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Views and opinions: Questions about retirement troubling for many farmers

Most agricultural producers view farming as a noble and essential occupation and a profoundly spiritual way of life. Having to cease farming because of aging, economic difficulties, or other unwanted circumstances is difficult for most farmers and other family members, such as spouses and children.

People involved in farming find this transition to a new phase of life harder to undertake than many people in other careers. That’s partly because farming usually isn’t just a career – it’s a calling.

A widowed farm woman in Indiana, whom I will call Lydia, wrote to tell me how she found new meaning in her life when her husband passed away unexpectedly about a decade ago. Lydia decided to assist her parents, who are in their nineties and had farmed the same land, to remain in their farm home for the rest of their days.

She and her husband operated her parents’ farm with the assistance of her father; then her husband had a fatal heart attack at age 58.

Lydia’s mother is dealing with Parkinson’s disease and is unable to walk or to speak, but she thinks and writes clearly; she communicates through her iPad. Her father, a feeble man in his mid-nineties, mostly watches television and has little to say, but before he quit farming he and his wife stipulated they wanted his nephews to take over the farm operation if Lydia and her husband or their children were unable to take over.

Lydia finds fulfillment in her life by caring for others in need. She records her observations and anything meaningful in a journal daily, a practice she began after her husband died. She described her journal as a friend. It could be instructive for us to read and learn from, if she chooses to share it.

I admire people who turn lemons into lemonade, because they can teach us how to turn hard knocks into opportunities to make ourselves better people. All three persons in this triad made productive transitions in their lives.

Lydia took on a new role in caring for her parents even before her husband passed; she did so joyfully. She reminds me of what I consider the best definition of humility: To accept with joy what we don’t want to face.

Perhaps this woman’s parents modeled for her how to adjust to whatever befell her. Lydia’s father was an energetic and thoughtful farmer, husband, and parent before his health gradually declined. He assisted members of his extended family to take over their farm after his son-in-law died, and because none of his grandchildren wanted to pursue farming.

Her mother figured out how to communicate despite her loss of abilities to speak understandably and to write legibly – she can press iPad buttons. She is a remarkable person who perhaps modeled for her daughter how to write what she thinks. I surmise that her iPad would also teach us, if she allowed access to it.

All three people in this family demonstrate that retirement from farming isn’t about declining, becoming meaningless, and ultimately dying. Instead, ceasing farming is about embracing new phases of life, making the most of available options, and creating more possibilities to enrich life.

Turning over the farm to the next managers of the land and its accompanying resources is a psychological transition as well as a transformation in the caretaking of the operation. It’s a passage of opportunities to successive generations and sharing what has been learned.

It’s this way in any family business. It can also be this way for retiring people who are employees and not owners of a business, to share what they have learned with their successors.

Even though popular media, advertisements, and travel agencies portray retirement as freedom from obligations and filled with expectations to enjoy what couldn’t be undertaken previously because of work requirements, that’s mostly a myth. Retirement becomes hedonistic and empty without purposes greater than satisfying ourselves.

Just as Lydia’s parents became mentors for her and for extended kin who took over the farm when her husband died, all people entering a new phase after any occupation can share what they learned with following generations. Happiness and meaningfulness are found by giving, teaching, and sharing, and not by conserving acquisitions for personal use.

During the past three days, our oldest granddaughter was comfortable when she stayed with my wife, Marilyn, and me at our farm. She and Marilyn had fun constructing a fairy garden out of materials that were mostly available on our farm.

Before this 7-year old returned home, she told me that this, her first trip away from home alone, helped her to compare the routines in her home with ours, and she liked that. Mostly Marilyn made our granddaughter’s experience so beneficial.

As for me, I have ever more opportunities to assist the development of behavioral health supports for farmers, which is what am passionately pursuing during my newest life phase.


Dr. Mike Rosmann is a psychologist and farmer in western Iowa. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of Farm World. Readers may contact him at