Timing is everything — especially in farming

Storm rolling in a sunset over a soybean field

Dear September,

You sure weren’t yourself this year. The warm, sunny, dry, harvest days you usually provide happened ever so briefly the first week you were here. Then the rains, which we had longed for all spring and summer, came pouring down, bringing a sudden halt to harvest for the remainder of the month. What was up with that?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that we didn’t appreciate you bringing some much-needed moisture to our drought-stricken area of Manitoba. But you really threw us a curve-ball. Over 3 times the amount of rain we had all growing season – in your brief 30 days here — was, well…badly timed.

If only you could have relinquished, at least a portion of, those excessive rains to May, June and July. You must know those are the ever-important formative months of growth for plants.

Didn’t you see us watching the skies in dire hopelessness, praying for moisture, as our crops and hay-lands struggled to grow and thrive? It was heartbreaking to see them dry up from excessive heat and lack of moisture, creeks run dry and river levels at record lows. Not sure if you caught the news, but twelve municipalities across Manitoba declared an agriculture state of emergency as drought and grasshoppers hindered crops.

So September, you can understand our disappointment and frustration, when you come along and completely shut down what little harvest we had with your heavy rains, hail, and in some parts of the prairies — snow.

It’s not that we’re ungrateful to you for restoring soil moisture and bringing pastures back to life for livestock in drought-stricken areas, but you got a little carried away with the “2nd wettest September in 150 years”. And snow? That was just mean.

You’re right, you’re right. Not all farmers are in the same boat. Some of us did manage to get all, or most of, our wheat and canola in the bins. Yes, others, in parts of the prairies where rains were more timely during the growing season, had healthier crops and better yields. But do you have any idea how difficult it is to sit and watch a bountiful crop deteriorate in quality and value from too much rain and snow? Or be totally decimated in a hail storm?

It might be hard for you to understand, but our income is totally dependent on the weather. Every. Single. Year. The timing of weather events is crucial for our crops to thrive and be harvested. When one or several months don’t deliver what is required, the toll it takes on farmers, and their families, is financially, emotionally and even physically exhausting. And I’m sorry to say, September, but you added even more stress and anxiety, which we really didn’t expect. After all, you are normally the driest month.

To date, October is following your lead with cloudy, dreary days, albeit with a little less rain. And now snow? For potentially the next 5 days? But we still need at least a few weeks of warm, sunny, dry weather.

Just take a look around. Potato and vegetable growers are struggling in the mud trying to salvage their crop before frost hits and destroys them as happened last year. There’s a hay shortage. It’s critical for livestock producers to get their silage made, and secure any other available feed and straw to ensure they can care for their animals over the winter months. And surely you see the all the wheat, canola, soybeans, sunflowers, corn and many other crops still out there — wet conditions and muddy fields making it a challenge to get to them.

So much food, feed and even next year’s seed is waiting to be harvested across the prairies. Some of it deteriorating beyond the point of being salvaged. So many resources have gone into growing it all. You might not be able to see the stress and turmoil the caretakers of those crops are going through, but with each passing day, it grows.

I know. What’s done is done. You’re sorry you were off your usual harvest-weather game this year. So what do I want you do about it now?

Well, could you please pass on a message to October? Enough is enough. Stop with the rain and snow. Please send a long stretch of decent harvest weather. The farmers of western Canada could really use a break.


If you or someone you know is struggling with this challenging year, please reach out for help. 

Do More Ag – Resources:   www.domore.ag/resources/

Manitoba Farm, Rural and Northern Support Services:    www.supportline.ca

Calm in the Storm:    www.calminthestormapp.com

 

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Waiting on the weather…

An early evening storm rolled along Highway 16. The heat of the +33 Celcius day dissipated as a much-needed rain began to fall. A rainbow arched across the sky ahead of me, beckoning me home from my road trip to a nearby town.

As I turned on the windshield wipers, I let hope slip in for the ride. Maybe, just maybe, the storm would reach our farm. But the closer I got to home, the lighter the rain became. The showy rainbow held out, but only a mere 3 millimeters* of precipitation fell. We needed 10–15 times that much. Crops suffering from lack of moisture, dry pastures and haylands in our area, would get no relief that night.

And unfortunately, not much in the weeks since. The heat is intense, temperatures about 10 degrees above normal. It feels like August, yet it is only the end of June.

We are still waiting on the weather, longing and hoping for a significant rainfall. We’re not saying the ‘D’ word (drought) out loud yet, but it’s in the back of our minds.

Last year was tough. Rains were spotty and more often than not, they missed our farm. It was a long, hot, dry, dusty summer. Harvest was discouraging with below-average yields. There were no celebratory moments. It was a year of trudging through, filled with worry, concern and disappointment. When the rains finally came in the midst of harvest, there was a bit of relief — at least soil moisture was building for next year.

Now here we are, looking at a seemingly carbon-copy of last year — possibly worse. It’s difficult to remain positive and hopeful for the growing season ahead.

As a result, I find myself reluctant to share our farming story. Even writing, which usually flows easily for me, has become a challenge. I want to be open and transparent, to convey an understanding of what we do and the crops we grow. But right now, concern outweighs good news. There is no joy in photographing crops that aren’t lush and healthy. And how do you talk about tough times without sounding like you’re complaining? After all, this is our chosen field of work.

A friend gently reminded me, as I was deflecting worry and not doing a good job at trying to be upbeat, it is perfectly normal to be concerned about your livelihood. Farming isn’t easy. Being authentic means being honest about tough times as well. Even if it makes us feel vulnerable.

So truth be told, the worry and weight of farming last year, and again now, is a tough slog. Watching the sky, chasing rainbows and counting raindrops takes an emotional toll. For me, gratitude is a daily practice. I strive to find the beauty in every day and share optomistic, encouraging moments. But even the most positive attitude can’t shift the weather. And as much as I try to push worry away, it still sits on my shoulders, jostling for position with hope.

The weather always determines the outcome, and our income. Every. Single. Year. You would think, after 30 years of farmlife, I’d be used to it. But that 100% reliance on Mother Nature is the most difficult reality of farming.

I’m not sharing this for sympathy, but rather empathy and understanding — for farmers everywhere. Imagine if the weather determined your paycheck. You work the equal amount of time every year, your living costs remain the same, or may even go up, but if it rains too much or too little, your take-home pay is cut — perhaps by 25% – 50%, or possibly more.

So if farmers appear to be obsessing or complaining about the weather, it’s because that connection ultimately decides the results of their labours — even when they’ve done everything within their control, to the best of their ability.

Lack of rain is causing stress and anxiety in our area of the prairies. Eastern Canada has struggled with excessive rains and flooding, wreaking havoc with planting. Cutting hay for livestock feed has been extremely challenging. The excitement and optimism a new growing season generally brings has been dashed for many.

So if you know a farmer, reach out – ask how they are really doing. Listen to concerns. Get together for a coffee, a meal, a movie. It won’t change the reality of too little or too much rain, but it always makes a difference knowing someone else cares. Often simply sharing our worries out loud, lightens the emotional load.

As for me, you’ll still see those positive posts and gorgeous prairie sunsets, but I’ll strive to be more open about the difficulties and disappointments as well. For now, it’s still eyes to the sky, waiting on the weather and a desperately-needed rain.

 

 


*Millimeter to inch conversion:    25 mm = 1 inch

Not as strong as I think I am

Originally published in the Manitoba Co-operator August 2, 2018


I thought I was doing fine. Not too worried or concerned. I kept telling myself, it would all work out, and if it didn’t we’d be okay.

We’ve always had a crop. We would this year too. It wouldn’t be a bumper crop. Not even an average one, but after being married to a farmer for 29 years, I knew the risks. Only two years ago, we’d struggled with the reverse — three months of excessive rain. Weather challenges are not a shock nor surprise. Disappointing, yes, but I know worrying doesn’t change it, or help me in any way.

So I tucked my worries away, concerned for the pressure my farmer was feeling, but confident I was dealing well with the lack of rain. I kept busy, focused on other things, took advantages of get-togethers with friends and carried on.

Then on June 29th it rained! Such relief! We woke to 13.4 mm in the rain gauge! The most substantial rainfall we’d had all spring. The crops looked so much better that day.

But I noticed something else. I felt happier, lighter. There was a spring in my step I hadn’t had for a while. I was smiling more. Despite believing I was dealing well with the drought-like conditions, it was still a weight I carried on my shoulders. I wasn’t immune to worry. Damn. Not as strong as I think I am.

I talked to a couple of other farming friends who could relate. It was a reminder to be aware, to look out not only for our farming partners in times of stress, but also to look after ourselves. To talk about what’s going on if we need to, even if we don’t want to be seen as that person complaining about the weather — again, despite those concerns being valid.

The business of producing food has many rewards, but it isn’t easy dealing with the weather-dependent aspect of farming. We can do absolutely everything to the best of our ability but ultimately Mother Nature holds the cards, determines the outcome — and our income. Every. Single. Year. I’m not sure it’s a risk you ever get used to, so finding ways to cope is important.

Building a support system helps. Personally I have friends — farming and non-farming — who truly understand and are always there for me. I met with a counselor last winter whose door is always open any time I need to talk. As well, there are many resources available at Manitoba Farm, Rural and Northern Support Services.

More recently, the Do More Ag Foundation was founded by a group of people passionate about mental health in agriculture. They are not only creating awareness, educating and breaking the stigma, but are also creating a community for people to connect and find the resources they need — national, provincial and territorial — in times of stress and anxiety.

Through their website I discovered there’s even an app for that. Calm in the Storm is a free app, created by mental health professionals in Manitoba, launched in December 2014. The easy to use app and website are designed to reduce, manage, and learn about stress in your life using clinically proven information and strategies. Features include guided audio meditations, tools for assessing your stress with ways to customize and track your experience and even create a personalized safety plan.

A helpful tool for anyone and one I will be exploring as our crops continue to struggle with lack of rain. The recent heat wave has taken its toll on our farm and those around us. Other areas have been hit hard with storms and hail. With farming we rarely get the perfect year, but the extremes are especially challenging. The hold the weather has on our lives and livelihoods can, at times, be tiring.

A friend recently posted a picture of a canola field damaged by hail, stating, “Farmers are proud to share the good stories but suffer silently with the bad ones.” So true. It is much easier to share our successes than our hardships. But the culture is slowly shifting, for the better. There is more openness, increased awareness and many resources available for our mental well-being. No need to suffer silently in times of stress. Strength is being redefined. It no longer means carrying the load on your own.


Links:

Do More Ag – Resources:   www.domore.ag/resources/

Manitoba Farm, Rural and Northern Support Services:    www.supportline.ca

Calm in the Storm:    www.calminthestormapp.com

 

 

No longer a silent “D”

Slowly, silently, stealthily it snuck up on me. Going about my day-to-day activities, I had no idea it was approaching and ready to swallow me. Then one day, I couldn’t stop crying. I didn’t know why. I had everything I needed and more. Two beautiful, healthy young children. A wonderful husband who loved me unconditionally. Amazing, supportive, loving family and friends. My health. My home. Life was better than I ever imagined it could be, yet the overwhelming sadness and despair won’t leave.

I tried to fight through it, shake it off, tell myself to smarten up, get over it. I was strong, capable, determined – or at least I used to be… Now I was so tired, spent, useless. But the more I slept, the more exhausted I became. I wanted to be alone. I couldn’t think clearly. I couldn’t focus. The simplest tasks took all my energy. I just didn’t care anymore. I was confused, but above all else – I was really scared. I had no idea what was happening to me.

That was 1995. After confessing my feelings to family, I went for counselling and eventually group therapy for — depression. I hated the “D” word and all that it represented. Beyond a couple of trusted family members, I told no one. I was embarrassed. I was ashamed. Admitting I was depressed made me feel weak. I should have been able to deal with ‘it’ on my own.

My counsellor was kind, understanding, compassionate and made me see otherwise. She had me write down what had happened in my life during the last year. The first 6 months were rather uneventful, but then my mother died. Followed by the deaths of my husband’s grandfather and his great aunt. On the heels of those losses was the birth of our second child, a beautiful baby girl. Shortly after I met my biological father, whom I hadn’t seen since I was 2 years old.

After learning of this chain of events, my counselor replied, “And you’re wondering why you’re struggling?” I responded, “But not everything’s been sad – look at the birth of my daughter and meeting my dad. Other people have so much worse going on in their lives.”

Growing up, no matter what happened, we’d always been told how lucky we were, how so many others were worse off than us, to not complain, to be grateful. Her reply, “That doesn’t take away your right to grieve.”

Grieve? I thought I had done that, but looking back, so much emotion was shoved aside as I ‘got on with it’ and did what needed to be done, or what I perceived was required of me. I didn’t realize that grieving also involved ‘what might have been’ if I my biological father had been part of my life. Postpartum depression was likely also part of the equation although I do not remember it being the focus. It took several months, but eventually I felt healthy, strong and vibrant again. I can’t remember if medication was ever discussed, but for me,  counselling worked. Afterwards I quietly tucked that part of my life away.

It took years before I ever mentioned my depression to anyone, and then only to trusted sources or someone who spoke to me about their struggles. The response 99% of the time was, “You? Depressed? But you’re always so upbeat and happy!”

Actually, not always. And when you live and work on the farm, it is easy to ‘hide’. If you can, you avoid going out in public. When you must go, you quickly learn the best times to avoid seeing too many people. You arrive late and leave early. You find ways to deflect other’s asking, “How are you?”

This past summer, depression came slowly creeping back again. I didn’t recognize it at first. But by late fall, the feelings of overwhelming sadness, fatigue and inability to concentrate seemed all too familiar. I had been avoiding ‘peopling’ whenever possible for fear of tears uncontrollably flowing. I could feel myself spiraling downward but I didn’t want to hit bottom. I didn’t want to return the dark place I was in 1995. I wanted to grab a lifeline. So I did.

I started by being honest with everyone around me. When asked how I was doing (and I knew they genuinely wanted to know), I told them. I made an appointment with my doctor. Without hesitation, he discussed possible solutions including medication and counselling. I chose the latter but knew if I needed more help, it was only a phone call away. I was able to see my counsellor within a couple of weeks. In the meantime I continued on with yoga and bootcamp classes even though being in public was difficult and uncomfortable. I recognized physical activity benefited my mental state. And I walked…and walked. If I accomplished nothing else in a day, I was okay with that. Self-care became priority.

What a difference 22 years has made.

Depression didn’t make me feel weak, ashamed or afraid. I was disappointed to see it overtake me again but was grateful I recognized it. I knew how to reach for help and it wasn’t hard to find. And I realized that being honest and open doesn’t make us vulnerable, it just makes us human.


Need help or someone to talk to? Consulting with your healthcare provider or another trusted professional is always a great start.  Click on the links below for lists of places to call, text or chat across the country. 

Manitoba Farm, Rural & Northern Support Services 1-866-367-3276

Farm Stress Line – Saskatchewan 1-800-667-4442

Alberta Health Services 1-877-303-2642

Canadian Crisis Centres

Crisis Services Canada 1-833-456-4566

Bell Let’s Talk 

Mental Health in Farm Language