Farm Management & The Mental Health of Farmers

The Stigma-Free Society recently spoke with Heather Watson of Farm Management Canada to speak about the correlation between farm management and the mental health of farmers and other agricultural workers. We asked Heather about farmer stress and the results of the Healthy Minds, Healthy Farms report.

Can you tell us about Farm Management Canada’s research that connects mental health with good farm business management, and how your team initially became interested in rural mental wellness?

For 30 years, Farm Management Canada has been dedicated to helping Canada’s farmers achieve sustainable growth and prosperity by developing, delivering and connecting farmers with the resources, tools and information to advance their farm business skills and practices.

Farmer mental health came into our purview after hearing Dr. David Posen (“Doc Calm”) speak about the effects of prolonged stress at a young farmer conference in 2018. He spoke about how much of the stress we feel is caused by uncertainty and worry, and how prolonged stress can cause us to lose sleep, isolate ourselves from family and friends, become quick-tempered and have difficulty prioritizing and making informed decisions. We quickly realized the detrimental effects prolonged stress could have on effective farm business management, and wanted to learn more. In 2019, we embarked on a national study to explore the connection between mental health and farm business management and how one could impact the other. We published our results in 2020 in a report called Healthy Minds, Healthy Farms, which included twenty-four recommendations to help support farmer mental health. Since publishing our results, farmer mental health has become a mainstay in our mandate and programming.

Our study results confirmed that Canada’s farmers are stressed. 75 percent of Canada’s farmers reported being moderate to highly stressed. Furthermore, the unpredictability of the agricultural sector, workload pressures and lack of time, and financial pressures were cited by farmers as the greatest causes of stress.

However, there is good news. Farm business management practices like planning ahead has a positive effect on farmer mental health – in fact, 88 percent of farmers who follow a written business plan say it has contributed to their peace of mind. These farmers are also more likely to adopt effective coping mechanisms when faced with stressful situations and are more likely to reach out for support.

What role does uncertainty (financial, environmental, etc.) play in rural mental health struggles?

Uncertainty plays a huge role in farmer mental health. Farmers are faced with incredible uncertainty brought by weather, market fluctuations affecting input costs and market prices, and changes in policy and regulations – much of which is outside of the farmers’ control. This feeling of helplessness in the face of the unknown is the number one contributor to farmer stress and mental health. On the bright side, business management practices like planning help farmers reduce uncertainty by assessing potential scenarios and putting measures in place to reduce risk and uncertainty, while gaining confidence and a greater sense of control over outcomes.

How do farm business practices help manage stress and improve mental health?

Farm business practices, like planning, facilitate important processes on the farm to assess risk and potential outcomes, helping farm managers put measures in place to reduce uncertainty (and the stress caused by uncertainty), take calculated risks and seize new opportunities. This not only creates greater peace of mind, but also greater confidence in decision-making. Our other research also shows that farmers who adopt proven business practices also realize greater profitability and prosperity. And financial health helps support mental health.

Can you explain why farmers need mental health support that is tailored to their specific needs?

Farming is unique and farmers operate in a business environment riddled with risk and uncertainty unlike any other business. Farmers face tremendous pressure to succeed against all odds. Not only must they compete with weather, markets and politics, the vast majority are also managing family businesses, which can further complicate running a smooth business. Their unique business environment requires tailored solutions that must work within the context of farming. There is often a very short window to get it right, making traditional mental health solutions unrealistic – farmers cannot simply take a break to get away from it all – seeds must be sown, animals must be cared for, and crops must be harvested. Mental health supports must work within the reality of farming. Furthermore, mental health support available to the general population are oftentimes not available in rural communities, furthering the need for tailored access to support.

What kind of impact have the research findings had so far? What’s next?

I credit Andria Jones-Bitton at the University of Guelph for really bringing farmer mental health to the forefront of discussion within Canadian agriculture. From her ground-breaking work, we have seen the creation of programs to support farmer mental health such as the In the Know program and organizations like Do More Ag who are shining a light on the importance of farmer mental health and creating valuable resources and tools. Where you would be hard-pressed to find mental health on meeting agendas and conference programs within agriculture, it’s now the norm. And, more farmers are speaking out through these events and social media, helping reduce the stigma by speaking openly about their mental health, encouraging and inspiring fellow farmers to focus on their mental health. We’re headed in the right direction and that’s encouraging.

The Healthy Minds, Health Farms report has received incredible attention from our industry, and we have had the privilege to share our findings at industry events and through various agricultural media outlets. The twenty-four recommendations contained within the report are not just for us, but the industry as a whole. And while it’s tricky to measure what others are doing with our findings, I can tell you it has inspired further research. We are currently working with the University of Manitoba who are using our research to further study the link between mental health and management practices to explore the effect various production methods have on mental health. We’ve also created and hosted a series of workshops in support of mental health and farm management, which we plan to continue. And, mental health is worked into all of our programming and tools to ensure it’s part of a comprehensive management plan to keep farmers and their farms healthy for generations to come.

For those wanting to improve their business management practices, what are the first steps?

For those wanting to improve their business management practices, I recommend starting with an assessment. There are a number of free and easy to use tools out there including the Growing Your Farm Profits: Planning for Business Success online assessment tool available at From there, farmers will have an idea of which management areas might need a little help. The assessment includes a template for creating an Action Plan, which can be used as the beginnings of a Business Plan for the farm. From there, you will be well on your way to planning for success!