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The retiring farmer

In the dictionary, to be “retiring” means to bow silently out. Now, one of North America’s top farm retirement experts, shares why it’s the wrong strategy for our older farmers

“The previous generation is underused,” says psychologist Michael Rosmann. “If you could address that, it would make a significant contribution to agriculture.”

Retirement can be a daunting prospect for nearly everyone, especially if they have had a meaningful career. Still, the adjustment in agriculture really is more acute than in many other sectors.

MichaelRosmann. photo: Supplied

“In agriculture, we have the added problem of being tied closely to the land,” says Iowa psychologist, speaker, author and farmer Dr. Michael Rosmann. “And the urge to remain active in farming and to produce food and fibre is so strong that it perhaps makes it harder for farm people than any other occupation.”

Agriculture is unique in another way too.

On many farms the emotions involved in retiring are even harder to deal with than the financial transition.

“We don’t see the number of people moving to town as they age that we saw in previous generations,” says Rosmann. “They stay on the land as long as they can, and most of them don’t want to go to elderly facilities because they see those as a place to die.

“They want to be useful; that’s the most important aspect of life, to be useful and do something meaningful.”

So, what do they do? In some cases, as long as their health permits, there may be an opportunity to adapt their role, says Rosmann. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

“Some people can’t get into the tractor anymore or are bothered by mechanization or the use of computers, but they can provide advice about the agronomic aspects and assist with the selection of crops, or advise about purchases,” he says.

“In some cases, they can drive the truck from the field to the farm or storage facility. The elderly generation has so much to give because of their knowledge and experience.”

An underutilized resource

The problem is, the incoming generation doesn’t always acknowledge or appreciate the resource that their parents or grandparents can be.

“It’s important that younger people recognize the wealth of skills and information that the older generation can impart or offer,” says Rosmann. “They don’t always have to take the advice, but at least they’re there to offer and be a sounding board. If we can figure out better ways to bridge that gap between older and retiring, or farmers in the latest phase of their life with farmers who are actively engaged in agriculture, it’s something that would really help.”

In fact, retiring or soon-to-retire farmers are an underutilized resource in terms of not just the agronomic, production, business and management advice they can provide to the farm community, but also in the area of agvocacy, which is so important as more consumers want to know more about where and how their food is produced.

There are a lot more opportunities to do that than there used to be, including farm mentorship programs, Open Farm days, Agriculture in the Classroom and other farm and commodity organizations doing educational outreach that don’t preclude farmers who are not actively farming, and in fact are ideal for those needing to fill their time purposefully.

“Generally, the previous generation is underused and if you could address that, it would make a significant contribution to agriculture,” says Rosmann.

Older farmers also tend to have a lot of credibility with elected officials, says Rosmann, adding that in his state, many of Iowa’s county commissioners or state senate or state house representatives are farmers or ex-farmers over 60 years of age.

“The person in the office will know these farmers because they have been around for 40 or 50 years. It would be a good thing to recommend that older farmers contact their elected officials by email, telephone or letters to share expertise,” he says. “I see people doing that to some extent.”

The value of behavioural health

Throughout his long working career, Rosmann has sought to improve the behavioural health of the agricultural population. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Colorado and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Utah, he worked as a faculty member in the psychology department of the University of Virginia for five years before moving with his family to their farm in rural western Iowa.

There he developed a purebred livestock operation, and provided mental health services to the farm population. He continues to work with farmers and their families and has established a website ( where people can learn about the emerging field of agricultural behavioural health.

While farmers can still be reluctant to open up about their financial situation or their personal lives, over the past 15 to 20 years, farm operators and their families have become more aware of behavioural health issues, says Rosmann.

“Farm people have become more psychologically minded than the earlier generations,” he says.

“They open up a lot more to each other and are less afraid of seeking assistance,” he explains. “They are thinking about how they can adjust psychologically to leaving the farm or leaving farming as their life’s work. It hasn’t gotten any easier, but at least they’re talking about it.”

But not everything has changed. In fact, the core hasn’t changed at all, says Rosmann, who emphasizes that through all his work, he sees farming as “a noble and essential occupation, and a profoundly spiritual way of life.”

Rosmann spends a lot of time in a counselling role these days, communicating one-on-one with retired farmers struggling to find meaning in their lives after leaving the farm. Often, he says, it’s just a case of needing someone to talk to who understands their issues, and he advises farmers to try and seek out that support network and have it in place long before retirement day comes, especially since it can come more quickly than expected if any health issues pop up.

“Every person needs to have a support group that includes family and sources of expertise beyond what the family can offer,” says Rosmann. “It might be to have a meeting with a business manager for your retirement funds or an agricultural lender, or maybe another farmer who is able to keep things quiet and is a good sounding board. Sometimes it might be a pastor, especially in rural areas, or an extension person or someone with a government program. Occasionally, it may even be a counsellor who can help work through difficult issues when there are disagreements or conflict.”

If there’s a physical health issue, Rosmann suggests, consult a community nurse or someone from a local senior’s program who can help with issues of aging, housing, estate planning or whatever is needed.

Preparing for what’s next

It’s also important to transition and put the focus on the fact that leaving farming isn’t the end. Instead, it can be the beginning of a new phase of life which can be energizing and meaningful.

That said, it is also the phase where at some point, people will face the end-of-life stage. Although it is something many people are reluctant to even think about, it’s as important to prepare for it as it is to live fully and purposefully up to that point.

“If it becomes clear that the end is fairly near, it’s important for the family to hold a discussion with a funeral home or someone who will carry out the final ceremonies and for the person who is aging to say, ‘Here’s what I want done,’” says Rosmann.

“That is a piece of business that needs to be taken care of when we’re thinking about how it is going to end. I think it also helps to know what will happen medically. Will I be in pain? Will I be frightened? Talking with a pastor, or nurse, or someone who’s been through that with others helps.”

Making peace with death is a critical part of life that’s important to the dying individual and the people they leave behind, says Rosmann. “Most people do not go out kicking, screaming and angry. Most people find it a satisfying, peaceful experience, so I think spiritual preparation helps us to come to terms with the fact that we’re all going to die, and it’s not a frightening thing.”

“We have a responsibility to show others after us how to pass with dignity because our children often will think back on how did Mom and Dad do this. When you realize that this is affecting the children, then you prepare yourself and let them know in discussions what keeps you going and what keeps you from becoming anxious or upset.”

Having a network of friends or people who understand — and having all of the pieces in place — builds closeness in the family and makes it easier on everyone, says Rosmann. “We all have our own way of preparing, but we need to prepare without being frightened.”

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Angela Lovell

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