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Published July 22, 2011, 12:00 AM

Val Farmer: Irrational attachment to farm causes stress

A farm woman describes the small foothold she and her family made in starting again in farming after having lost their farm to bankruptcy. They are now renting a tractor and several small parcels of land.

By: Val Farmer, INFORUM

A farm woman describes the small foothold she and her family made in starting again in farming after having lost their farm to bankruptcy. They are now renting a tractor and several small parcels of land.

Reflecting on the emotional turmoil surrounding the loss of the farm, she made this comment. “We were guilty of feeling so strongly for our farm. Never again! It is only a business and a piece of property. If it doesn’t ‘pencil out,’ get out.”

That family learned a great lesson. To love something that much and then lose it is to endure great pain. In the end, they found that the farm was a means to an end – a vehicle to generate income in order to sustain a loving family and lifestyle – rather than an end in itself.

Irrational attachment to the farm. A farm, like a child, can absorb attention, resources and energy. There is joy in watching it grow, improve and take on beauty and power. Like a child, a farm makes time demands that correspond to needs that are biologically driven – not by an eight-hour day.

A farm, especially one that has been in the family for generations, can be an object of great attachment and adoration. It assumes a mythical quality and a life of its own. “The farm must be kept in the family.” Too many people have loved it, cared for it and sacrificed for it to allow it to pass on to unhallowed hands.

Some farmers, otherwise practical, rational men, develop an obsession with the farm to the point where they contemplate throwing away their lives as they anticipate its potential loss.

The love of a particular piece of ground or set of buildings is also the basis of father-son partnerships. This “love of the farm” promotes difficult and unnatural dependency relationships between adult males. Both father and son have difficulty sorting out the complexity of their relationship as they struggle to understand their mutual obligations.

The farm can also be the object of intense competition. Between siblings it can be a symbol of ultimate parental love. It can also be a source of power for parents to wield over children who would sacrifice their own integrity to gain possession of it. Off-farm heirs can also maintain a passionate interest in the farm and have strong expectations regarding its care and disposition.

Ownership of the farm. Farmers derive status from ownership of land – or the pretense of ownership, as generally someone else holds the mortgage. To be an owner of land is to be somebody. That is greater than possessing wealth in other forms.

Many farmers accept drastic cuts in their standard of living to maintain their status as an owner of their operation. No matter how debt-ridden, they still have status among their peers as long as they retain “ownership.”

Where is the mistake in all this? Why is ownership of a farm so seductive? Why does it generate such irrational attachment? The love of a farm may be the highest and most socially acceptable form of a common human tendency – loving objects or activities that have no life.

Some people make their homes the object of their lavish care. Others may be collectors of art, dishes, old cars, antiques or guns. Some “love” their gardens; for others it may be golf. Some may be excessively devoted to their work or to viewing sports or playing computer games. The list is endless.

These things are not necessarily bad unless they become ends in themselves. A little discontent keeps us moving, learning, reaching and producing. Leisure activities and hobbies can be rewarding diversions. But to reach for more and more without real purpose or limits creates a discontent that cannot be satisfied.

Daniel Defoe said it best. “All the good things of the world are no further good to us than they are of use; and of all we may heap up, we enjoy only so much as we can use, and no more.”

The farm is to serve people and not people to serve the farm. People are important. People are worthy of love. We can love people without limit. It is their growth and development that is important. The farm can help in that process.

What good is a farm? What good is a farm if it drains the family of emotional well-being, loving relationships and fun times together, and becomes the source of worry, anxiety and heartache? What good is a farm if it drives a wedge between marriage partners and causes fights and arguments?

What good is a farm if the farmer devotes all his waking hours and energies to its service and neglects that which truly has life – his wife and children?

A farm is good if it does not become the object of unnatural affection. It has a use. If it stops being useful, of what value is it?

The pain and suffering of farm families financing huge debt problems is compounded by their undue affection for the farm. Perhaps the last and hardest lesson of a debt crisis is the one mentioned by the farm woman.

“We were guilty of feeling so strongly for our farm. Never again!”


Val Farmer is a clinical psychologist specializing in family business consultation and mediation with farm families. He lives in Wildwood, Mo., and can be contacted through his website, www.valfarmer.com.

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