Agriculture December 01, 2020
When having the kids home is a stress relief.
“You don’t have to explain everything, and they know where the fields are,” says Todd Wright of Bradford, Ill., acknowledging how nice it was to have his kids home to help with 2020 planting. “They’ve watched us enough they know how to do it themselves now.” He would have hired more part-time help and planting simply would have taken longer if his children had been going to school through the spring and participating in their activities as normal. Instead, he was able to send each kid out with a task for the day (after finishing online class work, of course)—be it putting up fencing, moving the seed cart, or working ground—and trust it would be done well. This scenario played out across much of the Corn Belt this spring as schools closed down due to COVID-19 right as planters started moving. “George was the clear winner in COVID-19,” Margy Mattern says about her husband because their two youngest children were around to help more on their Magnolia, Ill, grain and hog farm. George whole-heartedly agrees. “I would say this spring and summer were about the least stressful I’ve been through because Nick and Anna were such a huge help,” he says, setting aside stress coming from the commodity markets.
Engrained passion. But it wasn’t just the extra hands that lightened the farming load; it was that they were family hands. Agricultural wellness and mental health consultant Adrienne DeSutter says, “Landowners have a lot of time, energy, and emotions invested in their farms, so there’s a lot riding on productivity. Sometimes you can find workers who share that devotion; sometimes you can’t. That was a silver lining for some families during the pandemic—that these kids have the eagerness to learn and are now more a part of the farm.” George puts it simply and even sits more at ease when he says, “It’s definitely different working with your son than hired help. It’s enjoyable. I ask Nick’s opinion all the time, more than I would my hired help.” Nick Mattern, now a senior at Putnam County High School and likely the farm’s future operator, is proud of the help he was able to offer his dad this spring and summer (and not-s0-secretly hoped school would have stayed remote so he could continue to prioritize the farm). He planted most of the beans, but he and his sister also helped their dad organize many of the day-t0-day projects. “I got tired of having an idea of what we’re going to do the next day and then it changing. I thought if we would write everything down, then we’d all be on the same page for which projects we’re working on,” he says about getting his dad to use a white board.
It may sound trivial, but to Margy, it was a game changer for their operation. “We’ve been talking about making lists our whole married life, but these kids got it done,” she says. “That’s how they do things in school. They check things off. It wouldn’t have happened if they weren’t here working every day.” Another way farm kids who were home from school helped was to allow Dad to accomplish other tasks. “It was an unaccustomed luxury to have the kids, who you trust, here to help,” says Dave Harmon, who typically does the planting and spraying across his Peoria County, Ill., acres by himself. In 2020 though, his three youngest were there to help: Thomas, Clare, and Joseph. “Tom spent a lot of time scouting corn and bean replant acres while I was planting. I would have been much less thorough,” Dave says. “I had a lot more replant this year than in a long time, so it was a big deal.” While Thomas was riding the ATV and making maps, Joseph was hauling seed, chemical, and fertilizer. “Generally I spray, plant corn, spray, plant beans—which doesn’t allow much time for sleeping, so Joe’s availability for shuttling tanks was significant. It kept me from hiring custom applicators,” Dave says thankfully.
Bigger reality. The nature of many farm families to “pull up your bootstraps and keep chugging,” as DeSutter puts it, laid the groundwork for farm families coping with the pandemic better than other population segments. “The overall feeling was that things seemed to be running rather smoothly despite the chaos in the world,” recalls DeSutter. “Area farmers said they were doing fine, which was intriguing to me because everything else in the world was not fine.” You probably found yourself saying with some lighthearted pride: “I’ve been ‘social distancing’ my whole life,” while, the rest of the country was starting to live—and not like—that reality: working from home, working alongside family, lacking a regular schedule, lacking interactions, financial uncertainty… “A lot of restrictions didn’t affect us aside from some minor inconveniences getting parts,” says Brian Corkill, of Galva, Ill., whose daughter was also home this spring. “But it did peel back some layers and make people aware of the mental issues farmers go through and don’t talk about.” Corkill farms with his dad. “Having Sophie’s help took some pressure off,” he says, but also made him think more about the farm’s future as his parents continue to age. Just because farmers are used to isolation and persevering through anything isn’t always a good thing, DeSutter notes. It is part of what makes farming stressful. DeSutter says, “There are a lot of stressors that we just accept as part of our lifestyle instead of saying: ‘hey, we need to keep tabs on how we manage the stress because these are things that can cause a lot of turmoil". She urges you to use the winter downtime to do just that.
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