7 trauma resiliency strategies for farmers we can all try today

Farmers, food business owners, conservationists, Virginia cooperative extension agents, and other farm-adjacent folks from across the state gathered last week for a kind of a catch-up, reflection and exchange of ideas after the most recent growing seasons. 

It was part of the 2023 Farm to Table Conference at Blue Ridge Community College, called “Nourishing and (Re)Imagining Collaboration, Conservation, and Community.” And as the marketing manager for the Harrisonburg Farmers Market, I attended to cultivate connections and gather insights into the challenges our agricultural community faces.

With buzzwords like sustainability and resilience in the conference session titles, I was expecting informative talks about ecologically-minded farming tactics and strategies. 

What I wasn’t expecting was a primer on trauma resilience. 

Elizabeth Heilman, a professor of education at Wichita State University, has made it her mission to raise awareness about fostering farmer resilience. Heilman said a sustainable future starts with fortifying personal resilience.

Heilman says farming is “a traumatized profession within a traumatized global population.” Farmers, she said, are on par with firefighters, surgeons and EMTs in terms of emotional intensity and uncertainty on the job. Many factors are out of a farmer’s control: weather, pests, commodity prices and more. 

Because of all the uncertainty, farmers often gravitate toward the familiar, opting for practices that, despite causing ecological harm, provide a sense of security. The comfort of proficiency in traditional tilling outweighs the perceived risks associated with experimenting with cover cropping, even though the latter is proven to mitigate runoff and erosion, buffer soil temperature and help rainfall infiltration.

Based on neuroscience and field research, Heilman’s teachings are not just for farmers. Here are seven strategies she suggests to “nurture roots of resilience” for anyone looking to boost their optimism and improve self efficacy: 

  1. Make a “done list” rather than a “to do” list to track your success
  • Recording completed tasks increases dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain that plays a key role in reward and pleasure. It’s the brain’s way of saying, “Keep it up!”
  1. “Eat the Frog” 
  • Coined by motivational speaker Brian Tracy, this strategy advocates tackling the most challenging task of the day first. Clearing the deck of the most difficult task first so you’re free to tackle the rest of the day with increased focus and positivity.
  1. Start a gratitude journal
  • Consistently tracking 4-5 things you’re grateful for each day contributes to changes in the brain’s neural connections and structure, potentially fostering a more optimistic mindset over time.
  1. Create a vision board 
  • By consistently being exposed to visual representations of your goals, you actively shape our mindset and enhance our chances of realizing those aspirations.
  1. Hang up your mission statement
  • The same is true for an organization or personal mission statement. Habitually seeing it reinforces a sense of purpose, fostering optimism and helping you stay aligned. 
  1. Take pictures 
  • Observe and appreciate changes over time. Create a visual record of your personal growth or the evolution of your surroundings.
  1. Talk back to your inner critic
  • When your inner critic speaks up, write down what it says. Then, talk back to that shaming voice. Imagine you’re defending a friend. You’ll be surprised how empowering it can be.

These resiliency strategies can apply whether you have a backyard garden, manage acres of land, or are working on your own personal growth.

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