The Effects of Collective Trauma on Iowa Farmers

Progress report for GNC21-330

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2021: $13,618.00
Projected End Date: 08/31/2024
Grant Recipient: Iowa State University
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Dr. J. Arbuckle
Iowa State University Department of Sociology
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Project Information


Title: The Effects of Collective Trauma on Iowa Farmers

Collective trauma refers to the psychological effects that are experienced by a group of people in response to a shared traumatic event. Farmers represent a unique population that is chronically exposed to traumatic events particular to the agricultural industry. Farming communities in Iowa have experienced the farm crisis of the 1980s, as well as decades of extreme weather events, rapidly fluctuating markets, trade wars, rising input costs, farm bankruptcies and foreclosures, and high rates of farmer suicides. Exposure to such events can potentially have dramatic effects on the people who experience them and the communities they live in. While research exists examining the behavioral health aspects of stress in farmers, no studies have examined the lived experiences of farmers within the framework of collective trauma. The proposed study will use both qualitative and quantitative methods in two phases to investigate how Iowa farmers perceive their own experiences of these potential types of collective trauma, and in particular how collective trauma may have affected their management decisions on their farms. Phase 1 will involve conducting in-depth, semi-structured interviews with approximately 30 farmers from five geographic regions in Iowa. The goal of these interviews will be to discuss the lived experiences of farmers to determine whether and how they have experienced collective trauma and how they feel this has affected their farming operations and rural communities. Interviews will also be conducted with behavioral health experts who have experience counseling farmers and farm families who have experienced stress and crisis. These interviews with experts will focus on their perspectives on the psychological aspects of how collective trauma affects farmers. Phase 2 will use the information gained from Phase 1 to develop a series of questions about collective trauma and farm management to be included in the Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll, an annual survey of Iowa farmers conducted by Iowa State University. Analysis of the survey data will examine the relationships between experiences of collective trauma and farmer decisions regarding farm management and conservation practice use. The results from both Phase 1 and Phase 2 will be used to 1) develop trauma-informed policy recommendations that can help improve the lives of farmers who have experienced collective trauma, and 2) increase awareness among policymakers and conservation professionals who work with farmers regarding how such trauma can affect farmer management decisions and conservation adoption.

Project Objectives:

Learning outcomes from this project include gaining a greater understanding and awareness of Iowa farmers' perspectives on their experiences of collective trauma and how these experiences affect their farm management decisions, with a particular focus on how trauma-induced risk aversion affects conservation adoption. This will be accomplished using a combination of qualitative and quantitative analyses of data collected through in-depth interviews and a survey. Metrics for evaluating the success of these outcomes include conducting approximately 35 interviews, achieving a survey response rate of at least 30%, and completing the study within 24 months.

This knowledge will then inform the action outcomes of providing this information, along with trauma-informed policy recommendations, to policymakers, conservation professionals, and other researchers through conference presentations in the North Central Region, an Iowa State University Extension report, and two peer-reviewed journal articles. Metrics for evaluating the success of these outcomes include publishing two articles in journals with an impact factor of at least 2.5, presenting study results at a minimum of two conference sessions with at least 20 attendees each, and publishing one extension report that will be accessible via print and online options. 

Although implementation and evaluation of long-term goals fall outside of this grant project, the information gained from this study will be critical for informing the long-term goals of helping to improving farmer and rural community mental/behavioral health as well as increasing conservation adoption through trauma-informed farm policy initiatives. The evaluation of these outcomes will be accomplished through potential future research projects. 


Materials and methods:

After obtaining IRB approval through Iowa State University in December of 2021, farmer participants for Phase 1 were selected among existing participants in the Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll (IFRLP), which is a longitudinal annual survey of Iowa farmers established in 1982 and managed by Iowa State University (ISU) Extension Sociology. Screening criteria were be developed to identify farmers from each of Iowa’s five geographic regions who have likely experienced one or more types of collective trauma based on both their location within the state as well as answers to previous IFRLP questions. For example, the northwest region of Iowa experienced a significant drought in 2012, and central Iowa experienced a derecho that caused massive damage in 2020. Additionally, previous IFRLP surveys have included items regarding economic insecurity and the quality of life in rural communities. Eleven farmers have been interviewed so far. Four behavioral health experts have also been interviewed who have experience working with farmers interviewed in order to understand their perspectives on the psychological aspects of how collective trauma affects farmers. These experts were also consulted on how to safely and sensitively approach potentially difficult and sensitive issues with farmers so as to protect them from harm during interviews.

All participants were contacted either by phone or email and invited to participate in individual in-person, semi-structured in-depth interviews (Legard et al. 2003). The farmer interview protocol guide included general questions about each participant’s farming operation, personal history, and their identity as a farmer. The next questions attempted to ascertain what changes each farmer would make to their farm if they could, what barriers exist that prevent these changes, and in what ways the farmer would envision a more desirable national agriculture and food system. Questions then asked details about various types of traumatic events and conditions the farmer has experienced within the context of their farming operation. Examples include the 1980s farm crisis, floods, droughts, the recent derecho, economic uncertainty, market fluctuations, trade wars, fear of bankruptcy and losing the farm, and farmer suicides. The interviewer sought to determine how experiencing these events has affected each farmer’s management decisions as well as the rural communities where they live and work. Each farmer has been asked to comment on how conservation and farm policy might be changed in order to better serve farmers who have experienced these types of collective trauma events. Interview audio is recorded and transcribed using, a professional transcription service. Grounded theory (Corbin and Strauss 1990) will be used to analyze these interview transcripts to identify emergent themes and develop a model of how collective trauma is experienced by farmers within their rural communities and how these experiences affect their management decisions, including conservation adoption.  

In Phase 2, the researchers used information from the initial interviews to develop a set of survey questions for the 2022 IFRLP that asked respondents to report their experience with various aspects of collective trauma, how these experiences negatively affected them, any symptoms of trauma they had experienced, and any coping mechanisms they employed as well as their effectiveness. Standard demographic data such as general location, age, gender, farm size, income, land tenure (owned vs. leased), crops grown, education level, whether or not they have received technical assistance from conservation professionals or used cost-share programs, etc. (Prokopy et al. 2019) was also collected. Data from the 2021 IFRLP asked farmers about their adoption of several soil and water conservation practices. These pertinent data from the 2021 and 2022 surveys will be used to analyze the relationship between conservation practice use, farmer experiences of collective trauma, and various farmer characteristics.

Surveys were sent to the 1,325 participants in the current IFRLP database according to standard procedures (Gideon 2012). An initial invitation letter was sent out in February of 2022, providing the option of participating in either an online or paper survey. Survey packets and links were sent out in early March of 2022, followed by a reminder postcard to non-responders. All interview and survey responses are kept confidential. 979 farmers responded to the survey, for a response rate of 74%. 

The interview and survey data will be analyzed to identify emergent themes, trends, demographics, and distributions, and statistical regression analysis will be used to examine the relationship between farmer experiences of collective trauma and their use of conservation practices.

Literature Cited

Corbin, Juliet, and Anselm Strauss. 1990. “Grounded Theory Research: Procedures, Canons and Evaluative Criteria.” Zeitschrift Für Soziologie 19 (6): 418–27.

Gideon, L., 2012. Handbook of survey methodology for the social sciences. New York: Springer.

Legard, R., Keegan, J. and Ward, K., 2003. In-depth interviews. Qualitative research practice: A guide for social science students and researchers6(1), pp.138-169.

Prokopy, L.S., Floress, K., Arbuckle, J.G., Church, S.P., Eanes, F.R., Gao, Y., Gramig, B.M., Ranjan, P. and Singh, A.S., 2019. Adoption of agricultural conservation practices in the United States: Evidence from 35 years of quantitative literature. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation74(5), pp.520-534.

Research results and discussion:

Analysis of Phase 1 interview data, as well as data collection, is still ongoing. Preliminary analysis suggests that 1) farmers are experiencing events and conditions that can be accurately described as traumatic; 2) these events and conditions are experienced at the individual, family, and community level; 3) these experiences can have an effect on farm management decisions; 4) conservation adoption can either be positively or negatively influenced by these experiences; 5) there can be intergenerational effects of these traumatic experiences (i.e., parents who directly experienced traumatic events can pass down trauma to their children who did not directly experience events). 

Collection of Phase 2 survey data has been completed, but analysis of the effects of trauma on conservation adoption is ongoing. Preliminary tabulation of survey results can be found here in the 2022 IFRLP Summary Report on pages 5-10: 

Highlights from the trauma section include:

  1. "The top five items farmers reported having experienced were “significant drought” (84%), “increased dependence on inputs” (82%), “financial stress from fluctuating crop and livestock prices” (81%), “decline in the number of farms and farmers in my community” (73%), and “dependence on income support from USDA” (69%). Personal experience of the 1980s Farm Crisis was reported by 67% of respondents."
  2. "The four most commonly experienced conditions were also the most impactful. Significant drought was first, with 72% of farmers reporting that they had experienced medium or high levels of negative impacts related to drought (table 4). The following six items were related to economics and structural change in agriculture, with farmers citing medium or high levels of negative impacts related to increased dependence on inputs (68%), financial stress from fluctuating crop and livestock prices (67%), decline in the number of farms and farmers in their community (65%), the 1980s Farm Crisis (63%), high levels of farm-related debt (43%), and dependence on income support from USDA (42%)."
  3. "Half of respondents reported at least one of the listed symptoms of trauma, and 33% reported two or more. Eight percent reported three, seven percent reported four, and six percent reported all five. The average number reported was 1.23."
  4. "The most frequently checked symptom, at 40% of farmers, was “upsetting thoughts or memories about the condition(s) that have come into my mind against my will,” and 25% reported “persistent changes in my mood related to the condition(s) (e.g., anxiety, depression, anger)” (table 6). Twenty-three percent of farmers reported experiencing “upsetting dreams about the condition(s),” and 21% reported “avoidance of reminders associated with the condition(s).” Seventeen percent of farmers reported “bodily reactions when reminded of the condition(s) (i.e., fast heartbeat, stomach churning, sweatiness, dizziness).” Because trauma can be experienced at the community level as well as the individual level, the item, “A decrease in my community’s vitality and well-being due to the condition(s)” was included in the list (table 6) to determine if farmers had experienced this form of “collective trauma” as well. Twenty-seven percent of farmers indicated they had experienced this effect in their community related to the potentially traumatic events...".
  5. "The most common coping strategies reported were “relied on my own ability to cope” (86%), “talked to family members” (74%), “talked to close friends” (70%), and “talked to other farmers in my community” (64%)."
  6. "Among the 86% who reported relying on their own ability to cope, 82% rated that strategy to be moderately or very effective. Among those who reported talking to family members as a strategy, 76% rated it moderately or highly effective. Sixty-nine percent of farmers who had talked to friends as a coping strategy rated it as either moderately or highly effective, and 60% of those whose strategies included talking to other farmers rated this action as moderately or highly effective. While only four percent of farmers reported talking with a therapist as a coping strategy, it was one of the top-rated strategies, with 72% indicating that it was moderately or highly effective."


Arbuckle, J. G. and C. Morris 2022. Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll: 2022 Summary Report. Extension Report SOC 3105. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Extension.

Participation Summary
990 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

1 Published press articles, newsletters
3 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary:

80 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

Published Articles:

Arbuckle, J. G. and Morris, C. 2022. Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll: 2022 Summary Report. Extension Report SOC 3105. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Extension.


Morris, C., (Arbuckle, J.). “The Effects of Collective Trauma on Iowa Farmers” 2022 Rural Sociology Society Conference, Denver, CO. August 4, 2022. Conference presentation summarizing preliminary results of Phase 1 (interviews) to approximately 50 agricultural/rural sociological professionals. 

Morris, C., (Arbuckle, J.). “The Effects of Collective Trauma on Iowa Farmers” 2022 Agriculture, Food, and Human Values/Association for the Study of Food and Society Conference. May 21, 2022. Conference presentation summarizing preliminary results of Phase 1 (interviews) to approximately 20 agricultural professionals. 

Morris, C., (Arbuckle, J.). “The Effects of Collective Trauma on Iowa Farmers” (Poster) 2022 Midwest Sociological Society Conference. April 14, 2022. Conference poster summarizing preliminary results of Phase 1 (interviews) presented to approximately 10 agricultural/sociological professionals. 

Outreach in Progress:

Submitted abstract to present results of Phase 2 (survey) at the Rural Sociology Society Conference in August 2023.

Currently developing two Ph.D. dissertation chapters for Phase 1 (interviews) and Phase 2 (survey), both of which will be developed into peer-reviewed journal articles. 

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Knowledge of how and why farmers make decisions with regard to conservation adoption is crucial for conservation professionals and policymakers. Because traumatic events can have unique effects on those who experience them with regard to their decision-making, it is also crucial for conservation professionals and policymakers to understand these effects in order to design technical assistance, outreach, education, and financial programs that incorporate this understanding. By the end of this project, we will develop trauma-informed policy recommendations for conservation professionals and policymakers that may serve to increase conservation adoption among farmers who have been traumatized. Doing so could lead to improved environmental sustainability through natural resource conservation. Interventions based on this knowledge of trauma could also improve economic sustainability for farmers by helping to develop more robust farm management systems as well as social benefits for farmers and their communities by addressing the effects of trauma on behavioral health. 

Knowledge Gained:

While data collection and analysis are ongoing, preliminary results from this project have provided a few key insights. It appears that farmers are experiencing events and conditions that can be accurately described as traumatic at the individual, family, and community levels, and these experiences can have an effect on farm management decisions, including conservation adoption. These impacts can be either positive or negative regarding conservation adoption. For instance, some farmers experience trauma, such as the 80s Farm Crisis, and may become much more conservative with their spending, meaning that they are less likely to spend capital on conservation adoption. They see this as a way of protecting their land and livelihood. Other farmers may experience the same event and will increase their use of conservation practices in order to protect their land and livelihood. We have also found that these effects can be intergenerational. For example, parents who directly experienced the 80s Farm Crisis can pass down trauma to their children who did not directly experience this event, causing the children to be less likely to adopt conservation practices once they have control of the farm. 


Information Products

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.