronomists. Farmers need to realize that clubroot is not the end of the world, he says. Although their world has changed, that doesn’t mean they’re done growing canola, he adds.
Gibson says agronomists and others should demonstrate empathy and validate the farmer’s experience. Don’t say things such as “I know how you feel.” Instead, just let them talk or say something like “that sounds heavy,” says Gibson.
From there, it’s important to move into problem-solving, says Gibson. Avoid terms like “wrong” or “bad,” as well as emotionally-laden language or anything that sounds like laying blame. Focus on the future, and on solutions to address problems. Set short-term goals. Be patient, says Gibson.
Watch out for all or none thinking about the situation — for example, remarks about things never getting better, or clubroot being a cross to bear. “If they’re not blaming the other person, they’re blaming themselves,” says Gibson.
Ultimately, agronomists are not therapists, Gibson says. But agronomists can refer struggling farmers to other resources, such as farm stress lines or services within the community.
Family is very important in this situation as well, because the whole family experiences trials and tribulations on the farm, Gibson says. Often spouses of farmers also have a self-reliant personality, but they need to make sure they’re maintaining their own engines, he says. That means having a support system, avoiding self-medication and other negative coping strategies, going for walks, and using farm stress lines if needed.
It’s also important that the family makes time to have fun, Gibson adds.
“Being able to balance life is important in general. But when you’re finding that there is a farm crisis, then sometimes play goes out the window. And it’s still important to have a good work-life balance.”
As for Guelly, he doesn’t want to see farmers in other provinces hit the clubroot learning curve the way Alberta farmers did. Try to find it when spore levels are low, he advises.
“The big thing is don’t panic. Keep scouting.”
Farm stress lines
In Manitoba: Manitoba Farm, Rural, and Northern Support Services. Chat online on its website or call 1-866-367- 3276 (Monday to Friday 10 am to 9 pm). After hours call 1-888- 322-3019.
In Saskatchewan: Sask Farm Stress Line. Call 1-800-667-4442 Available 24/7. For more info visit Mobile Crisis Services online.
In Alberta: Alberta Mental Health Help Line. Call: 1-877-303- 2642. Available 24 hrs a day.