Skip to main content
Soil Health Resource Guide

The Secret of Farmer Happiness: Regenerative Agriculture

By June 10, 2022May 1st, 2024No Comments

Article Written By: Dr. Elizabeth Heilman, Dale Strickler and Keith Berns

The desire to be happy is universal, yet many of us don’t take the proper steps to improve our lives. A growing body of research has developed over the last two decades revealing what makes people happy. Researchers have identified four core emotional needs: 1) safety, 2) good relationships with love and belonging, 3) self-esteem, and 4) justice. The happiest people have several factors in common that meet these emotional needs. These factors include meaningful, challenging work with outcomes in one’s control, strong relationships and social support, good physical health, meaningful leisure time, enough money to avoid economic stress, and a sense of being treated fairly. 

While farming has the potential to provide high levels of happiness, unfortunately, most farmers don’t experience this, putting them at high risk. Compared to the general population, farmers have a 1.5 times higher suicide risk (CDC study) and the highest suicide rate of all occupations (Univ. of Iowa). Some studies show nearly a quarter of farmers experience depression (Bjornstad et al.). Farmers are often isolated and become more so as rural populations decline, leading to loss of relationships and social support. Farm income is also highly variable and often due to uncontrollable factors, such as weather, international markets, and the cost of inputs. This can lead to a sense of injustice as well as an economic safety risk. Farming has, in many cases, become a high-stakes game with millions of dollars invested and no guarantee of a return. Farming is also often an occupation that is not just a job but a family legacy, in which land is passed down from one generation to the next. Losing a farm is thus far worse emotionally than just losing a job. There is the added shame of letting our forefathers down and of not being able to pass the farm down to our heirs. Farmers also often work very long hours, which can strain family relationships and limit social interaction and leisure time.

The physical health of farmers has declined over time as well. At one time, farmers ate very healthy food, which they grew themselves, and worked hard physically, which kept them fit. Now, much of the physical labor has been replaced with machinery and technology, and farmers get minimal physical exercise. In addition, farmer diets now all too often come not from the family garden but from Dollar General and consist of processed junk food and soda consumed in a tractor or combine seat because they don’t have time to prepare nutritious meals or consume them. Suicide, depression, financial stress, isolation, poor diet, unfitness – that is a lot of bad news. But there is good news in agriculture today as there appears to be a solution to many of these problems. That solution is regenerative agriculture.

Regenerative agriculture better meets the emotional needs of farmers and their families, and a 2019 Farmer Stress Survey from the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition confirms this. This study found that compared to conventional producers, the soil health producers were: more satisfied with their quality of life (89% to 51%); more satisfied with farming/ranching (71% to 43%); more resilient to weather extremes like drought or intense rain (80% to 60%); more confident that their profitability will increase (69% to 36%) and more confident that they are well-positioned for generational succession (80% to 43%).

Much of this soil health resource guide describes ideas that can and will improve farmer happiness and emotional health, though they are seldom described as such. Much of this happiness comes from having more control over financial outcomes when spending less on inputs and having more resilience in the farming system. Gaining control over input costs and being less at the mercy of international corporations, fickle markets, and the weather definitely reduces stress. 

Regenerative farming also provides a greater sense of self-esteem, competence, and meaningful work, all essential to human happiness. Instead of depleting your soil each year, you can experience the deep satisfaction of building your soils. Knowing that you have made your land better and your family economically safer through your own decision-making processes is deeply satisfying. When your land soaks up every drop of a heavy rainfall while your neighbor has erosion and water sitting on fields, you will be proud. Seeing continual improvement and knowing that your farming practices make your soils better for the next generation is a wonderful feeling. More than one farmer has told us that regenerative farming methods have “made farming fun again.”

Humans are happiest with modest levels of continual challenge. Using intellect, ingenuity, and intuition to build your soil and see the tangible results is a keystone of happiness and satisfaction. Regenerative agriculture requires one to be more adaptable, do more research, and learn new things, which brings excitement and anticipation. Learning about the soil microbiome and practicing ecological approaches to water conservation, fertilization, weed control, and pest control as you transition away from high-input agriculture is both intellectually interesting and emotionally satisfying. The learning and measurable progress involved in transitioning to regenerative agriculture eliminate boredom. 

Meeting goals is most satisfying when goals reflect the standards and values you are committed to and believe in. Getting a good yield is always satisfying, but victory can be hollow if you know that you are degrading your soil and mortgaging your children’s future to achieve it. Industrial farming creates large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, yet we can actually reverse climate change by increasing soil health, soil carbon and water holding capacity. Serving as stewards of the land, producers of healthy food, and leaders in creating a safe and sustainable planet are very meaningful goals.

Regenerative agriculture can also enhance your relationships and social support networks. Most rural areas have declined in population, businesses, and social life for more than a century, and many areas struggle to offer much in the way of community life. Working alone on the farm is also challenging. However, rural social isolation and loneliness are not inevitable. The plethora of regenerative agriculture field days, conferences, webinars, and social media groups offer not just a chance to increase knowledge but also an opportunity to develop rich social networks. Events are not just about learning; people share conversation over food, and many events include music and relaxation. These connections often develop into essential forms of support leading to knowledge exchange, collaborative efforts, and “iron sharpening iron.” 

Regenerative agriculture can also enhance social support by building our local communities and regions. For years, we have been told that the only way to succeed in farming was to “Get Big or Get Out.” For the most part, we did, but the “Butz” of the joke is that we now have countrysides of ghost towns that cannot support schools or local businesses, and many of our neighbors are now gone. Getting bigger is NOT the answer to profitability. If we are losing money on every acre, more acres don’t solve the problem; it makes it worse. Regenerative methods can help farmers obtain a good living from a modest-sized farm which means we have more neighbors in a community. Regenerative agricultural producers can also build more prosperous local economies by selling and processing food products locally and shipping to regional and national direct-to-consumer markets. The value of farm products can be increased in endless ways: by cleaning, cooling, packaging, processing, distributing, cooking, combining, churning, culturing, grinding, hulling, extracting, drying, smoking, handcrafting, spinning, weaving, labeling, or packaging. (Adding Value to Farm Products, ATTRA publication, Born and Bachman). When enterprises become more complex, diversified, and profitable, hiring more labor means that rural areas offer more meaningful, productive work, and fewer people work in isolation.

Regenerative farming can also make us healthier, whether we are farming or just consuming the food produced by regenerative methods. Regenerative practices improve the nutritional quality of food and the planet’s health by regenerating soil microbiology and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. Agricultural practice and soil health have a strong connection to health in general and the health of farmers in particular. For example, a growing body of research studies indicate that excessive pesticide exposure can affect quality of life, depression, anxiety, and stress and can increase birth defects, miscarriages, premature births, cancers, DNA damage, autism, infertility, learning disabilities, ADHD, endocrine disruption, bipolar disorder, skin tumors, and thyroid damage. Being able to reduce pesticide use and fertilizer use through regenerative techniques like cover crops and insectary strips reduces our exposure to these frightening risks.

In summary, moving towards more regenerative practices not only makes us more profitable and better stewards of the land, but it also makes us healthier and happier! Improving our agricultural enterprises can achieve more than agricultural production goals. We can grow ecological sustainability, community resilience, and human well-being as well.


This article first appeared in the 8th Edition of Green Cover's Soil Health Resource Guide.

Also check out the 10th edition, our latest Soil Health Resource Guide, over 90 pages packed with scientific articles and fascinating stories from soil health experts, researchers, farmers, innovators, and more! All as our complimentary gift to you, a fellow soil health enthusiast!

Get the Free Guide


Know a friend who would benefit from this article? Share it with them:

Have you subscribed to our newsletter yet?