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Published August 17, 2012, 12:00 AM

Mike Rosmann: What is the definition of a farmer, exactly?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “farmer” as: 1) A person who pays a fixed sum for some privilege or source of income. 2) A person who cultivates land or crops or raises animals (as livestock or fish).

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “farmer” as:

1) A person who pays a fixed sum for some privilege or source of income.

2) A person who cultivates land or crops or raises animals (as livestock or fish).

For USDA purposes, a person who earns income from a farm is considered a farmer. Usually, this is the person who operates the farm and not necessarily the farm owner.

The USDA defines a farm as a place of business that earns $1,000 or more from the sale of its products or which normally would have earned $1,000 or more during a year. USDA payments, such as those for land in the Conservation Reserve Program, are considered farm income.

The Dictionary of Occupational Titles, which is the official U.S. Department of Labor classification of jobs, lists many kinds of farmers, such as vegetable, fish, fur, fruit crop, field crop, livestock farmer or rancher, and the all-purpose category – general farmer.

The U.S. Census Bureau no longer lists “farmer” as an occupation. However, the USDA conducts its own Census of Agriculture every five years.

The National Occupational Research Agenda, which is the strategic plan for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, contains a section devoted to agriculture, forestry and fishing.

The NIOSH considers people engaged in the production of food, fiber and biofuels to be farmers. Biofuels are renewable fuels, such as ethanol and methane, that can be produced from organic biomass such as crops, fodder and wastes from livestock and commercial processing of agricultural products.

In 2004, AgriWellness Inc., the nonprofit organization I directed that seeks to improve behavioral health supports for people engaged in agriculture, asked the directors of NIOSH Agricultural Safety and Health Centers to indicate who they think are farmers.

We polled the directors of 11 regional and national centers. Now there are 10 such centers. Eight people completed surveys.

The survey results indicated unanimous agreement crop and livestock producers, ranchers, farm workers, commercial fishers and tree producers are farmers.

Seven of the eight respondents considered lumber harvesters and turf/nursery operators to be farmers.

Six of the center directors thought agriculture supply businesspeople and the operators of guest farms or ranches are farmers.

Five respondents felt horse and dog trainers are farmers and four indicated veterinarians are farmers.

A minority of the respondents felt agronomists, animal-nutrition consultants, agricultural marketers, food processors, agriculture teachers and truckers of farm goods should be considered farmers.

No survey responder thought miners and others involved in the extraction of minerals should be considered farmers.

The center directors apparently drew a distinction between activities that involve harvesting products that grow (i.e., farming) and activities that extract existing substances (i.e., mining), even if the product mined was a dietary substance such as salt.

Is there a psychological definition of a farmer?

Although there is abundant general literature, art and music about the nature of farmers, scholarly scientific study of the psychology of farmers is in its infancy. As yet, there is no textbook devoted solely to the psychological study of farmers.

I know of at least three textbooks devoted to the study of agricultural medicine and all three contain chapters devoted to the behavioral health or sociopsychological well-being of farm people.

And, there is a growing body of published scientific studies of farm people and their activities, dating to the 1930s.

Agricultural behavioral health is the new and emerging field devoted to the study of the psychological well-being of people engaged in farming as well as the provision of behavioral health care services to the agricultural population.

This field of research, education and health care delivery seeks answers to such questions as:

What factors influence people to undertake farming?

What are the unique psychological factors and behavioral health issues of individuals, families and communities engaged in farming?

What therapeutic methods have been proven effective in modifying unhealthy behaviors for farm people and preventing illness?

What can we do behaviorally to make farming safer, less stressful and more satisfying?

The farm and ranch life column is about these topics. Arguably, agricultural behavioral health is among the least understood but potentially most fruitful areas for making advances in the safety and health of this essential population – the people who feed us, supply much of the fiber needed for our shelter and clothing, and an increasing portion of our energy.

I like to think “farming is a healthy, sustainable way of life” and not just a profession or job. The true farmer is a person whose behaviors carry out the production of essentials for life – food, fiber and biofuels.

In my next column I’ll say more about farming as a basic human drive that has survival value for the community of humans. This is central to the psychological definition of what makes a farmer.


Rosmann is a clinical psychologist and farmer; he lives near Harlan, Iowa. For previously published columns and his recent book, “Excellent Joy: Fishing, Farming, Hunting and Psychology,” go online to www.agbehavioralhealth.com.

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