Farming a High Stress Game for Veteran Farmer


Having farmed for approximately 45 years now, Rick Backes has faced every challenge that farmers can face, from being forced to diversify his crop portfolio, to bad weather, to high costs of doing business, to unpredictable market conditions and more.

And his most important advice to deal with work-related stress?

“Go to the bar at night,” he laughs.

Third Generation Farmers

Rick and his brother are the third generation in their family to farm their land in Glenburn, North Dakota (just north of Minot), where they grow mostly wheat, canola, and soybeans.

And he’s not joking about the stress. Despite the many advances that have been made in farming over his time, he believes the level of stress that farmers face has increased. “Farming itself is easier now than it was in the 70s quite a bit but it’s a lot higher stress than it was back then.” (In fact, a 2016 University of Guelph report shows that 45% of farmers surveyed reported high-stress levels and 58% reported anxiety, with another 35% reporting depression.)

Rick was introduced to the high stress of farming early in his career. He recalls a period, not long after he and his brother first took over the farm from their dad when interest rates climbed to levels between 16 and 20 percent. “If farmers survived the 80s, they can survive just about anything” he says.

Those days are now long gone, but there are different challenges today. For one thing, there’s the farmer’s lack of control over rising costs involved with running a farm, including inputs, equipment, and modern technology.

“The cost of production is just astronomically high,” says Rick. This year he estimates he’ll be paying about $85 to $90 an acre for treated soybean seed. “There’s no reason for it being that high but that’s what it is and that’s what it stays at.”

Marketing Challenges

Marketing is another challenge, especially right now. Rick says one of the problems is that there’s really no way of predicting what will happen with crop prices.  “It used to be you could watch the weather to make marketing decisions but nowadays there are so many different factors thrown at you.” For example, a huge factor in marketing your crops these days is politics – at the moment, the United States is in the midst of discussions around changing free trade and tariff agreements with some of the key countries for agriculture exports.

Despite the confusion around what will happen with these agreements going forward, Rick’s advice is simple: sell if you’re satisfied with the bid you’re offered. “If it goes up, it goes up, and if it goes down, you’re satisfied you made the right decision.”

The Bright Side

However, there have also been major improvements introduced over his time farming, Rick says. The farm equipment has made major advances. “We have combines and tractors with autosteer which is real nice – that’s one of the biggest improvements.”

The chemicals available to farmers today are much more efficient at controlling weeds as well, which helps a great deal, Rick says.

But these advances have not mitigated the stress involved with the job. In light of this, he would advise younger farmers to come up with constructive ways to deal with the stress involved with modern farming but to also appreciate how much the job has changed over the past 60 years.