Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Burnout in Farming...

As I was flipping through my January, 2008 issue of "The Stockman Grassfarmer" I came across an interesting article titled, "Your Ranch Is Not Sustainable If It Leads to Personal Burnout". The article is written by Greg Judy who is also the author of the book, "No Risk Ranching". Mr. Judy also practices high density grazing with his cattle and has had some great results ... you can read more about high density grazing on this post and this post.

But, back to the topic of the article. Burnout is something that I am keenly aware of, particularly because of my work in ministry. I know there are many careers out there that have high rates of burnout, but it seems that people in ministry deal with it quite a bit. So, when I saw the title of the article I was very interested (I'm always reading articles about burnout in ministry).

Prior to a grazing conference South African grazier Ian Mitchell-Innes took a walk with Mr. Judy through his pastures. Mr. Judy relates in the article that Mr. Mitchell-Innes had lots of good advice about high density grazing, but the most shocking thing he said was when he was question on his overall thoughts of the operation. He told Mr. Judy that what he was doing was not sustainable because at that time he was running three different herds and grazing systems. The very next day the three herds were combined (except the bulls) and their work load was cut by two thirds.

This just supports what others such as Joel Salatin have said about the importance of maintaining a single herd at all costs, but even more importantly it brings up something else to think about. What about burnout for the part-time farmer or the beginning farmer who is also holding down a town job? How can a person in that situation combat burnout?

First of all, as was the case for Mr. Judy's farm it is important that you let the animals do the work. On his farm one of the reasons that they were running three herds was because their land was spread out of a large area and the thought/cost of moving the entire herd around. Well, they don't have to be trucked around ... what they did wouldn't work every, but they just walked them down the road and stringing wire on either side to keep them going the right way. Management Intensive Grazing is another way to make the animals work for themselves ... so is selecting for easy calving cows and sows that don't lose any piglets.

Secondly, I think it is important that your farm (whether part-time or beginning) is a family operation. If you are able to work together as a family when you are farming then it will seem less like work and less stressful to the entire family. But, the family has to be completely on board.

Third, there needs to be a passion. If you are going to hold an off-farm job and run a working farm it is important that it is a passion not just a source of extra income. When something is a passion you are less likely to get as frustrated (notice I said "as frustrated"!) than if you didn't really care one way or another. Also, a passion to farm will help give you the energy to work and research and study so that you can be the most efficient.

Finally, I think it is important that we don't get in over our heads. Many beginning farmers these days don't have a complete farming background. They are passionate about it, their family is behind it, and they are motivated by new ideas in grazing, crops, and more ... but, they don't always have the hands on experience. For those people (ME!!!) it is important that they don't bite off more than they can chew. Take steps, make plans, and attack things slowly so it doesn't hurt as much when you slide down that steep learning curve!

Here are a couple of quotes from the article about how much the changes have impacted the Judy's ...
"In the future we will grow more grass, better grass, more animal impact, our soil microbes will explode, our ground litter accumulation will benefit, our water catchments will increase, and our labor has been slashed dramatically."

"We now have a life"

"We now have time to think, monitor results and time for leisure."


Kramer said...

I know what you mean about "Burnout." I work for the Houston Fire Dept full time as well as do farming full time. My fire man schedule is awesome, 24 hr shifts, working 1 day on, 1 day off, 1 day on, then 5 days off. That means I work 2 days out of every 8 days. I can't complain.

But since beginning to farm, about 1 1/2 years ago, I have found that farming is my true passion other than Christ. (I do wish I spent the same amount of time chasing Him as I do building fences and water lines.) It gets harder and harder to go to Houston to do a job that I enjoy but don't love. However, I feel that I could be an isolationist out here so it does allow me to interact with people other than church and my family. Most weeks I work my 46.7 hours a week at the fire dept then put in 40+ hrs a week at the farm.

I know that this is only temporal though because we are in the building phase of our farm and we are trying to be innovators rather than traditional farming. This means Managed Intensive Grazing and High Density Stock Grazing. I have about 3/4 of our pastures fenced with about 2/3 of the water lines in place. Hopefully by spring, this will be done and most of my attention can go to our produce and simple tasks like moving the cows, pigs, chickens, and collecting eggs. My work load will go from 8-10 hours a day to about 4. I can definately live with that.

The animals will then do most of the work. No more pasture shredding, manure spreading, baling hay, etc, etc... Just move them each day and let them replenish everything. But you have to be willing to put in the time at the beginning. That is the number 2 reason why traditional farmers want to stay traditional farmers...too much work to be innovators. The number 1 reason is simply tradition...that is how all my family has always done it. Just know that if done right, the hard part is temporal. Then you get to relax a bit and focus on all the great things of farming and getting your products to others to enjoy. Thats my 2 cents that are probably worth about that.

Yeoman said...

Burnout in farming?

Hmmm. . .well, I suppose a person can get burned out in anything, but that depends, in part, what defines burnout.

My day job, as some of you know, is as a lawyer. Lawyers have a very high rate of burnout, according to the statistics we maintain on ourselves. The reasons are fairly plain. The hours are very long, the pay is much lower than people think it is (school teachers beat us most places, as a rule), there's lots of us, we deal with problems by the nature of our work, and most people hate us. Indeed, most lawyers hate the profession, as it's a "fall back" profession occupied by people who weren't sure what they wanted to do, or who took it as it was a "profession" in an area they hoped to live in.

Do I sound a little burned out?

Well, whether I am or am not, or occasionally have been that's pretty much the way it is. And that's the reason that 3/4s of the profession say they regret entering it, and why 75% also say they'd discourage their kids from entering it.

For that reason, frankly, I'm always a little skeptical of "farmer burnout" stories.

Again, I think that you can burn out at anything. You can drive yourself to despair doing anything. And if you are struggling to keep a farm up and running, working night and day, and it's failing, that might burn you out.

As a couple of cautionary items here, however, consider this.

There's "burnout", and there's misinformed envy. Because I'm in both worlds, I see farmer misinformed envy, that sometimes masquerades as burnout, in the (small) percentage of farmers/ranchers who seek to get out, or in the higher number of children of farmers/ranchers who seek to get out. In those cases, what you hear is that "we work so hard". That is true, but all in all, truth be known, most farmers and ranchers are not working as hard as a lot of other professions.

Additionally, farmers and ranchers get to work with their families, which is a rare joy. Part of the reason I hope to trade this office job for cattle farming full time is that I'd get to work with my son and daughter, and at something that I'm good at, and which his admirable. Right now, they no doubt think of me as having an office job, and it's an office job at something that really isn't very admirable. I don't want them to follow in my footsteps down here.

On the other hand, what we also sometimes think of as "burnout" is economic desperation. That's something else entirely, and is very bad.

And finally, anyone will burnout in an occupation for which they are not suited. Farming tends to be occupied by those who are suited for it, which is why I think real burnout is rare in farming. Economic distress is common, but that's something else. In other fields, however, I think a high percentage of the people who occupy them are not suited for them. Indeed, in the modern world, I think we've created whole fields of endeavor for which no one is suited.

Yeoman said...

To add to this a bit, I suspect it's the case that, no matter how much we might wish it otherwise, are party of our very nature as humans. Conceive of it as you will, but as a species, we are not very far removed from a state of nature.

Take any animal out of its natural state, and it will be miserable. And any animal will try to replicate its natural behavior.

Now, I'm not arguing for some sort of primitive romanticism. And I am a religious man, so I think we are more than mere animals. But what I also suspect is that human beings are basically just a few basic occupations, of one kind or another, with farmer/pastorialist, being one of the most common and most basic.

I mention that here, as when we look at all the misery and burnout our modern life is giving us, I think some of that is simply because we've strayed into a modern life for which we aren't really all that suited.

I think that also explains why we see so many true oddities in the modern world. Perhaps we're like the dogs that bark all night. They don't know why, they just know they don't want to be chained up in the yard.

Well, back to my office work.

Yeoman said...

The first paragraph of that last entry should read:

"To add to this a bit, I suspect it's the case that, no matter how much we might wish it otherwise, some occupations are part of our very nature as humans. Conceive of it as you will, but as a species, we are not very far removed from a state of nature"

Ethan Book said...

Yeoman... I understand what you are saying, but I disagree on a few points. First of all if you want to see evidence of burnout in farming just do some reading into the farm crisis in the Midwest. Too many Iowa farmers took their lives because they were overcome by the financial and work pressure of farming. They had been building up land and machinery just as the "experts" had told them to and then the bottom fell out. Too many sons and daughters of farm families don't have their father now because of that burnout. Whether or not we think it was their own fault I think they did burn out.

Secondly, I think you are assuming that families are farming in a sustainable and family oriented way. I don't think that is the case, so I don't think most farmers are seeing their children more than people in other professions. In fact I spent two years working at a boarding school as a dorm parent where I could see my family all throughout the day, yet many people burnout in that situation because the work can be overwhelming.

Also, I think that you can see what burnout can look like for the farmer from the article. They were running three herds in three locations and they didn't have time for family, rest, or anything like that. It wasn't sustainable and neither is our current crop and livestock production method ... thus the burnout.

I will say in the ministry most burnout comes from what I would call an inaccurate view of what a pastors job is? Pastors have been told that long hours, missing family events to be with other families, and dealing with angry congregation members is just part of the job they chose ... well, it isn't!

As to your second comment ... I think that may measure it up better. The burnout may not be as associated to what particular job someone has as much as it is connected to the perceived lifestyle a person must have...

As always your thoughts are a great addition to the conversation! And now, I too must get back to my office work. But, I am kind of glad I'm not outside right now because it is -9!!!

Yeoman said...

Ethan, good points.

In some ways, I may be drawing a bit of a fine distinction on what "burnout" is, and what depression or desperation are. That might not matter in the real world, but conceptually they are a bit different.

Burnout is a profound disenchantment with your occupation, which can lead to a profound disenchantment with life, but might not as well. Of course, I'm using that view of it, as that's the one that tends to hold in my office occupation. In that sort of "burn out", financial desperation may or may not be an element. It often isn't. Rather, there's something about the very nature of the occupation, or some aspect of it, in concert with the nature of the individual that leads to it. Generally, a person goes from 1) this job isn't what I expected; to 2) I don't like this job; to 3) I hate this job and everything about it; to 4) I don't care about anything or anybody.

That's different from work stress, which can be horrific, or depression.

I don't live in your region, but from time to time, I've seen economic desperation, which plays in to "How are we going to make it?" That can be real desperation. But I've rarely seen "I hate farming and everything about it". But, perhaps that does occur.

I have to admit that because I live in a ranching area, more of the traditional practices hold on. Most operations are family operations, although big outside playground interests have come in. So things may be very well different here.

Yeoman said...

In further consideration of Ethan's fine points, in addition to the issues raised in the blog entry, I wonder if this entire topic doesn't suggest that we're looking at work incorrectly.

After all, humans created this system. If it isn't working for us, we should change it. If our away from our family, bifurcated life isn't what we want, whey do we keep developing it in this fashion?

Sort of a generalized agrarian view, I suppose.

Kramer said...

Boy, I feel like I just got up from laying on a leather sofa. That is some deep stuff that I in my simple state don't understand. However, I do feel that the last point you made makes more sense. You choose the occupation you go to each day. If you don't like it, your in America, thank God, do something else.

The real issue is too much reliance on money and what it brings. When you really understand that as long as you have God, thats all that matters. I have a loving wife, great kids, and live a simple life. If things go bad, we can simplify more and be ok.

If I feel burnt out, I feel burnt out. I don't need someone to take me deeper than that feeling. But I can choose to get out of that job or stay in and continue that way. Once again, my two cents.

Yeoman said...

Indeed, living in a free society, we always retain our options.

And, more importantly, our employment need not be who we are in a real sense. If we have Faith, and adhere to it, it'd be hard to be burned out in the greatest sense, as in the end, we've retained the greatest meaning. The person who can say no more than "I'm a banker, I'm a doctor, I'm a lawyer", is a poor, unhappy, person. Those things should always be second, or third, or lower. If they are, you'll rarely be really unhappy, if what matters is first.

I'll add, while not taking away from Kramer's point, however that the age old American reply that you can do something else is less and less true in the modern United States. Indeed, it isn't really true for a lot of Americans in a real sense, perhaps it isn't for most. Truth be known, there's always been real limitations to it. That is, to a degree, to use a line pirated from Lawrence of Arabia, you can be want you want, but you can't want what you want, and that's always been true.

But that's true more now than every before, I suspect. With the nature of our modern economy, the real scarcity of land, and the elevation of college degrees as specific entry ways into certain types of work, it is now the case that you'd better get it right by the time you're 25, as after that, it becomes much harder. If you have a professional degree, for example, you'll find that you are not wanted in any other job, no matter what. Those with a ticket into one employment are darn near pigeonholed there forever, and if you back out of one, you'd better never plan on going back to it. Only those at the rock bottom of the employment ladder really can leave and move jobs at their whim, as they all pay so poorly, the employers do not care.

So, I suspect vast number of "better" jobs are occupied by those who chose them when they were 18 to 20 years old, studied for them, now dislike them, and can't do anything about it. If a person is, for example, a lawyer with a wife and two kids at home, that's his probable future for the remainder, as he can't, or shouldn't, throw his family into distress, and he'll fine that nobody will hire him outside of that profession. The same thing is true for other professions.

Moreover, it is no longer the case, as it was for generations of Americans, that you could always go somewhere and farm. That was once actually the case. But now farming is one of the hardest occupations there is to get into right now.

Indeed, when I first started practicing law, an old receptionist, from a very rural area told me "well, who knows, you might end up wishing you'd just gone and been a farmer". Even then, that was an ironic statement, as that's what I wanted to be, but I didn't have the economic means to to it. I'm still keeping my hand in, but I'll be lucky if I make it.

Having said all that, I can't complain either. To the extent I don't like what I'm doing, I made those choices. To the extent that I can't do what I want, I am working on it, and that isn't really my fault either. And my occupation isn't my identity, and there's much more important things I'm aware of ahead of it, so I'm a happy man.

Ethan Book said...

Lots of good thoughts here everybody. I hope people are taking the time to read ... and if you are feel free to jump in the discussion!


mhcs said...

Argh, burnout. I'm looking at going back to grad school (can't farm while my husband's in grad school, so I figgered I might as well do something useful with myself for the next 3 years.) I'd thought that that "something useful" would be working and saving up money, but like Yeoman said, I am indeed in a job/career path I don't like and can't get out any other way. There are a lot of ag jobs I could take but they don't give health insurance, which we really really need. Whereas with grad school we get health insurance from the school and a (small) salary, if things work out right.

Now that I'm staring grad school in the face, I've actually been thinking a lot on how to avoid burnout- I got so burnt out from undergrad that it's taken me until now (2 years) to get over it. I think I might have discovered something important....

In college I didn't have any designated place to do work. The apartment (with 5 roommates) was noisy and claustrophobically small, the library had books and computers but you had to leave to eat or make phone calls which meant multiple dashes out, which meant hauling all your stuff with you so it didn't get stolen, and made for frequent-enough forays from the desk that you could never really get a good groove going. Also sometimes you needed 2 different computer programs to do something but they were never on the same computers (or even computers in the same building), so I ended up wasting a lot of time just walking back and forth across campus hauling books, getting more and more tired without actually accomplishing anything.

Even though it's very different scenarios, I think this relates fairly well to the farming family running 3 herds. The setup they had entailed a lot of just running around, and when they changed it a little bit to consolidate their workload (or if I were to, say, set up a home office with all the computer programs I needed instead of doing a little here and a little there) everything got a lot better.

I think the answer to at least this part of the burnout is good design of the farm operation. That's tough, because setting up a good design or plan can take a lot of time sitting and thinking. It also takes a certain amount of experience: you never know where a fence shouldn't go until you've already put on there. For that reason, like Ethan's pointed out, it's good to talk to other farmers and read books. Even old ones!

Well, that was long. Hope it can be helpful to somebody.

Ethan Book said...

Mellifera ... I think you have a point about good design (and a dedicated place to work). Sometimes you have to work with what you are dealt if you have a farm with the buildings already in place, but even then you can streamline and set up your farm in a very efficient way.

Thanks for checking out the blog and adding your comments. Hope you keep looking around and adding to the discussion!

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