Unrewarded hard work adds to stress

Here's how one farmer got relief from the mounting pressures Five years ago, before Freedom to Farm and the global market descended upon us, all a farmer needed to succeed was a passion to farm and a mechanical mind. But today, passion doesn't necessarily translate into profitability. And nowhere in a farmer's shop is an hydraulic pump that can raise prices, an acetylene torch that can cut costs or an application tank he can fill with storm cloud seeds.

And so, for three years in a row, cautiously optimistic Mid-South farmers could only hope that things would be better next year. And each year, the continuing disappointment took a bigger bite out of their sense of well being. This disconnect between hard work and success may have created mental stresses so severe that they could no longer work it out on their own.

That's the way it was for west Tennessee farmer Richard Jameson, who watched almost helplessly as his business and personal life unraveled during the last three years of the farm crisis.

Fortunately, this producer, with the help of his wife and a close friend, got help before it was too late. As Jameson looked back on those troubled times, it occurred to him that perhaps there were other farmers out there like him. And although discussing mental stress is not something that he is entirely comfortable with, he realized that his story could help others.

On a recent late September morning, Jameson sat in his small farm office in Brownsville, Tenn. He wants to make one thing clear. "This is not a sob story," he begins.

For Jameson, the stress cycle began in late 1998, when he and other southern farmers started encountering aflatoxin problems in corn. "Corn prices were low to start with and our yields were just a little bit below average," Jameson recalled. "With the aflatoxin, the elevators weren't real interested in buying it. We did sell it all, but at a pretty big discount."

In the end, the producer recouped very little of the money he put into the corn crop. He had below-average soybean and cotton crops. In the spring of 1999, a key employee became ill. There were other localized labor problems to deal with as well.

"In May, 1999, it essentially quit raining here in west Tennessee," Jameson said. "We didn't receive hardly anything from May 3 to July 4. It rained around July 4, then it didn't rain again until the middle of October."

In the middle of June, 1999, Jameson's father, Billy, had a heart attack and passed away after a lifetime of farming. He was 80 years old.

The hot, dry summer dragged on. "Lord, it was one thing after another," the farmer said. "My mother was having problems, too, but after Daddy died, she was living at home by herself. Slowly, her health began to deteriorate. They had been together 60 years. Her mind was sharp, but physically she was going down. She went into the hospital in December, that situation lasted about 15 weeks until she passed away in April, 2000. So both my parents died in roughly a nine month period."

Meanwhile, Jameson's mental outlook seemed to be deteriorating as the 1999 season wore on. "When I would wake up in the morning, I would have this tremendous anxiety. But I had to get up and I had to go to work. We were planting, harvesting wheat, spraying cotton. Generally, by 2:30 in the afternoon, mentally and emotionally, things began to pick up. But I didn't know why I was feeling that way."

To his consternation, things continued to get worse. Feelings of hopelessness swept over the producer several times each day. Soon, he found it difficult to manage his work crew, a skill which had been second nature to him.

The anxiety had also spilled over into Jameson's homelife. The farmer started avoiding social situations with his family. He lost his appetite. "All I wanted to do was go to my bedroom, shut the door, turn out the lights, close my eyes and stay in bed."

In the middle of the crisis his wife, Jane, told him, "I haven't seen you laugh in six months."

Fortunately, Jane did not give up on her husband. In fact, she dug in her heels to get him back. "I'm a very competitive person," she said. "That was my spirit during the whole thing. I knew that this was not the same man I had dated and married. And I thought, `I'm going to get that person back.'"

The Jamesons already had one thing going for them. "Our communication with each other is really good," Jane said. "When he was going through the bottom of this, it was important for the both of us to talk to each other and communicate with each other. But I felt he had gotten into a situation where he couldn't really see his way out. I feel like I can counsel with the best of them. But it was beyond my ability."

They continued to talk. "He'd finish up work about 8:30 or 9 p.m., and we would go walking and talk about some of these things," Jane said. "I would say, `Let's go talk to a counselor and see if he has any suggestions. Maybe there's something to this, but maybe there's not.'"

Finally, Jameson did have a long talk with his family doctor, a friend, who had two things to say to the producer. One, Jameson had every sign of clinical depression. Secondly, the doctor noticed the signs two years before and was surprised it took him so long to come in.

The doctor started Jameson on the anti-depressant, Paxil, which regulates chemical imbalances in the brain. "It took about four weeks to kick in," Jameson said. "I was concerned about addiction, but he assured me that they had never seen any signs of it."

The medication put Jameson's anxiety level on a more even keel. Slowly, he was able to cope again, and think clearly, even under the pressure of low prices, mounting costs and continued dry weather.

That was only the beginning of the road to recovery, however. For example, Jameson is continuing to change some behaviors that contribute to stress, like doing a better job of separating emotion from his business decisions.

"Farming is one of those things where business and emotion are intertwined. I think that makes us much more susceptible to stress. It's harder to change jobs and go do something else. You're so tied emotionally to the job and the land."

An example is the marketing. "We put so much time and effort and thought in the planning and growing of the crop. We become emotionally tied to it. That's why it's so hard for us to pull the trigger and sell. "

There was another change as Jameson emerged from what he said were long periods, "of dark thoughts." I though that I was the only person that this was happening to. That is the most common feeling. But that's not true. It can happen to anybody. I'm college-educated and have a great wife and kids."

Jane adds that the family was able to survive this very stressful time in their lives, "because God fueled us with determination and provided us with an unbelievable resource of supportive family, friends and professionals. It was only through His power that we've emerged stronger than before."

The farm crisis still lingers for many southern farmers, including Jameson. But today, he says he's about an 8 on a scale of 1-10, with 10 living a stress-free life. "But it's something that I have to work on every day."

That's fine with Jane. "I'll take an 8 over a 2 any day," she said.

But is the man she married back in top form? "Let's see. If you had asked me Saturday, I was so mad at him ... " she laughed. "But yes, I'd say he's back."

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