Why people farm, and, why people engaged in agriculture have an unusually high rate of suicide, are incompletely answered questions. The cynical part of me wonders why anyone would work as hard as farmers have for the past five years for minuscule profits — and sometimes losses — while enduring intemperate weather, unpredictable markets, tariffs, and insidiously shifting climatic conditions and government policies.
I’ve had a lot of time to think lately. I spent 31 days in various hospitals and more time recovering since returning home after coronary artery bypass surgery. On Dec. 7, I experienced chest pains that were diagnosed as my heart complaining there was insufficient blood circulating through the arteries of my heart. I sought rapid and competent medical care, which physicians say is why my heart remained mostly undamaged.
I had to cancel already scheduled speeches, workshops and anything stressful. I wish I could have helped the people who contacted me with legitimate requests that deserved a better response than, “Out of office due to health reasons.”
This is my first Farm and Ranch Life article since December 2019. I propose two refinements to the Agrarian Imperative theory that explain further why people farm.
The Agrarian Imperative was published in 2010 in the Journal of Agromedicine, as well as in previous columns. The theory explains why humans — like many other species — seek and defend territories to provide essentials for human life, such as food, clothing and energy. Territories with sufficient resources enabled our hunter-gatherer ancestors to survive.
In their search for new territories, successive waves of increasingly more capable hunter-gatherers migrated out of Africa into Asia and Europe for at least 200,000 years. Archeologists say that humans gradually dispersed by trekking on land or by water craft into all of Europe and Asia — including many islands, Australia and eventually to North America and South America via an “arctic bridge” of ice, land or open water.
Residents of southwest Asia were the first to initiate farming practices about 13,000-15,000 years ago. Applying skills they brought with them, these modern inhabitants of the Fertile Crescent selected the most nutritious emmer wheat varieties, barley, lentils and fruit-bearing plants for consumption and for farming. They figured out how to cover seeds in tilled soil, to eliminate weeds by hoeing, to fertilize and water crops when necessary, and to store food.
Farmers in southwest Asia were also the first to domesticate livestock. They tamed sheep and goats, starting about 10,000 years ago, for meat, milk, wool, leather and tools from bones, stomachs and bladders. Agriculture also emerged in other parts of the world several thousand years later, but with different crops and livestock, such as rice and chickens in southeast Asia, turnips and beef in Europe, and maize and turkeys in the Americas.
Agriculture gave tremendous advantages to farming communities over previous humans and other species that didn’t undertake agriculture. Farming clans could endure lean times, like winter and droughts, by storing produce; residents could remain in one location instead of having to follow food sources.
Besides agriculture, community members began specializing in occupations such as building permanent structures, teaching others, and undertaking various arts. Numeral systems, written language, the scientific method, and governments all trace their beginnings to agricultural communities.
Behaviors that had advantages for survival were integrated into our ancestors’ DNA and descended into our DNA. Inherited psychological drives that can be modified by learning have been identified as contributing to success in farming: great capacity to endure hardships, willingness to take risks, ability to work alone, trust in one’s own judgment, and a tendency to not reach out for assistance when needed.
These traits can also work against farmers when they are distressed. Notably, farmers who are unable to meet their objectives, such as farming profitably, tend to work excessively, to limit outside assistance and consultation about their situations, and to lose perspective about what is most important for themselves and their families.
I propose two refinements to the Agrarian Imperative theory.
First, like leaders of animal groups fight desperately to retain their territories and their position within their clans, farmers strive —and even sacrifice themselves — to retain their land, livestock, equipment and other resources needed to be capable providers. They usually feel they have failed and question their purpose for their families and communities, similar to animal clan leaders that have been eliminated from their territories.
Second, faster adaptation to conditions affecting agriculture has survival value. Just like our early ancestors proliferated when they undertook innovations, farmers today have to adjust to climate changes, rapid shifts in government policies and consumer preferences. Without making adjustments, these farmers will not withstand tests of survival fitness.
Tell me what you think about these corollaries to the Agrarian Imperative theory. Do they make sense?
I am grateful to my wife, family, and friends who assisted me when I needed help recently. I also thank the many persons who have been encouraging my recovery.
Mike Rosmann is a Harlan, Iowa, psychologist and farmer. To contact Rosmann, visit: www.agbehavioralhealth.com.