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Making retirement a positive experience for farmers

Making retirement a positive experience for farmers

Editor’s note: Please enjoy this Dr. Rosmann column from 2014.

For many farmers, when and how to retire from farming is one of the most difficult decisions they ever have to make, second only to getting married or dealing with a major calamity like bankruptcy or a life-threatening illness.

Retirement is difficult for anyone in an occupation that involves caring for others, like healthcare, education, and a host of other careers besides farming, but retirement from farming seems particularly fraught with conflict.

During the past month, six farm persons contacted me about their indecisiveness or a friend’s or mate’s problematic adjustment to retirement. Four of those retiring were men; one of the two women who contacted me was worried about her transition from nursing and her role as the assistant operator of the farm.

Farmers feel a calling to produce food and other essentials for life, a pursuit that gives them tremendous satisfaction when carried out successfully. It is a manifestation of their agrarian imperative.

One person who contacted me spent 20 minutes on the phone expressing his regrets about what he felt he didn’t do correctly while farming, but ignoring that he had acquired 800 acres of farmland and the designation as a Master Farmer. He still wanted to fix what he felt were mistakes in his farming operation.

In the course of our discussion it became clear he was fearful he would not feel useful or needed after retirement when two sons, who also own some land of their own and are in their 40s, take over his cropping and cow/calf operation.

Despite what many say, the difficulties farmers and many others experience about retiring have less to do with money and more to do with fears. They fear life will lose its meaning and purpose and that their only remaining challenges involve preparing for compromised health and impending death.

They fear there is little they can do that will be enjoyable. They fear others will forget about them. They fear uselessness.

“The day you retire, you lose the very identity you spent years creating in the workplace,” says a recent Forbes Magazine article. I disagree for two reasons.

First, coworkers and others who benefitted from one’s work, such as clients and family, don’t forget who helped them. They remember and try to learn from their valued predecessors.

Second, retirement isn’t about quitting one’s usefulness; it’s about assuming a new phase of giving.

Think of retirement as a career change. Most of the persons I communicated with viewed their new phase as a letdown.

When I suggested retiring farmers have the skills most younger persons in their field (pun intended) desire, they rethought their opportunities. Retirement from full-time farming, or any career for that matter, allows the retirees to take on different responsibilities.

I suggested to a depressed veterinarian who felt “put out to pasture” after he ceased practice that he could mentor beginning veterinarians or start a consulting business to help livestock producers and pet businesses become more successful in their methods of animal husbandry.

At first he dismissed my ideas, but the more he thought about them, the more his “creative juices” started flowing as he envisioned how he could help his proteges and livestock producers with his wisdom, even though he isn’t able to carry out the physical activities himself.

Retiring farmers can find ways to help beginning farmers and their farm successors. They don’t have to do all their “consulting” in the coffee shop.

Is volunteer work the answer? Many people have heard the suggestion that retirement means having the time to undertake volunteer activities.

Some people find meaning in volunteer work, especially if it capitalizes on skills they have honed. An accountant I know spends countless hours helping other retirees and low-income families compile their taxes and choose investments.

Others eschew the thought of volunteer work and absorb themselves in activities they postponed while employed full time, such as traveling or hobbies they had little time for earlier in their lives.

Personally, I have embarked on a career I put off for too long. Yes, the grandchildren and our children need Marilyn and me, and we help them liberally, but I am also off on a new career.

I find working on the Farm and Ranch Life columns, magazine articles, journal submissions, speeches, workshops and books I felt were somewhere “inside me” when younger but didn’t have time to execute, now consume most of my days and nights. I write from my heart as much as from my head.

Under God’s watch I have much to write about, many ponds to fish, and places and people to appreciate that I only glimpsed previously before I closed my professional office 16 months ago. Marilyn has many more tasks for me also.

Maybe it’s like the saying goes, “The husband’s retirement becomes the full time job for the wife.”

I know what I want to do in my new full-time career. 

Dr. Rosmann is clinical psychologist and former full-time farmer at Harlan, Iowa. Contact him at

Dr. Rosmann lives on a family farm near Harlan, Iowa. He is a psychologist who has directed behavioral health programs in response to disasters of all types, Contact him at

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Dr. Mike Rosmann is a clinical psychologist and former farmer/rancher offering advice and commentary on agricultural behavioral health.

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