February 1996 // Volume 34 // Number 1 // Feature Articles // 1FEA3

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The On-Going Farm Crisis: Extension Leadership in Rural Communities

While much has been written about the farm crisis of the 1980s, very little attention has been given to the on-going farm crisis of the 1990s. This article focuses on the on-going farm crisis, highlights data from a survey of Wisconsin farm families, and outlines interventions that will help Extension agents address the situation. The interventions outlined in the article can help Extension agents overcome the perception that Extension only works with the most successful farmers in the county.

Roger T. Williams
Professor and Chairman
Health and Human Issues Department
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Internet address: dee.mack@mail.admin.wisc.edu

While much has been written about the farm crisis of the 1980s, very little attention has been given to the on-going farm financial crisis of the 1990s. This article focuses on the on-going farm crisis, highlights data from a survey of Wisconsin farm families, and outlines interventions that will help Extension agents address the situation. The starting point is the crisis of the 1980s. An understanding of that period provides the context for responding in the 1990s.

The Crisis of the 1980s

The farm crisis of the mid 1980s was triggered by a number of macro-economic forces. Plummeting farm values were primary: land and other farm assets declined nearly 50% from their peak in the late-70s to their low point in the mid-80s. Farmers who had invested large sums of money in their farming operations and had high debt loads were hurt the worst because they no longer had the equity to support their loans. Foreclosures and bankruptcies became common-place as agriculture experienced the biggest shake-out since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The social and emotional impacts on farm families were great. Heffernan and Heffernan (1985), in interviews with 42 Missouri families forced out of farming, found that nearly all of the families experienced depression along with a high incidence of withdrawal from family and friends, feelings of worthlessness, mood swings, and increased physical aggressiveness. They also noted a marked decline in the farmer's voluntary activities; nearly half of the families cut back on their volunteer involvements in 4-H, Extension homemakers, hog producers, church, school, and other activities.

Farm family impacts were documented in other states and provinces as well. Bultena, Lasley, and Geller (1986), in a survey of 1,040 Iowa farm families, found significant associations between the levels of financial distress, the perceived level of personal and family stress, and a deterioration in the life situations of farm families. Walker and Walker (1988), in a study of 817 men and women in Western Canada, found high levels of frequent illness, headaches, fatigue, forgetfulness, loss of temper, lack of concentration, back pain, sleep disruptions, behavioral problems in children, and marriage problems in farm families. Higher levels of these stress-related symptoms were found in younger farm families. And, Beeson, Johnson, and Ortega (1991), in a longitudinal study of Nebraska farmers from 1981 to 1986, found significantly higher rates of depression, anxiety, cognitive impairment, and psychosocial dysfunction during the heart of the farm crisis in 1986, with rates of reported depression almost doubling over this five year period of time.

A Decade of Distress

The farm crisis has, nevertheless, continued. Many Wisconsin farmers have commented that conditions are much worse now than they were during the farm crisis of the 1980s. This can be explained through the concept of cumulative stress. McCubbin and Patterson (1981) emphasize that stressors are additive: stressor pile-up consists of prior and current stressors to which a person or family has not fully adapted. And Albee (1982) argues that when we face chronic and prolonged stress, our ability to adapt to the situation becomes impaired and this can result in physical or emotional problems.

The stressors of the mid 1980s were followed by a series of other stressors largely outside the control of Wisconsin farmers and there has been little opportunity to adapt to the situation. These stressors include: the drought of 1988; feed shortages in 1989; depressed milk prices in late 1990, continuing through 1991; drought, frost, and winterkill of alfalfa in 1992; floods and alfalfa winterkill in 1993; and extreme heat in the summer of 1995. Most Wisconsin farmers simply haven't had the recovery time needed to rebound from the decade of distress experienced from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s.

The on-going crisis is evidenced in two ways. The Farmers Assistance Hotline within the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection has received 500 to 700 calls a month, dating back to the fall of 1990. Increasingly, the calls have involved emotional distress: depression is common and withdrawal, alcohol abuse, domestic violence and suicidal tendencies are much more prevalent now than they were in the 1980s. Then, the Harvest of Hope, a voluntary church-sponsored program that offers financial assistance to Wisconsin farmers in difficult financial situations has experienced significantly more applications in 1993, 1994, and 1995. The vast majority of farm applicants have commented on the devastation caused by the drought of 1992, the floods of 1993, the heat of 1995, and other stresses of farming in the 1990s.


In the fall of 1994, the Health and Human Issues Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison worked with the Harvest of Hope Fund to survey past recipients of Harvest of Hope funding, with two goals in mind: (a) to determine the helpfulness of the fund, and (b) to assess the current situation of these Wisconsin farm families. Surveys were sent to all farm families served by the fund since its inception in 1986.

Of the 329 surveys that were sent, 163 were returned for a response rate of 49%. Most were between the ages of 35 and 60 years old, with 26 being under the age of 35 and 23 over the age of 60. Of those who completed the survey, 101 were male and 60 were female (two respondents did not identify their sex). The average farm size was 205 acres with an average of 94 head of cattle. The vast majority (105) indicated that they were dairy farmers, with the following numbers reporting other farming enterprises: 39 cash crops, 12 hog, 10 beef, 7 heifer and 5 other.

Survey Results

Farmers were provided with a listing of the most common situations outlined in Harvest of Hope applications and asked whether any of the situations have occurred in their family in the past 10 years. Large percentages of farmers indicated that they had experienced each problem, as reflected in the following list (in declining order of problem severity): drought (74%); assignment of milk check (61%); flood (54%); illness in livestock (53%); lack of health insurance (48%); frost (43%); stray voltage (33%); disabling illness (29%); bankruptcy (24%); hail (23%); foreclosure (22%); barn/house fire (14%); and disabling farm accident (10%).

The responses to this question were disturbing. In addition to the fact that large percentages of farmers reported various items, there were large numbers of farmers who indicated they had experienced multiple situations--three, four, five, and even six of the situations over the past ten year period. It was also disturbing that 48% of farmers had been without health insurance, when 29% indicated they had experienced a disabling illness and 10% had experienced a disabling accident over this ten year period.

Farmers were then asked what, if any, stress-related conditions have you or your spouse experienced because of the farm financial crisis? From the responses, it is clear that symptomatology for physical and emotional problems was high. When the responses for both spouses were added together, the conditions, in declining level of severity, were as follows: feel tired all the time (172); difficulty sleeping (170); high and low mood swings (167); feelings of worthlessness (142); withdrawal from family and friends (125); unusually silent at times (119); depressed (115); confused/unable to think clearly (109); restless/do anything to keep busy (93); overeating/gaining weight (76); increased fear of people/things (57); nauseous/loss of appetite (55); more physically aggressive (53); thoughts of suicide (40); increased smoking (35); and increased alcohol abuse (21).

These responses were also disturbing. Nearly one-fourth of the respondents (40) indicated that they or their spouse had experienced thoughts of suicide. There were 13 other conditions that ranked even higher. The level of exhaustion, depression, withdrawal from family and friends, inability to think clearly, and negative self-worth indicate that large numbers of these farm families were struggling with classic symptoms of burnout. Most had experienced a decade of distress and this chronic, prolonged stress was simply taking its toll on farm families in the state.

When asked what are the three major concerns faced by farmers in their community, respondents shared a variety of concerns (Table 1).

Table 1
Concerns Faced by Farmers
Concern Number of Responses
Low milk or other commodity prices 301
High cost of inputs 82
High taxes 70
Financial/cash flow problems 51
Health insurance/health problems 48
Ability to compete/stay in farming 38
Government indifference/regulations 36
Interest high/no credit 31
Weather conditions 27
Too much work/lack of hired help 18
Lack of good markets 14
Not able to enter/exit farming 9
Lack of time/money for family 9
Society doesn't understand farming/treats poorly 8
Lack of hay/feed 5
Note: Listed in declining order of priority, using a weighted rating to assess priorities.

Low milk or other commodity prices was, by far, the most pressing concern of Harvest of Hope recipients. Yet, what should be clear from the responses is the central theme of tight finances: high cost of inputs, high taxes, financial/cash flow problems, interest high/no credit, lack of good markets, and others. The survey also verified two observations made by Harvest of Hope volunteers through the years: (a) many applicants were without health insurance due to the high cost of obtaining coverage, and (b) many farm families felt strapped to the farm due to the amount of work and the difficulty of finding good, reliable hired help.

Farmers were then asked about their continuing needs at this time. Respondents offered a range of different needs or issues. In declining order, the needs were: time off (59); financial consultation (53); medical needs (50); feed for cattle (38); legal assistance (34); food stamps (31); someone to talk to (29); couples retreat (25); off-farm work (21); spiritual needs (15); job training (14); farm wife retreat (14); repairs from flooding (11); support group (10); social activities (9); see a counselor (5).

These needs were cross-checked by respondent age. While financial consultation and time off surfaced as common needs for younger and middle aged farmers and food stamps emerged as a common need between younger and older farmers, the only need that appears among the top three priorities for all three age groups is medical needs. It is clear from this survey that medical issues (lack of insurance, inadequate insurance, disabling illness, disabling injury, hospital or medical bills) were a major concern for farm families in difficult financial situations.

When asked to indicate the degree of help they had received from local agencies and organizations, several organizations were listed, including Harvest of Hope, churches, schools, Extension, social services, mental health agency, health care agency, community action, and food pantries. A weighted rating was used to reflect the overall helpfulness of agencies and the results were: Harvest of Hope (495); churches (227); extension (141); social services (89); food pantries (81); schools (68); community action (57); health care agencies (39); and mental health agencies (13).

Because all of the farm families surveyed had received direct financial assistance from the Harvest of Hope, it is not surprising that they would rate Harvest of Hope as being helpful. What is interesting is that churches and Extension were perceived as being more responsive to farm families than the helping agencies--social services, community action, health care agencies, and mental health agencies--in communities. This finding undoubtedly reflects farmers' negative experiences with these agencies as well as their lack of awareness of helping organizations in communities.

Finally, farmers were asked what, if anything, prevented them from gaining the needed services? Respondents provided a variety of different answers. The one response that came through overwhelmingly was pride (24 responses). Farmers tend to be too proud and independent to reach out for services from agencies in the community. Several farmers also commented that they were ineligible for services (14 responses) and many responded that they were not aware of what resources were available or how to tap into them (13 responses). It is clear that agencies could be doing much more to help farmers understand what services are available to farm families and what constraints they may have in addressing farm family needs.


What can Extension agents do to help farmers in crisis? One of the most helpful things an agent can do is network with other agencies in the community. Farmers in distress require a range of different resources: financial consultation, legal advice, social support, spiritual guidance, emergency needs (food, clothing, fuel oil), job counseling and/or job training, emotional counseling, and others. It is helpful if agents can be aware of these community resources and be able to refer farm families for assistance. The referral will be much more effective if the agent knows the job counselor or mental health counselor and can say "I know _________ and I think you would find him/her to be most helpful with your situation."

Given farmer's lack of awareness of resources in communities, agents can also help out by making farmers more aware of the agencies in their communities and the services they offer. This can be done in a variety of ways: newsletters, newspaper columns, service provider panels at Extension sponsored meetings, and directories of helping agencies in the county or area. The directories can be available at the Extension office and at all meetings offered by Extension, at the county fair, in churches and schools, and in the offices of all helping agencies in the community. A number of Extension offices in Wisconsin have been involved in developing agency directories--some elaborate, some simple--and it has been viewed as most helpful by farm families in need.

What else can Extension agents do? Agents can also take a leadership role in sponsoring workshops on topics of concern to distressed farmers, offering one-on-one counseling to farmers in distress, getting farmers linked with print and video resources that may be helpful to them, initiating farm family support groups, and training formal and informal helpers to be more responsive to farm families in distress. Work in these arenas can counteract the criticism sometimes leveled at Extension agents that "Extension only works with the most successful farmers in the county."

Some of the needs for financial and legal assistance that were identified in the Harvest of Hope survey can be addressed through a combination of workshops, one-on-one counseling, and linking farmers with print and video resources. This is an arena where Extension has functioned well in the past. Yet, there is a need to recognize the special needs of farmers in distress and to target some services toward these farm families. Workshops that focus on legal options and more intensive one-on-one financial counseling sessions can be most helpful. Video resources may be more helpful than print resources with farm families that are depressed, exhausted, and not able to think clearly. Videos that highlight alternative economic options (diversifying the farming operation, starting a business in the home, seeking off-farm employment) can be most helpful if they involve farmers talking about options that have worked for them (Williams, 1989).

The need for social support is also apparent from the Harvest of Hope survey. A number of farmers identified their needs for: someone to talk to, couples retreat, farm wife retreat, support group, and social activities. Agents wanting to establish farm family support groups have a number of barriers to overcome: (a) farm families have become more and more isolated as the crisis has continued, (b) families often lack the time and energy to become involved, and (c) the pride and independence of farm families can make it difficult for them to share heartfelt concerns. Some of these barriers can be overcome by following basic principles of support group formation: go where the energy is; decide on a purpose; include time for socializing; share responsibility for the group; emphasize nurturing and acceptance; make sure people have a chance to talk; encourage contacts between sessions; and emphasize the importance of confidentiality (Williams, 1990; Williams 1989). While it may be difficult to get a support group established, it can be a powerful resource for farmers in distress. One farmer from southwestern Wisconsin commented that "This group is my lifeline" and he meant it literally: it was his group that gave him the support he needed to go on living.

Creating a more supportive climate for farmers in their communities can also be a helpful role for Extension agents. This means going beyond agency networking to train formal and informal helpers in the community to be more responsive to farmers in need. The farm culture is unique--farm families are proud, independent, and self-reliant and these qualities make it hard for farm families to reach out for help when they are in need. Formal helpers (health, mental health, social services, clergy, community action, employment and training staff) and informal helpers (veterinarians, milk testers, creditors, agribusinesses, consolidated farm service workers) can be most helpful if they understand the farmers' dilemma and how to respond. Formal caregivers need to understand the current situation of farm families, the farm culture, the implications of agency policies (sliding fee scales based on gross income), and how they can be more responsive to farmers in need. Informal caregivers need to understand the signs and symptoms of distress, what resources exist in the community, how to listen and demonstrate support, and how to make referrals to helping resources. Providing training for both groups can help to create linkages between the formal and informal helpers in communities (Williams, 1995).

Finally, Extension agents can be helpful by addressing the complex web of national, state, and local policies that are making it hard to survive and be profitable as a farmer in today's economy. Agents can address the following seven issues in newsletters and newspaper columns, by sponsoring policy forums which highlight the issues, and by using their own personal influence to change the policies: (a) promoting commodity pricing which allows farmers to survive; (b) cutting property taxes and/or valuing agricultural land on the basis of its current use; (c) allowing capital gains to roll over into a retirement account so older farmers are not taxed heavily as they exit farming; (d) creating environmental policies that protect natural resources and allow farmers to produce food and earn a living; (e) providing health insurance by changing Medicaid eligibility requirements or making sure farmers are covered in health care reform packages at the federal or state level; (f) creating outreach programs to link farmers with resources to meet their financial, legal or human service needs; and (g) providing job training for distressed farmers to help them supplement their farm income or transition out of farming.


Farm families have faced a "decade of distress" as the farm crisis continues. There are several things Extension agents can do to respond to farm families in distress. The interventions outlined in this article can help Extension agents overcome the perception that Extension only works with the most successful farmers in the county.


Albee, G. (1982). Preventing psychopathology and promoting human potential. American Psychologist, 37(9), 1043-1050.

Beeson, P. G., Johnson, D. R., & Ortega, S. T. (1991). The farm crisis and mental health: A longitudinal (1981, 1986, 1989) and comparative study of the economy and mental health status. Unpublished manuscript.

Bultena, G., Lasley, P., & Geller, J. (1986). The farm crisis: Patterns and impacts of financial distress among Iowa farm families. Rural Sociology, 51(4).

Heffernan, J. B., & Heffernan, W. D. (1985). The effects of the agricultural crisis on the health and lives of farm families. Statement prepared for a hearing of the Committee on Agriculture, U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, DC. (Available from William Heffernan, Rural Sociology Department, University of Missouri-Columbia, 102 Sociology Building, Columbia, MO 65211)

McCubbin, H. I., & Patterson, J. (1981). Systematic assessment of family stress, resources and coping. St. Paul: University of Minnesota.

Walker, J. L., & Walker, L. J. S. (1988). Self reported stress symptoms in farmers. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 44(1).

Williams, R. T. (1990). Developing farm family support groups. Unpublished manuscript, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Williams, R. T. (1989). Economic options for Wisconsin farm families [Videos]. (Available from Roger Williams, Health and Human Issues Department, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 610 Langdon Street, Madison, WI 53703)

Williams, R. T. (1989). Organizing community support groups. Unpublished manuscript, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Williams, R. T. (1995, January). The farm and rural crisis: developing services for farm families and rural communities. Paper presented at The First International Conference on Social Work in Health and Mental Health Care, Jerusalem, Israel.