Dealing with stress in the agriculture industry

John Shutske, Extension Agricultural and Health Safety Specialist,
Department of Biological Systems Engineering
UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences
(608) 890-2949

Resources to manage farm stress can be found at

Total Time: 10:01

0:14 – New Resource Center
1:20 – How stress affects our bodies
2:50 – Signs and indicators of stress
4:16 – Wisconsin’s agricultural stress
6:10 – Climate change’s effect on stress in WI
6:50 – Coping mechanisms
9:18 – Final thoughts
9:48 – Lead out



Adam Wigger“Dealing with stress in the agriculture industry.” We’re talking today with John Shutske, Extension agricultural safety and health specialist, University of Wisconsin-Madison Division of Extension and the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, and I’m Adam Wigger. So, John, tell us about this new resource center that you have developed here!

John Shutske: So, UW-Extension has been working for the last probably six months or so on a comprehensive website. We’re calling it Resilient Farms, Families, Businesses, and Communities, recognizing that the current situation that we face in agriculture not only affects a farmer and their family, but it also affects local businesses, whether that’s a machinery dealer or a banker or a local cooperative. And then the ripple effect that happens throughout the communities with those businesses and those school systems and with anybody who lives in a rural community whose personal economy or their personal income is connected to the health and success of farming. The resources that we’ve put together really come from across the organization from all of our program areas, including obviously agriculture, but we’ve really worked to include aspects of human health, youth development, relationships within the family unit, including between husband/wife or partners, with parents and children, and also with people who are working in the agricultural service sector who are providing information to farmers.

Adam Wigger: Just as a foundation level for some of our listeners, how might stress affect our body? What kind of ways might you see it manifest?

John Shutske: Great question. We get really concerned about long term chronic stress  specially. First of all, let me just say that short term stress is not a bad thing. Stress is a motivator, stress helps us survive and move on and change, but it’s when that stress occurs  over a long period of time and it becomes chronic stress. It affects our health. When you are under chronic stress, your blood pressure tends to go up, that’s a big risk factor for heart disease, for having a heart attack, for stroke. Another one is type two diabetes. When you’re being constantly barraged by stress, your blood sugar tends to stay elevated and that can literally wear out the parts of your body that regulate blood sugar, in particular. The other thing that happens, we’ve known about the stress impact on health for a long time, but the other thing that happens is under long term chronic stress, we tend to make bad decisions. It clouds the parts of our brain that are responsible for thinking, planning, and communicating, and that happens during a time when a farmer most needs to be thinking long term, and looking at different  scenarios, maybe considering alternative enterprises, maybe getting bigger as a farmer or getting smaller, or in some cases, maybe even having to take an off farm job, or maybe even having to exit the industry entirely, and if you’re constantly barraged by these stress hormones, those kinds of things can be really difficult because of these impacts on your brain.

Adam Wigger: What, might you say, are some signs or indicators that we might see from people who are experiencing this long-term stress. 

John Shutske: So, we definitely know that people who are under long term chronic stress, they begin to develop these kinds of health problems. LDL cholesterol, for example, might go up, or they might have difficulty sleeping, or difficulty maintaining a normal conversation. One of the things we always suggest to people is because of these impacts on health, is if you’re feeling super stressed out, getting in to see your family practice, your physician, your local doctor, your nurse practitioner, or whoever you get your health care from, is really important. The other thing that we know happens is that people who live and work in a rural community are often very connected into the community. It might be their school or their church. And what ends up happening is that under this long-term stress, people start to check out. Farmers in particular think they just need to hunker down and we’ll kind of fight our way through this. But that checking out process, in some cases, is exactly the opposite of what people need to do. We know that one of the most important predictors of whether or not a person is going to make a successful transition during times of change is their level of connectedness to community, to experts, whether that be Extension or their local banker or accountant or attorney. So, during those times when we’re checking out, or we’re kind of withdrawing and taking everything within, we ought to be thinking about doing the opposite.

Adam Wigger: So, what would you say the situation is here, across the board in Wisconsin, with Wisconsin’s heavy agriculture industry, are you seeing anything in particular that is stressing farmers out or any particular issues that are very alarming?

John Shutske: It has been alarming, it has actually been a period of several years now and that’s part of the problem. We’ve had this long-term downturn in crop prices, commodity prices, and especially in our dairy sectors. And that long-term plateauing of the farm economy where people are producing milk or other products under the cost of production. We can sometimes handle that. In 2009, there was a pretty bad blip in the economy and that created this big downturn, for example, in milk prices. But it was relatively short lived, it only lasted a few months, whereas this particular issue has lasted for a period of about two or three years, and that’s a big part of it. What has resulted is that people are having more difficulty now getting the resources, especially loans, and other resources that they need to do their job, to plant a crop, some of those sorts of things. And then what’s happened is this spring, the spring of 2019, as you know it’s been super wet, you can drive through parts of the state where crops were just planted here in the last couple of weeks. If you go into the southern part of the state into Illinois, you see corn that’s supposed to be knee-high by the Fourth of July, it’s actually normally waist high or higher, that’s just barely coming out of the ground. So, this wet spring has kind of been the double or triple whammy in addition to the downturn in the farm economy. And I think the third big thing to happen is that there is a lot of uncertainty with trade. You know, some of our big markets like China, other Asian countries, there’s just a lot of uncertainty right now, a lot of that is about policy and politics, but that uncertainty has helped to create an even more stressful situation.

Adam Wigger: Do you see a lot of stress being caused by the current stage of the climate or the climate crisis?

John Shutske: I think that people are becoming increasingly aware of the changes, the long-term changes to climate. People are definitely seeing it in terms of these extreme weather events. You can go into parts of the Midwest where we’ve had two or three of the last four or five years where we’ve had five-hundred-year weather events. And so people are seeing that weather is increasingly getting, what I will call weird, wild, wacky, things that are extreme, but I don’t see that people are necessarily getting super stressed out or freaked out about climate change, it’s more that day to day weather, but they’re see that that weather is changing over time. 

Adam Wigger: You’ve talked about increasing involvement in your community and just being very present in your community – what are some other coping mechanisms that people can use.

John Shutske: That’s a great question, and what I would like to do is encourage people to go back to our resource center, our website because we have done a lot of thinking about this and I’ll just frame a few different ideas. On our website, we’ve structured it around understanding what happens to our brains and bodies during times of stress. We also have a quadrant on stress management that includes wellness and planning and taking control of your long-term future. We have something in there on communicating under times of stress, and then another one on envisioning what that long-term future could look like. But let me try to be much more specific. Under the area of stress management, just as an example, this is a time when you’re under stress when you need to be taking care of your body. A lot of times, you’re under stress, you may not be able to afford the time to eat right and things, but your body is like a machine and if you’re going to cope through and fight through these times of stress, you need energy. Your brain needs energy, your brain consumes a huge amount of energy, and yet these are the times when we tend to let our diet go to heck. We don’t eat right, we eat the wrong kinds of foods. If you think of your body like a farm machine, nobody would dream of going out and spending five  or six hundred thousand dollars on a new harvester and then put low grade crummy quality fuel, and yet that’s what we do to our bodies. So, nutrition is really crucial, we also talk a lot about the importance of exercise. You know, if you’re farming, there’s a lot of physical activity, you could, in many cases, you are getting exercise, but not all farmers get the same level of activity. Exercise, if there was one single magic bullet, it would be exercise. Exercise changes the structure and function of your brain, it helps you to think more clearly, it reduces the impact of these negative stress hormones, and we also know that if there’s parts of the brain that begin to literally shrink because of long term chronic stress and exposure to chemicals like cortisol, which is a stress hormone, we know that a little bit of aerobic exercise, twenty minutes a day, two-three-four times a week, if you’re healthy and if your doctor or nurse practitioner approves, it can literally rebuild those parts of your brain. The last thing that I’ll say is we know in stress management that having a sense of control and being able to envision that long term future is really crucial. 

Adam Wigger: Is there any other information that you’d like to share or get out there relating to stress/farm stress?

John Shutske: I think that it’s like anything else. First of all, we’re all looking for that one single magic bullet, and it really does take multiple approaches, again it takes caring of yourself, making sure your body has the energy needed, reaching out to those experts and people who can help you objectively think about those what-if’s, the scenarios for the future, and that will help you to regain that sense of control.

Adam Wigger: Absolutely, thank you so much, John! We’ve been talking today with John Shutske, Extension agricultural safety and health specialist, University of Wisconsin-Madison Division of Extension and the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, and I’m Adam Wigger.