The Stress of Farm Transition

By Monica McConkey, a Rural Mental Health Specialist at Eyes on the Horizon Consulting. Thank you for contributing these articles each month.

With the average age of the American farmer being just shy of 60-years-old, farm/ranch transitions from one generation to the next are prevalent. In family farm transition conversations and meetings that I’m a part of, it is clear the stress that comes with navigating this process feels all-consuming for the parties involved. What makes farm transitions complex goes beyond the financial and legal intricacies to include difficult relationship dynamics, communication breakdown, identification of new roles and responsibilities, and a loss of identity in some cases.

First, let’s look at trends I see with the older or “outgoing” generation. In most cases they have spent their lives working, building, and sustaining the family farm. Their identity, purpose, and feelings of usefulness are tied to the farming operation. To think of life without the daily decisions, work, and maintenance is a reality that many cannot fathom. Thinking about the end of their farming days also brings up realities of physical and cognitive decline as well as an awareness of their own mortality. In addition, many question if the next generation can manage the operation and keep the legacy alive.

With all this weighing on the hearts and minds of the older generation, it is not uncommon for them to avoid discussing a transition or succession plan. This, of course, can add to the stress and frustration for the younger or “incoming” generation and often results in hard feelings and difficult communication.

Farming and ranching practices are dynamic and ever-changing, with new strategies, products, and practices. Often the younger partners on the farm have a desire to implement ideas and change practices that will increase efficiency and profitability only to feel unheard by the older generation who retain the primary decision-making authority. Furthermore, many in this generation are concerned with balancing work and family time as well as off-farm employment.

Each farm/ranch transition is unique. There is no one-size-fits-all guide to navigating this process. However, here are a few tips that I’ve found helpful:

  1. Effective communication is critical! If you are unable to do that without a neutral third party being present, access someone to help. The Center for Dairy Excellence, Penn State Extension, Farm Business Managers, and other professionals have training and experience in assisting families through this time. 
  2. ALL involved family members need to be at the table.
  3. Set a realistic timeframe. Take into account your seasonal workload, and avoid scheduling meetings and/or deadlines during busy times. 
  4. Make one of your first conversations in this process about the legacy, values, and goals of your operation. What is the purpose behind which you’ve operated the business and how can this be shared as it moves from one generation to the next?
  5. Find ways to honor the older generation. If the operation is still in business, they have done something right. Let them tell their story. Ask them how they made it through their own transition and other difficult times. Ask them what has been hard and what has been rewarding. Get out photos and share in the memories of the farm’s past.
  6. Disagreements will happen. Go into meetings with a problem-solving mindset and a willingness to compromise.
  7. Define what each person’s role looks like before, during, and after transition. Who will complete which tasks? Who is in charge of what?  Who makes decisions? Who manages employees? The more clearly defined the roles are, the less opportunity for confusion, frustration, and inefficiency.
  8. Have all family members complete a personality style assessment and a communication styles assessment. I find this helps everyone understand how and why people function the way they do.
  9. Remember and operate under the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

It is important to start transition and succession planning conversations early and communicate often about wishes and plans. Farm and ranch transitions are stressful, but they can also be a time to celebrate the ongoing legacy of the operation.

Irrigating Relationships

By Monica McConkey, a Rural Mental Health Specialist at Eyes on the Horizon Consulting. Thank you for contributing these articles each month.

Most people I talk to are under the impression that, as a farm counselor, the calls I get are all about the stresses of uncontrollables like markets and weather. They are surprised when I share that the number one reason farmers call me is conflict and unhappiness in relationships. Sometimes, it’s relationships between spouses, or with children, parents, or farming partners such as siblings.

What do we do when the decline in our relationships leads to unbearable stress? Let’s contrast relationship problems with a field that needs irrigation.

Irrigation ensures plant growth. Without it, seeds would not sprout and/or plants would wither. Without irrigation on certain soil types, yields would be poor at best. Think about that field like a relationship that is struggling. It’s no longer a relationship of bounty and happiness, but a relationship of lack and conflict. 

Here are 3 key strategies to consider when making effort to repair a damaged relationship:

  1. Identify your source. Much like the water that is needed to irrigate, people in a relationship need a common point of unity. What brings you together? What do you agree on? What was different when your relationship seemed better? What common beliefs and values do you share? Focus on these commonalities as a stepping stone to growth.
  2. Communication is key. Think of communication as the pipeline that brings the life-giving water to the field. It needs to be in good repair to do what it is meant to do. If left unmaintained, water might be leaking out with no hope of reaching the ground that needs attention. Communication is much the same. It is critical to making relationships work, however it must be in good repair for it to be successful. What does good communication look like? First and foremost, it looks like listening to hear and understand the other person. It looks like expressing care and concern. Good communication does not include blaming, disrespect, or put downs…that would be like leaky irrigator pipes.
  3. Know what your relationship needs by knowing the other person. The water can be in the well, it can make it through the lines, but if the applicators on the irrigator are shooting and spraying in all the wrong directions, it may help the yield, but not as much as it could if there are some simple adjustments. Pay attention to the person you are having difficulty with. What are they going through? How do they feel cared about and loved? If you don’t know, ask! Often we try to adjust and fix our relationship issues without seeking to understand the other half of the relationship.

And remember, irrigation issues do not fix themselves. It takes intentional upkeep and maintenance on a regular basis. What can you make a practice of intentionally doing to support your relationships? Not sure? Ask them!

Winter Coping: 3 Areas of Focus

By Monica McConkey, a Rural Mental Health Specialist at Eyes on the Horizon Consulting. Thank you for contributing these articles each month.

For many people, winter can be a difficult time with days overcome by a lack of motivation, negative thinking, and increased irritability. These can be symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) which is defined as a mood disorder in which abnormal moods occur in a regular seasonal pattern, such as depression during the short days of winter. SAD impacts approximately 10 million Americans and it is important to note that while most people are affected during the winter, this disorder can be attached to any season.

There are multiple theories as to what causes SAD in winter months. Primarily it is thought that increased darkness stimulates production of melatonin which prepares our body for sleep. In addition, less vitamin D is produced which impacts our body’s ability to build and maintain healthy bones, brain cell activity and more.

When exploring options for preventing the difficult symptoms that come with winter months, there are 3 areas of focus: environmental, psychological, and behavioral. 

Environmental coping strategies include:

  • Set your bedroom lights to turn on a half hour before you typically wake up to mimic sunrise.
  • Expose yourself to sunlight as early in the morning as possible.
  • Use an artificial light. These are also referred to as SAD lights, are relatively inexpensive, and accessible through sites like Amazon. Recommendations include utilizing a light that is full spectrum 10,000 lux and sitting within close range in the morning for approximately 20-40 minutes (varies based on level of symptoms).
  • Declutter home to make it an enjoyable place to be.
  • Include plants and fresh flowers in your home.

Behavioral coping strategies include:

  • Exercise.
  • Increase water intake.
  • Eat fresh foods.
  • Take a daily multivitamin containing D-3.
  • Try something new to fight the monotony of winter days (new recipe, game time, date night, winter bonfire, etc.).
  • Hot baths/sauna.
  • Meditation/prayer.

Psychological coping strategies include:

  • Set and focus on a goal.
  • Aim for acceptance and a positive mindset (pledge to make the best of the situation).
  • Work to not entertain thoughts that are unhelpful and negative. 

If it is difficult to get through the day, even with attempting coping strategies, it is critical that you reach out and talk with someone. That someone can be a trusted friend, faith leader, healthcare provider, counselor or therapist. It may be determined that medication combined with other approaches like those mentioned above might be the best course of action. Isolating and withdrawing often feels like the easiest thing to do when faced with difficult moods and emotions, however it usually serves to make symptoms worse.

Winter months do not have to be dreaded. Through a combination of changes to your environment, behavior, and the way you think, it can be an enjoyable time of the year!

Holidays, Family, Farm, and Conflict – A Not-So-Joyous Combination

By Monica McConkey, a Rural Mental Health Specialist at Eyes on the Horizon Consulting. Thank you for contributing these articles each month.

By the time you are reading this, you’ve made it through the Thanksgiving holiday.  I’m hoping it was a great one full of peace, family, and reflection!

Unfortunately, what I hear from many people this time of year is apprehension and worry about spending time with their extended family during holiday gatherings. Much of the time, dissention over the farm is at the center of this anxiety. This might include how transition/succession planning is being handled, conflict amongst family you work with, differing views by non-farm siblings, and/or discomfort with in-laws. It’s easy to say “leave it all behind during the holidays for the kids,” but that is not always an easy thing to do.

Here are a few tips that will help manage family gatherings filled with angst:

  1.  Focus on what you control. You control YOU: your thoughts, your responses, your behaviors, and what you choose to focus on. Even if others are “pushing your buttons,” it is within our control to oversee our own buttons! You don’t control anyone else.
  2. Avoid conversations about the business when at a family function. If others want to engage in a business meeting at Christmas dinner, encourage a different time and a set agenda to cover those items.
  3. Remember that when emotions become BIG, we lose our ability to think, problem-solve, and be rational. Before engaging in a conversation, especially one that is potentially contentious, work to stay calm. Get your heart rate and breathing to a good place. Get focused on objectives. Then, enter the conversation.
  4. Walking away, limiting time, leaving early, or not attending a family event is okay if the environment is toxic.

I hope these four strategies can assist you in having a truly joyful and blessed holiday season with the focus being on what you are thankful for and blessed with. This takes a lot of work and intentionality, but it is well worth it!

The Difficulty of Change

By Monica McConkey, a Rural Mental Health Specialist at Eyes on the Horizon Consulting. Thank you for contributing these articles each month.

Change is hard! Whether it is a personal change like eating differently to lose weight or getting into an exercise routine, or if it is a change in our farming operation like making a transition plan or implementing a new procedure, it is all hard.

Why is change so difficult? We as humans typically gravitate to the known, the stable, and the secure.  Change can disrupt what we’ve known and done for years. It can mean moving into uncharted territory with unknown results. And that is a little (or a lot) scary. 

Let’s explore the three things that need to be in alignment for change to take place.  First, we need to feel like the change is important. If we don’t view it as important, chances are we will not put our time and effort into making it happen.

Second, we need to feel confident in our ability to make change happen. This is tough. I’ve worked with farmers who APPEAR to be resistant and controlling when it comes to planning and implementing steps to transition the farm. However, what was below the surface was really just an apprehension of how, or if, it would work out. Fear is often at the core of this barrier to change. 

Third, we need to feel ready to make the change happen. If we aren’t ready, there may be feeble attempts or half-hearted gestures but again, we won’t fully commit.

Some questions to ask to help move toward change include:

  • It sounds like things can’t stay the same as they are. What do you think you might do?
  • What changes were you thinking about making?
  • Where do we go from here?
  • What do you want to do at this point?
  • How would you like things to turn out?
  • After reviewing all of this, what’s the next step for you?

Finally, instead of viewing the change as something to be avoided or feared, look at it as an opportunity to grow and learn. My guess is that your farming operation doesn’t look the same as it did 100 years ago or even 50 years ago. Much change has happened which has led you to where you are. Now it is time to think about where you want to be and embrace the change that will get you there!

Suicide in Agriculture

By Monica McConkey, a Rural Mental Health Specialist at Eyes on the Horizon Consulting. Thank you for contributing these articles each month.

September is Suicide Prevention Month with many events and initiatives bringing attention to this far too common experience that devastates individuals and families. Suicides among farmers, ranchers, and agricultural workers are higher than the general population. I’m guessing most of you reading this article have been impacted or know someone who has been impacted by suicide in some way.

I want to briefly touch on three aspects of suicide awareness: Prevention, Intervention, and Postvention.


This is all about noticing that someone is struggling and may be suicidal. This can be difficult as many people hide their pain well. Things to look for in people that could be a warning sign for suicide include:  depressed mood, giving away prized possessions or “tying up loose ends”, a decline in physical appearance or the general upkeep of the farm, withdrawing/isolating, change in mood and/or activity level, statements about death, suicide and/or having no hope. Warning signs can also be situational – for example, if a person has recently gone through a divorce, financial crisis, or diagnosis of an illness. 

Suicide prevention for ourselves and others also means taking care of ourselves physically, surrounding ourselves with supportive people, focusing on helpful thinking, and engaging in things that feed our soul or bring us joy.


What do we do when we see or sense that someone is struggling? Think of it like this. If we noticed someone at an accident scene bleeding, we wouldn’t pass them by without at least calling 911 or rendering aid. In the case of potential suicide, people are “emotionally bleeding” and need help. Let the person you are worried about know what you are noticing that is causing concern and then ask the question, “Are you thinking of suicide?” or “Are you thinking of killing yourself?” 

The next step is getting them to help which could include calling 988, 911, taking them to a local clinic, emergency department, or counseling agency.


What do I mean by Postvention? Postvention is about supporting people who have been impacted by suicide. Those who have loved ones die by suicide are automatically at higher risk of attempting suicide themselves. They need support! Be a listening ear. Invite them to spend time with you. Engage them in events in the community, church, etc.  Dealing with a loved one dying by suicide is a unique and tragic grief. 

This is just a quick snapshot of these three areas of suicide awareness. I encourage you to access further training such as QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer) or safeTALK. 988 is also a great resource and can be called or texted anytime 24/7. By working together, we can make an impact!

As a reminder, the PA AgriStress Helpline is available 24/7. Call 833-897-2474.

Harvest Hostility

By Monica McConkey, a Rural Mental Health Specialist at Eyes on the Horizon Consulting. Thank you for contributing these articles each month.

The scenario goes something like this:

Rain clouds are on the horizon. The weather forecast reports chances of rain every day for the next 3 days. You have hay down and are trying to get wheat off. A belt goes on the combine. The implement is closed and there are no spare belts that size in the parts room. It’s as if all forces of nature are coming together to conspire against you. Add to that immediate stress the fact that commodity prices are low, you can’t keep a hired man on the farm to save your soul, and the argument you had with your spouse days ago is not resolved.

This is the perfect storm for Harvest Hostility.

The reality is that during harvest when you are using your equipment, your equipment will break down.  When you are working from sun-up to long past sundown, you are going to be exhausted. Your hired help will not work as hard as you do or care as much. You will feel like you are carrying the weight of past, present, and future on your shoulders all at the same time. Given that reality, it is not a mystery why harvest time is especially stressful and can push people past their ability to cope.

The key is to know and understand the reality of your situation and work to mitigate the stress and damage that can come from anger and frustration getting out of control.

First, make sure you are meeting your basic needs. Drink water, eat regular healthy meals, take medication as prescribed, and get as much sleep as you can. This doesn’t “fix” your stressors, but helps you deal with them more effectively.

Second, focus on what is on your plate now. Reliving past mistakes or questioning past decisions is not helpful. Anticipating future failure in “worst case scenario” thinking is not helpful. Discipline your thinking to remain on what is in front of you and what needs to be dealt with today. Delegate when you can. Trim your to-do list. The way you think and what you think about directly affects your feelings…which directly affects your reaction to those feelings.

Third, keep the rational, problem-solving, prioritizing part of your brain engaged. When you allow emotions to take over, you lose the ability to think clearly and communicate effectively. Take note of when feelings of anger or frustration start creeping in. Immediately account for what thoughts are causing those feelings. Back up and deal with the thoughts. Make a plan. If it’s a breakdown, focus on the repair vs. the rain that is on the way. If it’s raining, focus on the tasks you can get done while harvest is paused vs. feeling anxious over the crop getting wet in the field. Separate out what you can control vs. what you do not have control over.  Focus on the controllables.

Reining in Harvest Hostility is not easy and takes a lot of practice, but you can do it! 

When It’s Hard to Hope

By Monica McConkey, a Rural Mental Health Specialist at Eyes on the Horizon Consulting. Thank you for contributing these articles each month.

Most of us have been there at one time or another, feeling like we can think positive and hold onto hope until “the cows come home” but is it really going to matter? Difficult times in the dairy industry are here once again, and hope for many is dwindling. However, hope is something that we need to dig deep and uncover … even when it is the last thing we feel like doing!

What does finding hope do for us? It helps us hang on. It helps us refocus, problem-solve and re-prioritize. It helps us look at what is going well in our life and all the blessings we have.

Let’s do a little activity right now. Wherever you are, look around and notice all the things that are red. Go ahead … notice the reds.

Ok next, look around you and notice all the blues. Got them?

Now a question – when you were looking for the reds, did you see the blues? Were the blues there? Yes? No?

The answer of, course, is yes the blues were there, but we didn’t see them because we were looking for the reds. This is what happens in life. The difficult things, adversities, stressors, conflicts (the reds) seem to be looming large everywhere we look. And guess what happens? When we are tuned into the reds, we see more and more reds. We anticipate reds. We accept the reds as inevitable.

However, if we focus on the blues (what we are thankful for, what we accomplished, what is within our control), we will see more and more blues. Reds will still pop up, no question about that! But we don’t have to let the reds rule our lives. We can deal with the reds as we need to and go on focusing on the blues.

This, of course, is an exercise in controlling our thoughts and our mindset. Our mindset determines how we feel and how we deal with adversity. Our mindset determines holding on to hope. It is hard to have hope over the things outside of our control (like weather and milk prices), but we can have hope around the things that are within our control like the quality of our relationships, taking a problem-solving approach to things that cause stress, taking care of ourselves physically, nurturing our spiritual beliefs, and finding joy in life.

This is my encouragement to you to hold onto hope and focus on the blues instead of the reds!