Using a farm business plan can decrease stress and support positive mental health, according to a recent study.
National research by Farm Management Canada has found a positive correlation between the mental health of primary producers and adhering to business management practices. However, only around one-fifth of those surveyed regularly use a farm business plan.
“Our findings indicate, much like we see in other studies, that a significant portion of farmers are moderately to highly stressed,” said Heather Watson, executive director of Farm Management Canada.
The organization initiated this study to determine whether business management practices have an impact on mental health, positive or negative. The findings are detailed in a report called “Health Minds, Healthy Farms – Exploring the Connection between Mental Health and Farm Business Management,” now available online. For the purpose of this research, farm business management is defined as the practices that help you to best use your resources.
The survey examined stress factors related to mental health challenges faced by farmers and ranchers. The top three stressors were the industry’s inherent unpredictability, pressures due to workload and lack of planning and financial issues.
The study also found that younger producers “tend to resort to less effective coping mechanisms when stressed. This could be a measure of inexperience or the support that they have around them,” said Watson.
Around 21 per cent of farmers surveyed said they regularly follow a business plan, while 48 per cent said they rarely or never follow a business plan.
“This is important because 88 per cent of the farmers who do follow a business plan say it’s contributed to their peace of mind and has helped contribute to lower stress and more positive mental health outcomes,” she said.
“Farmers who use a written business plan also tend to follow other business practices such as record keeping, adhering to a budget, benchmarking performance, seeking training, communicating about the future of the farm with those impacted, etcetera.”
The survey also asked why producers don’t use written business plans, with 41 per cent of those who don’t stating that they’re succeeding without one. Other reasons include lack of time, an aversion to continuously updating it, not knowing what to include and finding it to be overwhelming.
One farmer surveyed noted that while they do their best to stay on top of their financial records, it’s the first thing to set aside in busy times.
“We hear that a lot,” said Watson. “It’s not uncommon, but our research shows that business planning is important not only to supporting positive mental health but also to supporting the bottom line.”
Business management tools, mental health support recommended
The report includes four primary recommendations:
- Continue to raise awareness around the importance of farmer mental health
- Support the improvement of mental health literacy for farmers and those supporting farmers
- Deliver business management advice, tools and training that focuses on risk management and preparedness as the means of facing uncertainty
- Advocate for farmer-specific mental health services
Watson would like to see these findings used to continue the discussion about mental health in agriculture.
“We need to give this the attention it deserves and has deserved for a long time and give it the appropriate support,” she said. This will require “a sustained mechanism to keep this conversation going, keep it going at the national level but also have those regional ties so that we have that grass-roots connection for the producers and the people on the ground.”
If business planning has seemed daunting in the past, Watson recommends approaching it from a different angle, such as using a risk-management approach.
“Risk management seems to be a language that resonates with farmers within the context of business planning, as well as the peace of mind that can support mental health.”
She also advises a team approach, using family, peers and advisors to help make major decisions, and focusing on being prepared for whatever may happen in the future.
For those interested in creating a farm business plan, there are many resources available, such as the National Farm Business Management Resource Centre.
“We have resources there on starting a farm, expanding your farm and transitioning your farm, specific to business planning, but also on the different plans you can do, and right now we’re also working on business tool kits to help farmers along,” said Watson.
She also suggests taking advantage of workshops and webinars to learn more about what business planning entails.
“The budget, for me, is a very small part of the business plan. It’s about the process of getting together and sharing your vision and sharing your dreams and goals, and then having something to refer back to when times get tough or when you have to weather the storm.”