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At a time when social distancing has become the hot term, the idea of a farm couple getaway weekend may sound trite. But it may be just what the doctor ordered for a family-centered industry under stress.

“Sometimes, as farmers, we get self-involved,” says Matt Byrnes, a dairy farmer from Dorchester, Iowa. “It gets easy to drown in our own issues.”

With that in mind, officials at Iowa State University Extension put together two farm couple getaway weekends in January and February. There is no cost to attend the program as food, lodging and other expenses are being paid for by sponsorships.

Each of the events included about 10 couples, and the couples brought a wide array of experiences. Some were older, established farmers. Others were beginning farmers. Some were in the middle. They represented different types of farms and different parts of the state.

And they talked.

“We wanted to find ways to mitigate stress and to help farmers be more resilient in handling stress,” says Larry Tranel, an Iowa State University Extension dairy field specialist.

The program is a bit of a hybrid that includes some marriage counseling, some stress management tools and some thoughts about life on the farm.

It is aimed at farmers wanting to take advantage of activities to improve farm family communication, work on farm or family goal-setting, farm transition or who would just like a weekend away to discuss farm and farm family issues

The idea isn’t a new one. Tranel was involved with the Extension service in Wisconsin when it held similar events in the 1990s. He thought that low commodity prices and economic problems for farmers, especially dairy farmers, made now a good time to revive the idea.

And that was before coronavirus became an everyday term. Now, with virtually every conversation starting with some version of the “V” word, the idea of talking about social contact and stress management seems timely, even if the couples’ retreats won’t be held again until after social distancing rules are relaxed.

“I think it was very enlightening,” says Michelle Behrends, a farmer from Wiota, Iowa. Behrends and her husband, Curt, attended one of the events with another couple they knew.

Some of the information at their event was about topics like passing the farm on to the next generation. But there were wide-ranging discussions, and also a simple chance to get to know other farmers.

“It ended up being a fun weekend to get together with fellow agricultural couples,” Behrends says.

It is a sentiment echoed by Michelle Byrnes, who joined her husband, Matt, at one of the getaway weekends.

“We had a great time,” she says.

The experience and the chance to talk with other farmers served as a reminder that there is more to life than the farm business, and that life will go on for the family no matter what happens in the business or in the outside world.

Tranel says he gets something out of it as well.

“I take away a greater appreciation of farming and of the people and their resilience,” he says.


Gene Lucht is public affairs editor for Iowa Farmer Today, Missouri Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.