Fatigue when working long hours is a serious safety concern on farms — but another kind of exhaustion often sets in when farmers want to be out in the field, but are hampered by poor weather.
“Even though we aren’t actually combining and it’s not physically taxing, the fatigue can still be there,” said Hannah Konschuh, a grain farmer from Cluny.
As of mid-September she had about 50 per cent of her crop in the bin. She hadn’t been able to combine for several days because of showers and was staring down another week with a “less-than-ideal forecast.”
“I feel a little bit of anticipation, frustration, and helplessness. I have felt drained mentally,” she said.
According to Micaela Brietzke, a registered psychiatric nurse with Alberta Health Services, stress causes a release of hormones in the body that initiates the flight, fright, or freeze behaviours. These responses are helpful in emergencies, but are taxing over an extended period of time.
“Your body is expending all this energy through your anxiety response,” said Brietzke. Symptoms of an overtaxed nervous system can be emotional, including anger and irritability, or physical, including pounding heart and chest pains.
Konschuh’s region, like other parts of the province, experienced dry weather all growing season, only to get stuck in a cycle of damp weather once the crops were ready to harvest. Farther north, snow in the middle of September parked combines. Many farmers can recount snowfalls in September that put harvest on hold. It’s not an uncommon event, but an extended harvest season can still take a mental toll on producers.
On Sept. 11, Irmi Critcher posted a photo on Twitter of her tired-looking husband, Barry, sitting by the fireplace. He had swathed canola as long as possible that day, but eventually a heavy snowfall forced him indoors, wet and exhausted.
She believes social media can be helpful in stressful seasons.
“The reason I put (that photo) on Twitter is that I know there’s got to be other people in that situation,” said Critcher. “When you share your struggles it helps them. It’s a little bit of peer support.”
The couple farms at Dawson Creek in the Peace region of B.C., and like their peers on the Alberta side of the border, snow pushed down crops that had been standing well and had good yield potential. Critcher’s harvest was about 20 per cent complete and with the days getting shorter and cooler she knows the rest will be a challenge to harvest. Waiting for the weather to change isn’t easy.
“It can be hard on your psyche because you have no sense of accomplishment,” she said.
Her husband and son were drying tough barley that they combined before the snow came. They were grateful to have some grain that was not under the snow, as well as something to do until harvest resumes.
Sarah Anderson is a front-line counsellor and emergency intake co-ordinator with West Central Crisis & Family Support Centre in Kindersley, Sask. She provides support to residents in rural Saskatchewan and Alberta and often sees farmers in her work. She sees a lot of producers in “stuck mode.”
“The negative thoughts come because they don’t have control over reaching their goals,” she said.
Those pressures include unpaid bills and concerns over meeting grain contract obligations, farm tasks, or social events that have to wait until harvest is done, as well as comparing themselves to the neighbours. An extended harvest increases the stress from all of those, and other issues.
Producers in other sectors also experience the toll of an extended season.
Nathan and Tina Bjorn raise Angus cattle at Three Hills. This spring, one heifer surprised them by calving three weeks earlier than expected. From then on, they checked for calves nightly until the last of the cows calved. While they didn’t have any more calves, the extra weeks of checking had a mental cost.
“It did feel long,” said Tina who usually does the middle-of-the-night checks. “I’m typically kind of sad when calving is done, but this year I was glad it was done, because it was so long and hard.”
High calf mortality rates and fierce winter weather compounded their financial and psychological load.
“What made it gruelling was the unbelievable winter,” said Nathan.
For the first time they had to check cows in the tractor rather than on foot because the snow drifted so deep. Nathan spent hours plowing snow so the cows could get to water.
The Bjorns try to do as much of their farm work as they can with their four young sons, so they stay connected as a family during busy seasons. As younger producers, they reach out to mentors in the industry when facing challenges. The rancher they bought their herd from seven years ago still lives in the area and is a source of encouragement for them both.
“It’s important to reach out to those who have been there before us and can lift us up with physical help or lending an ear,” said Tina.
For Konschuh, who farms with her husband and parents, the focus during inclement weather turns to tangible to-do items such as repairing equipment. They try to talk about the positive aspects of their situation, like how many acres are behind them, but she says it can still be difficult to discuss the mental burden.
“It’s almost as if we need a lesson on how to be open with what’s weighing on you,” said Konschuh.
Both Brietzke and Anderson suggest that farmers talk to their peers in similar circumstances to alleviate anxiety. Healthy habits — such as exercise, proper nutrition and hydration — and proper sleep also reduce stress by allowing the brain to produce the chemicals that stabilize mood and alleviate depression.
“And if you’re feeling like you have difficulty coping with day-to-day activities, then it’s time to contact the local mental health office,” said Brietzke.
For more information, visit myhealth.alberta.ca or for anonymous support the addiction and mental health helpline is 1-877-303-2642.