There is a well-known adage that “Farming is always a gamble.”  Indeed, many of the factors that affect farming’s profitability involve elements of chance, like weather and market prices.

This article follows last week’s column which portrayed how gambling by a Texas farmer led to unhappy family relationships and financial losses; he even died in a casino.  Today we take a look at whether gambling is a behavior problem for Americans in general and farmers in particular.

A study which I directed of 43,852 callers to farm crisis telephone helplines and hotlines in seven upper Midwestern states from September 1, 2005 to October 31, 2007 indicated that concerns about gambling accounted for .6% of callers to these services.  Only .1% of 7,238 persons who participated in professional counseling were diagnosed as exhibiting pathological gambling.

In last week’s article, the Texas farm woman whose husband was addicted to gambling noted that most studies indicate 4-6 percent of Americans gamble in some fashion (e.g., play the lottery, place bets, purchase scratch tickets, play bingo for money, etc.).  That figure is too low, she says.  She is probably right.  I appreciate her candidness.

As of 2016, only six states did not participate in Powerball drawings, but four of these states (Alabama, Alaska, Mississippi and Nevada) sell scratch tickets or allow casinos on private land, such as Indian Reservations.  Casinos on land owned by Native Americans or Native Hawaiians exist in every state except Hawaii.  However, Hawaiians can gamble at off-shore casinos on ships.

Besides Hawaii, Utah is the only state that bans all gambling, including Powerball and raffles.  Some Utahans regularly visit casinos in nearby states and on Indian-owned property within Utah’s borders.

Whether men or women gamble more has been only partially evaluated.  Most studies indicate men who become problematic gamblers usually start in their 20s and problematic female gamblers usually start during their 30s.

Men are more likely to pursue high risk situations that entail excitement, such as high stakes poker and roulette, whereas women prefer bingo and playing slot machines.  Although more males participate in Gamblers Anonymous meetings than females, experts say that more hidden gambling is undertaken by females and often is underreported.

Betting can take place on more than horse races and sporting events.  Las Vegas bookmakers accept bets on practically everything, such as which political party will win the next U.S. presidential election or how much snow will fall in Chicago next winter.

Why are people enticed by gambling?  Psychological research has established that irregular patterns of reinforcement, called intermittent or variable rate reinforcement, are more exciting than predictable outcomes, especially if the possible gain is great.  Owners and managers of casinos and gambling activities of all sorts are well aware how the human brain operates to gauge behaviors that may lead to rewards.

Most professional gaming facilities keep track of individual gamblers, especially those that win frequently.  The operators of the games may manipulate their chances of winning to insure their businesses make a profit.  They also know that gradually extending the length of time and the number of attempts between rewards are highly enduring and addictive behaviors.

Research of brain functions has established that a small part of the brain called the amygdala is highly involved in regulating emotions and survival instincts; it responds with euphoria to the release of dopamine when a significant and much-hoped-for reward occurs.  The prefrontal cortex also is engaged in planning, decision-making, and sends signals to key parts of the brain, like the amygdala, about how to proceed, such as to keep trying to win a reward or to accept defeat.

Are people engaged in agricultural occupations especially prone to gambling?  The number of calls to the farm crisis hotlines and helplines suggests “probably not,” but it is quite clear that farmers are more likely than average to be risk-takers.

Research in Scotland by Joyce Willock and several of her colleagues at the University of Edinburgh in the late 1990s found that risk-taking was a behavior associated with success in farming.  Taking risks by farmers, such as experimenting with a new crop or purchasing a parcel of farmland, has been associated with both financial gains and losses.

Many of our ancestors took risks in coming to America, hoping to purchase land to become its owners and agriculture producers.  Downsides of farmers’ risk-taking are some of the highest rates of occupationally-related injuries, fatalities and suicide, as well as the inherent, mostly unpredictable dangers of machines, animals and markets that are fallible.  Yet farmers persist, sometimes unadvisedly.

Where can farmers obtain help with gambling when necessary?  Gamblers Anonymous offers 20 self-evaluation questions and information online about the nearest chapters.  The number of their chapters is fewer than Alcoholics Anonymous chapters.  Persons can also contact the International Service Office of Gamblers Anonymous on their website: www.gamblersanonymous.org, which maintains a list of resources for assistance in all states, or by calling The National Gambling Helpline at 1-800-522-4700.