Written By: Leah Chester-Davis, Robin Tutor-Marcom, Scott Lee
But the real products of any year’s work are the farmer’s mind and the cropland itself.
Wendell Berry, an acclaimed poet, novelist, and farmer, writes eloquently about farm life. The above quote brings to mind the well-being of the farmer. It’s a topic that carries a sense of urgency as the farm community deals with a bumper year of stressors such as hurricanes, unpredictable markets, loss of contracts, tariffs, and nuisance lawsuits.
Health care professionals say the conditions are ripe for some self-care and attention to your own well-being. “It’s hard to provide self-care when your schedule is so unpredictable,” says Dr. Michael Hester, the director of the Pastoral Counseling and Growth Center in Asheville, and a frequent presenter at the Carolina Farm Credit Agricultural Leadership Institute. “You’re at the mercy of the weather; you’re at the mercy of the unpredictable economy. It’s a 24/7 job. It’s important to take care of yourself.”
Dr. Hester shares the MEDS model he uses as part of his presentation to farmers participating in the Institute, which has the goal of equipping farmers to meet the challenges of farming.
MEDS stands for Meditation, Exercise, Diet and Sleep.
Meditation – Dr.Hester says meditation is not exotic. “Close your eyes, breathe deeply, exhale, breathe deeply, and exhale. Spend a few moments repeating. Focus on your breath. If you get distracted pull yourself back by focusing on your breathing.” Dr. Hester recommends taking a few moments each day to spend in silence, using this meditation technique. “It’s just a simple form of shutting the brain off.” That can be a welcomed respite when your mind is churning with worries.
Exercise – A brief form of exercise where you sweat 30 minutes a day can work wonders for your physical and mental health. “If you can sweat hard for 30 minutes a day from 5 to 7 times a week that is ideal,” says Dr. Hester. “Farmers say, ‘Well, I sweat all day.’ I’m not talking about that kind of sweating.” He says an intentional 30 minutes of walking, running, gym exercises or Pilates where you activate the heart really hard for 30 minutes has been proven to help reduce stress. “It’s the most helpful thing you can do for your brain and body at the same time.”
Diet – “Watching what you put into your body is critical,” says Dr. Hester. “By diet, I’m not talking about going on a diet. I’m talking about watching what you eat. Often when we get stressed, we eat a lot of fats and sugars like French fries and donuts, or we drink a lot of alcohol, soft drinks or coffee. That creates more stress, making it difficult for your body to adequately manage stress.”
Sleep – Farmers wake up early and go to bed late, often not getting adequate sleep. “If you aren’t sleeping a good 7 to 8 hours a night of good rest, then you’re holding on to that stress throughout the night,” explains Dr. Hester. Among the techniques he recommends to prepare you for good sleep is to walk away from electronics. “The worst thing you can do for sleep is to watch a screen like your computer, phone or TV before you try to go to sleep. It’s important to allow your body to slow down in a darkened room to trigger your sleep mechanism.”
Over the years in presenting the MEDS program, Dr. Hester has recognized two other strategies he adds to the MEDS list: support and meaning.
Support – It’s important to have a support network, at least 5 or 6 people you can count on to listen to you, care for you, and be able to talk with about your stress or anxiety. When you have a handful of people around you who care for you and you care for them, that’s your support mechanism, he says.
Your support can be family members and it’s also good to have people outside your family. Research shows that people who have a support mechanism usually are much happier with much less stress.
Meaning – Dr. Hester says one of the best ways to find meaning in everyday life is to live with a sense of gratitude and appreciation for your life and others.
“It’s hope and love and joy and peace. It’s being able to find that in the life you live,” he explains. “Sometimes when I’m driving my tractor and I’m frustrated about something that didn’t go well, I’ll just stop and look around my farm and give thanks for my farm, for my cows, the new calf that was born, the eggs I get from my chickens. It counters all the stress. Gratitude is a good way to deal with stress by being grateful for five things a day.” Dr. Hester says that meaning can be religious and spiritual, deriving from your faith system, but it doesn’t have to be. “Meaning is something that is important for everybody.”
This is part 3 in a 5-part series on “Your Farm’s Greatest Asset.” In parts 1 and 2 read about the resources at the N.C. Agromedicine Institute. In part 4 read about signs to look for in yourself or a family member that indicates emotional equilibrium is out of whack. Part 5 includes more helpful resources.