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  • Valerie Woodhouse

Just Breathe: Coping Skills on the Farm

By Valerie Woodhouse


Self-care as we usually imagine it doesn’t have a place on my farm. I’d love to say that my clinical social work training taught me how to maintain a healthy work-life balance. During the farm season, all bets are off. During peak season I’m lucky if I get more than 4 hours of sleep, eat lunch, or have a single thought outside of farming on a given day. In this state of survival, my emotional capacities are drained. A snarky comment from a customer or a simple obstacle in production can make it feel like my heart is swelling into my throat, and suddenly I’m holding back tears, anger or bitterness. I feel isolated and overwhelmed. In these moments it’s easy to spiral, play the role of victim or even worse, the role of martyr - digging in and deciding to forge ahead at any cost.

From my social work background, I’ve learned that it’s easier to calm frayed nerves and take the edge off of suffering by tapping into the body rather than trying to control the mind. Our bodies are programmed to respond to messages through our nervous systems. Stress automatically triggers our body into fight, flight or freeze. Chronic stress keeps our nervous system in a perpetual state of hypervigilance, always assessing possible threats, unable to find rest or relief. This can result in high blood pressure, inflammation and heart disease, not to mention strained relationships, low-self esteem, depression and burnout.


Luckily, our bodies respond nearly as quickly to cues that trigger our calming parasympathetic nervous system, releasing dopamine, and serotonin and helping our bodies find a restorative state of peace. We’ll never be able to rid ourselves of stress, uncertainty and challenges on the farm, and we live in a society that devalues food and the system supporting it. But, there are ways to support our bodies and minds within the farming lifestyle. Here are some simple strategies that I use to help mitigate stress and make life a little easier on the farm, even for just a few fleeting moments.


The first step to relieving stress is to make sure our basic needs are being met. Are we getting enough sleep? Are we eating food that will sustain and energize us for long, physical days? Are we drinking water and addressing injury or illness? When we’re overly tired, hungry, dehydrated or in pain, we can’t think straight, let alone cope with stress. At the same time, it’s unrealistic and overwhelming to try to live a perfectly balanced life. When in survival mode, try picking just one or two areas of your physical health that are most out of balance and set tangible goals to slowly get back on track, like getting to bed before 11 pm, going to physical therapy or making sure to eat breakfast.


When we talk about covering our basic needs, money is also a factor. Financial instability is one of the most widespread and daunting forms of stress that farmers face. I’ve farmed through grief, droughts, disaster and a global pandemic, and nothing twists my stomach into knots like financial stress. There have been many times my partner and I have asked ourselves, “Can we keep farming?” It’s a particularly painful form of dread when that question stems from financial insecurity. Talk to a business advisor, connect with other farmers, communicate with your lenders, and find out if there are grants, financial assistance, or other resources available to you. There is no shame in accessing the support you need to survive or acknowledging that you need a flexible payment plan.


The constant change and uncertainty of farming can be part of the thrill, and it can also bring unforeseen challenges. After 5 years of searching for land, we launched our farm in March 2020 just two weeks before the state went on lockdown for COVID. Like many, my mental health took a hit. Not only did we have to throw out our plans, navigate changing guidelines, and respond to unprecedented events, but we were suddenly isolated, unable to share our new farm with family and friends, and dealing with a parent whose health was rapidly declining. My partner and I took turns breaking down in empty greenhouses, questioning our decisions and damning the universe for such horrible timing. Weekly deliveries became like ticking time bombs to see if I could make it to the next stop before unraveling. Giving into intrusive thoughts, I’d fantasize about running the van off of the road, imagining it must be easier than dealing with the mess we were in. I share this to destigmatize and name the pervasive struggle that farmers have faced with active and passive suicidality throughout history and across the world. As farmers, everything is riding on factors outside our control. A lost crop, an extreme weather event, or an injured animal can mean a bill goes unpaid. It’s normal to feel helpless, hopeless or like there’s no way out.


Pause. Breathe.


When we step back we can often find that we have more options than we thought. There are coping mechanisms that can help find clarity during this level of panic. The key during a crisis is to trigger the body to relax rather than convince your mind to do so. My favorite strategy to jump-start the parasympathetic system on a hot, chaotic day is to simulate the ‘dive effect’. This technique makes your body believe you just dove into a deep, cold pool of water so the heart rate slows and stress hormones lower in order to keep you alive underwater. To simulate this effect, take a deep breath, lower your head below your waist, hold it under cold water or place ice packs over your cheeks and eyes. Hold your breath in this position as long as you comfortably can before slowly rising and returning to breathing as normal. Notice changes in your body. I highly recommend sticking your head under a cold hose or taking a nourishing dip in the river when you feel like everything’s falling apart.


The breath is our greatest ally when it comes to stress reduction. When we are anxious, upset or running on adrenaline, our breathing is short and shallow. If we can slow down and deepen our breath, it tells our nervous system that the coast is clear and we must be safe from danger. There are thousands of breathing techniques but the basic recipe is to inhale deeply into the belly and breathe out fully, extending the exhale longer than the inhale. This could mean inhaling to the count of 4 and exhaling to the count of 6. I use my breath to find ease and reduce stress almost every day. On the farm, I pair breathing with my motions, counting out breaths as I water in the greenhouse or lift harvest bins into the truck. Sometimes I silently say affirmations or mantras as I breathe. Last season a friend shared a rose glycerite she made. During moments of intense panic, I take a few drops of the sweet, fragrant glycerite as I breathe deeply and affirm, “I am safe in this moment”. Although practices like these don’t take away the stressful realities of life on the farm or the systemic inequalities, market pressures and climate chaos that will remain stressful, they help me find a little stability, clarity and relief from overwhelming emotions.


Finally, gratitude is a great antidote for despair. Why continue farming when it’s such a uniquely stressful, unpredictable and uncontrollable career? For me, it’s because there’s so much to be thankful for. After years of working in community mental health, I’ve come to realize stress follows you down any walk of life. Gratitude has the power to transform feelings of hopelessness into feelings of abundance. During particularly difficult times my partner and I will ask ourselves what we would do if we weren’t farming. Despite the hardships, farming always wins. Feeling gratitude for the land, the fruits of our labor, the hard-working team that helps us, the community that supports us, and the autonomy and independence, all help us find perspective.


We choose to keep farming each season, so we must keep growing our own resilience too.


Valerie Woodhouse is a licensed clinical social worker who runs Honey Field Farm with her partner in Norwich, VT. She can be reached at valerie@honeyfieldfarmvt.com.


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