PSYCHOTHERAPIST DEBORAH VANBERKEL’S job would be much easier if farm succession was simply a legal matter. Her Napanee-based company, Cultivate Counselling Services, would have a minor role at best.
But parent-to-child farm ownership transactions are just not that easy. As a new decade dawns, some producers are still approaching farm succession as a black-and-white matter, even though handing over the reins involves more pressures, players, and emotions than ever. Farm succession has become a complex, delicate, and frustrating mix that shows no signs of easing up. And the mental health implications of this new order are significant.
“Today there are so many outside factors on people’s minds,” says Vanberkel, a 15-year veteran of psychotherapy counselling in rural Ontario. “Buyers and sellers already have enough to consider when the farm changes hands, with so many decisions that need to be made. Additional stresses are really overwhelming.”
Indeed, this stress is enough to make some people want to throw in the towel — and some do. Vanberkel says in particular, farmers are finding it difficult to deal with issues beyond their control, such as U.S. President Donald Trump’s protectionist trade policies and Mother Nature’s unpredictability. Add a farm sale on top of all that, along with all it represents, and it is more than some people can bear. They simply walk away from the process, and that creates a new set of problems.
Vanberkel — Ontario’s only psychotherapist dedicated wholly to the farm and rural community — is not alone in her feelings, or her findings. Last year, University of Guelph doctoral student Briana Hagen conducted one-on-one interviews with 75 producers, mostly in Ontario, to find factors that contribute to mental health outcomes such as stress, depression, anxiety, and burnout.
“Succession planning came up over and over again as a factor,” says Hagen. “It can have a huge impact on mental health.”
New complexities make it more difficult than normal to pinpoint when succession planning starts spinning out of control. But Hagen and Vanberkel agree there are some clear warning signs.
The farm is a parents’ legacy. They may be afraid to let it go because they have worked all their lives to create it, it is all they have ever known and they will likely never be in a position to create something like it again. Ironically, the same fear is held by sons and daughters who want to take over the farm.
“They don’t want to mess it up and be the ones who run it into the ground,” says Vanberkel. “They’re young, and they feel a lot of financial pressure taking on a huge debt on top of wanting to maintain the legacy of their generational farm. Fearing failure causes stress and anxiety.”
The prospective buyers may also fear fall-out from their siblings not involved in the farm’s succession, if feelings of unfairness are present.
The legacy factor may also mean that parents can’t see themselves in any role other than making decisions and being the farm boss. That is one thing when their offspring are still young and learning the ropes. But when does parental oversight stop, so succession can start? Hagen says she talked to one frustrated producer who was in his 50s and still managing the farm according to the wishes of his dad, the farm owner, who was in his 80s. “Not being involved in decision making can lead to feelings of powerlessness, and that’s frustrating,” she says.
Among many elements in society, mental health challenges are seen as a weakness. In the midst of succession planning, the involved parties may not want to reveal their concerns to their farm planning advisor, for fear of appearing incapable.
“Farmers don’t want to talk about how stressed they are because they think it could cause concern with the advisor and spell the end for the succession exercise,” says Hagen.
All this speaks to the need for better resources and a greater understanding among farm advisors about mental health issues.
Vanberkel and Hagen also agree that better communications is a key to dealing with mental health challenges related to farm succession. Vanberkel says the first step is to reduce tunnel vision — she tries to get black-and-white thinkers to see shades of grey and understand others’ points of view. That is not easy when parents are firm in their core beliefs and worry that those beliefs could be compromised if their kids are running the farm. That can make them dig in and seem inflexible.
However, they may also be surprised to learn their kids’ core beliefs are not much different than their own… but they will only know by talking.
And that is where counsellors like Vanberkel come in, skilled professionals who are experts in getting people to open up. She has particular street cred, being a farmer herself and living daily with some of the same pressures faced by other producers. But counsellors who solely focus on farms are rare, which speaks to the need for more resources, such as the “In The Know” comprehensive mental health literacy program being developed by Hagen and a team at the University of Guelph.
Vanberkel is optimistic the mental health stigma will eventually subside in agriculture and become less of an issue in succession planning, as society overall becomes more comfortable opening up about difficult topics.
“Not long ago, talk about cancer and AIDS was taboo, but now we have high-profile public fundraisers to help deal with them,” she says. “I’m confident this will happen with mental health too.” •