While being a farmer has many rewards (working for yourself, being outdoors, watching crops and animals grow and prosper, working with friends, family and neighbors) there are also many stresses and risks in our business.  

Growing up in rural Williamsburg and marrying a dairy farmer’s daughter, the farm life has been an important part of my identity. For a few years after high school, my wife, Lynn,  and I moved south to the Atlanta area for work, but missed our families and the Iowa lifestyle. When we moved back to Homestead, there were 12 other dairy farm operations in Iowa County, along with us. We farmed for seven years, managing a herd of about 40 dairy cattle and 160 acres of corn and beans.  

My wife and I worked side by side for those seven years, milking (at the end) three times a day, watching our budget closely and praying every day for guidance as the dairy industry spiraled downwards. She worked and still works full-time in Williamsburg at the Iowa State University Extension office. Our kids helped every day, as well as my in-laws and extended family nearby. If not for our family support, we wouldn’t have lasted as long as we did.  

We were and still are in love with dairy cattle. But we couldn’t make a living, support our three kids and deal with the daily stress of the business. Having no control over the market, commodity prices, the weather — heck, control over anything — we made the heart-breaking decision to shut down our operation in 2009. With milk at $9 a gallon and corn at $7 a bushel, we were losing money every single day by working as hard and as smart as we could. It just wasn’t working.  

Today, there is one dairy operation left in Iowa County. Other farm families like ours have followed suit over the years, making that terribly hard decision to get out of farming.

a stressful job
Knowing that someone is always counting on us (our families, neighbors, Americans who drink milk and eat from the Midwest’s breadbasket) puts an amazing amount of stress on farm families.

I’m not suggesting that there is a stereotype of a farmer, but in our area, there are sure traits I see in others who have farming in their blood. We are hard workers, we’re proud, stubborn, smart, innovative and will do whatever it takes to be successful. And we are stressed. Most farmers keep things bottled up inside, don’t complain out loud and look at seeking help for their brain health issues as a sign of weakness or shame.  

 After going through our own struggles, I have become a lot more vocal about brain health. As the chair of the Iowa County Board of Supervisors, I have gotten connected with the Mental Health and Disabilities Services East Central Region (MHDS of the ECR). It’s a nine-county region in eastern Iowa that partners to provide comprehensive brain health and disability services to people of all ages.

Their focus is to help individuals and families find and use health care support for brain health and disability issues, like depression, anxiety and much more.  

There has been, for years and years, a strong and negative stigma about mental health or mental illness, and that stigma keeps people from seeking the treatment and medication they need to become healthier. Our brains are organs, just like the rest of the organs in our bodies. If we can seek help from a doctor for diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer or other illnesses, we need to change our thinking and reduce the stigma about seeking treatment for brain health issues too.  

reach out for help
As farmers, we are a proud bunch. For me and my immediate and extended family, we support each other as much as we can. Our church congregation is a great source of support. Our neighbors are tight. But when we need help with our brain health, we reach out to doctors and other health care professionals who can help us.

Our advice, after living through the good times and the bad of farming, is this: Don’t be afraid to reach out to someone else. Talk about what is bothering you. Be there for each other. All of us are experiencing stress, anxiety and depression in different degrees and at different times.

Someone is counting on us. We can find the support we need to be healthier for ourselves and others. It’s out there. We just need to ask for support.

Gahring is a farmer from Homestead and chairman of the Iowa County Board of Supervisors.