ZUMBROTA, Minn. — After a year of unpredictable weather, low commodity prices and talks of a trade war, Goodhue County residents gathered in Zumbrota’s VFW on Thursday to discuss challenges that local farmers are facing.

Emily Wilmes, the director of the University of Minnesota Extensions’ “rural stress task force,” hosted the meeting with other Extensions members.

“The time is now to talk about it and not make it a taboo subject,” Wilmes declared of the struggles that many local farmers have been dealing with and the stress that creates.

Wilmes explained that there are many things that weigh on farmers, including:

  • High interest rates

  • Debt loads

  • Government regulations

  • Long work hours

  • Livestock illness

  • Commodity prices

  • Unpredictable weather

  • Crop yield

  • Machinery breakdown

  • illness/injury

  • Relationships

  • Barriers to help

According to the U of M, the median net farm income in 2018 was $26,055. From July 2018 to July 2019, Minnesota saw the loss of 8% of its dairy herds; the majority because farmers simply could not afford to continue on with dairy cows.

Farmer mental health and suicide

Researchers have not been able to determine if suicide rates in farmers are increasing but many farmers and rural community members believe that there is a rise. Whether the rates are rising or not is less of an issue than the fact that they do happen.

“We can’t avoid it any longer,” explained Wilmes to those gathered.

During the meeting, Wilmes was joined onstage by two farmers, Deborah Mills and Mark Berg; and by Josh Jensen, the regional coordinator for Canvas Health’s suicide prevention program. The four panelists all had experience with farming stress.

The reasons that some farmers have poor mental health vary. Jensen pointed to the idea that society frequently tells men that they have to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. Berg talked about how lonely it can be as a farmer. Mills agreed with Berg and added that there is a difference between being alone and loneliness when farming.

A common theme raised by the panelists and community members in attendance is the guilt that farmers feel when facing the need to sell their cows or give up the farm. Wilmes pointed to Michael Rosmann’s theory of “the agrarian imperative,” the idea that to farmers, their land is everything. By losing the land or being forced to sell the farm, they feel that they let down previous generations that worked the farm and “dash the hopes” of successors.

Because of the overwhelming situations that many farmers are finding themselves in, Wilmes said that it is important to know the signs of suicide ideation and how to help those experiencing it. Common warning signs include:

  • Saying “I’m going to kill myself,” even in a playful or sarcastic manner.

  • Telling people that they’ll have to look after someone (parent, sibling, etc.) when the speaker is gone.

  • Previously attempted suicide.

  • Beginning to give away possessions.

  • A change in status (loss of job or farm, moving, etc.).

  • A death, especially by suicide, of someone close to the person.

If someone fears that an individual is at risk of attempting suicide, it is important to ask them and to ask in a compassionate, nonjudgmental way if they are considering suicide. (“You’re not thinking about suicide, are you?” is not the way to approach it.) There is also a variety of resources for those considering suicide and those with someone at risk (numbers below).

While people have feared that asking someone about suicide may make them suicidal, research shows that asking will not “implant” the idea in the person’s head; if they have the idea, it was there before being asked about it.

As people work to help their fellow farmers and Minnesotans, it is crucial that everyone “adjust your own oxygen mask first,” said Wilmes, referring to the direction from airline stewards that if air masks fall in an emergency you must secure your mask before beginning to help those around you.

In order to “adjust your mask,” Wilmes gave a variety of tips that she and others have found useful, including deep breathing, positive self-talk, physical activity, meditation/reflection, hobbies, and connecting with friends.

No one knows what the future holds for Minnesota farmers, but Mills left those in Zumbrota with an encouraging word:

“I learned that vulnerability isn’t a weakness, it’s actually courage and strength.”

Resources for farmers and community members:

  • Minnesota Farm Advocates: Connie Dykes based in Lake City, 651-345-5149
  • Minnesota Farm and Rural Helpline: 833-600-2670 (press 1)
  • Rural mental health counselors: Ted Matthews, 320-266-2390, and Monica McConkey, 218-280-7785
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255 (veterans, press 1).
  • Crisis text line: text "MN" to 741741.

For more information, visit: www.minnesotafarmstress.com.