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Bringing it into the spotlight

By Staff | Aug 19, 2020

By KAREN SCHWALLER

Stress in farming and ranching has long been linked primarily to men, since history shows that men have traditionally taken on the official role of caretakers of land and livestock.

Fast-forward to 2020, and observers will find that more women are taking active roles on the farm-even taking on the role of farmer, if not at least helping on the farm when she comes home from a job in town.

Officials say it has brought into clearer focus the fact that women’s roles on the farm are often generally overlooked by society, and that women carry as much stress as anyone on the farm when times get tough.

Women, Food and Ag Network (WFAN) officials have said, “The potential for despair is great, and the need for support is greater. If farmers are facing depression and suicide in record numbers, what does this reveal about women’s mental health?”

WFAN officials said literature and research surrounding women, agriculture and women’s well-being has surfaced in recent months.

Carly Nichols, WFAN member and professor of geographical and sustainability studies-as well as the global health studies at the University of Iowa, recently spoke about why food systems work bears such a high-stress load for women. She used the term “emotional labor” to describe the emotional investment women dispense as caretakers of land, plants, animals, people and community.

She said when that emotional labor teams up with the uncertainty of land care and food production, stress can accumulate in ways that are just now becoming known.

Helping women in ag

Minnesota natives Doris Mold and Megan Roberts got together in 2018 after noticing stress-related changes in the ag community as a whole. They wanted to come up with a plan to support women in agriculture because of the stress loads they bear, and because Mold said people were mostly “just wringing their hands and wondering what to do.”

The two attended a forum put on by the Upper Midwest Agricultural and Safety Health Center (UMASH) in Minneapolis, Minn., where ag laborers and health care workers came together to share stories and concerns. Their project, “Cultivating Resiliency for Women in Agriculture” was born in the months following.

The project is in collaboration with American Agri-Woman and the Minnesota District 11 Agri-Women, and offers women a free, safe and anonymous digital forum to share thoughts, questions and receive support and feedback from licensed women social workers and mental health professionals with agricultural backgrounds.

The project is operated and staffed by volunteers.

“There’s a real need here,” said Mold, co-lead with Roberts on the project, and who operates a dairy farm in Minnesota with her husband, runs a consultant business and participates in various volunteer ag platforms. “When people talk about stressed farmers, often they’re talking about the male species, and that they have a higher rate of suicides; but farm stress is more than suicides-we want to get to the people before they become suicidal.”

Mold said farm women are the linchpins for farm families, serving as the ‘glue that holds things together.’ She also said women are more open to discussing their feelings, and since they are pivotal members of a farm family, could take valuable information from their forums back to their families to help maintain the family’s mental and emotional health.

“If we can equip women to take better care of themselves then they are better prepared to help care for the rest of the family,” said Mold.

What is the progam?

“Cultivating Resiliency for Women in Agriculture” is an interactive online series focusing on what women can control during times of turbulence on farms and ranches, and connect them with resources and information to help them weather that stress.

The program consists of two primary educational and/or sharing resources. They include informative webinars on various topics relating to agriculture issues as they relate to farm families-including a question and answer session at the end of each one.

They also offer an exchange session called, “Virtual Coffee Chats.” The ‘chats’ offer women’s sessions and mixed-gender sessions in real-time, giving people a place to exchange stories and discuss farm family issues in a small-group setting. Participants can call in to the chat sessions, or participate online.

Webinars take place as often as one to two times per month, and the coffee chats happen as often as once weekly, depending on the need. Times for the chats rotate between daytime and evenings, and last from 60-90 minutes.

Roberts, an educator for the University of Minnesota Extension and Outreach, said farm women often find themselves bearing a heavy load on the farm, typically being the primary caregiver for their families-including their children and their elderly parents-along with being the ‘rock’ for their spouse if they have one.

“As farm families move into personal, financial, family and work unknowns we try to reach women where they are and provide resources to build resiliency,” said Roberts, adding that the real-time and online options for the webinars and virtual chats make the project both versatile and practical for peoples’ schedules.

Mold said many stressors have placed a heavy weight on farm families, including finances due to weather and trade issues, and most recently, the added financial pitfall that Covid-19 has presented within ag markets. She said even Farmer’s Markets could fall victim to Covid-19, which many farm families have used as side incomes.

Mold said within the last five years in Minnesota, farm income has come in below the poverty level. She added that farm women often bear the responsibility to be a pivotal ‘cheerleader’ for their farmer husbands as finances dwindle and the future of the farm is in question, all the while feeling that same stress themselves.

She said women carry their farm family burdens differently than men do (in their willingness to talk about their stress with others), adding that women “have as much skin in the game if she farms with her husband,” according to Mold.

For more information on “Cultivating Resiliency for Women in Agriculture” or to participate in the webinars and chat sessions, call them at (612) 625-8836, or visit the UMASH website at www.umash@umn.edu. Go to the “Stress and Mental Health” tab, then click on the “Cultivating Resiliency for Women in Ag” link. Pre-registration is necessary.

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