Ongoing Struggles Sprout Mental Health Help for Farmers and Ranchers

May 9, 2019

Wide-spread blizzards and flooding earlier this spring have pushed back planting schedules, and that's just the most recent challenge for South Dakota's ag producers.
Credit Avera Health

It’s been a tough spring for the state’s farmers and ranchers.  Wide-spread flooding earlier this year has pushed back planting--and that’s just the most recent challenge for South Dakota’s ag producers. Financial uncertainty can lead to anxiety and depression. But now there’s some help for farmers and ranchers, and those who work closely  with them. 

Walt Bones runs a family farm about 15 miles southwest of Sioux Falls. He grows corn and soybeans and raises cattle. It’s another rainy spring morning when he answers my call from his truck near his fence-line feed bunks.

“I’ve got cattle that are screamin at me, ‘Why aren’t you feeding me! So please get off the phone and dump some feed in the bunks so we can get something to eat!’”

Bones will need to focus on  feeding his cattle until the fields dry out. He’s already two weeks behind on planting--and he’s far from the only one.

“There’s nobody in our area that’s turned a wheel. We’re all kinda in the same boat. You gotta get, oh, a hundred, 150, 200 miles to find anybody that’s got any spring field work done at all.”

And every day Bones and his brothers aren’t in the field this spring, means a later fall harvest - and the risk crops will freeze before they’re mature. The uncertainty takes a toll.

“You know, we’re anxious. We’re ready to go.”

This is just the latest in a string of difficult years for South Dakota’s farmers and ranchers. Nate Franzén is President of the Agri-Business Division of First Dakota National Bank. He says a drop in commodity prices has left many of his customers  financially strapped.  That drop followed a growth phase that ended in 2013.

“And certainly during those good times, there were opportunities for farms and ranches to make a profit, and get themselves positioned better financially. Many folks did that, but certainly others saw it as an opportunity to expand as well. And those that expanded and used leverage to do so are the ones probably feeling the pinch the hardest in the environment now.”

Franzén says international trade disputes and other challenges make for an economic grind that’s wearing many producers down.

“And then you couple financial strain and stress on top of that, maybe some transitional issues with family members and estate planning, and how do we put together a plan so that we can keep this business viable to the next generation? There’s just all kinds of things that can be adding stress in certain situations. ”

Add to that difficult weather patterns, and it’s a recipe for anxiety, stress, and depression. That’s why Franzén wrote his monthly bank newsletter column on the importance of seeking help when the stress becomes too much. He says farmers  are unlike other business owners who may be more willing to sell off an operation when another opportunity calls.

“In agriculture we don’t have that mentality very well. Certainly some do, but if there’s a family history there, there’s a connection to that land. It’s a bit more of a way of life in addition to a business, so it’s harder to separate personal life from the business.”

Franzen’s recent column included some resources dedicated to mental health support. 

One of those is the Farmer’s Stress Hotline through Avera Behavioral Health. Callers can talk with licensed counselors who direct them to resources based on individual needs.

The state-wide service  launched in January--well before the snow storms and flooding that  caused so much trouble. Karl Oehlke is a physician assistant in psychiatry at Avera and the primary contact for the Farmer’s Stress Hotline. He says they’ve seen an increase in calls across their entire coverage area since the bad weather--including parts of the Great Plains that received some of the worst  flooding, like northeast Nebraska.

“Obviously people in the middle of the flood aren’t gonna stop when they’re trying to take care of their farm, their cattle, whatever. But now that we’re all a little bit past that now, we’ve seen some increased phone calls from that area.”

While Avera’s counselors connect callers with resources in their own area, they may also make an appointment to meet with Oehlke in Sioux Falls. He says that can be preferable for some.

“A lot of these folks are in small towns where you know, they maybe go to church with their primary care provider, they go out to coffee with them, and maybe they’re not comfortable opening up to them in that setting.”

And Oehlke’s own experience running his family farm helps him relate.

“When somebody comes in and sits down next to me, we’re not talking psychiatry to begin with. We’re talking what their operation entails. They wanna know about me. It just opens up that rapport right away, and I think it does a wonderful job to kinda set the stage for the rest of the interview.”

But sometimes it takes outside help to point people in the right direction. Nate Franzén with First Dakota National Bank says he and his ag-banking colleagues  offer solutions to clients who are struggling.

“We don’t profess to be mental health professionals. So we don’t always diagnose or pick up on the signs as well as maybe a mental health professional can, but we certainly do observe and can see when there’s a lot of stress in an operation.”

Another source of support for struggling farmers comes from  the SDSU Extension, with workshops on the symptoms of depression and anxiety. As the outreach arm of South Dakota State University, Extension programs offer resources on a wide variety of topics--many related to the agriculture industry.

One of the workshops is designed for ag lenders, veterinarians, farm service agencies and others who work closely with farmers and ranchers.

Suzanne Stluka is the director of the Food and Families Program at SDSU Extension. She says the class even allows participants to practice asking difficult questions, like: “Have you thought about hurting yourself?”

“Sometimes it’s just literally having to say that question out loud for the first time, in the place where you’re comfortable practicing it. So again, myself, having gone through this training, that was the first time I had to say that out loud and to practice that. And so just trying to take those steps together, cus we are all in this together.”

Stluka says there’s another workshop to help farmers and ranchers  manage stress. It includes weather  tips  from the state climatologist. That two hour class includes an evening meal and 4H activities so people can  even bring their kids.

The next SDSU Extension workshops are on May 23rd in Lemmon, Winner, Mitchell, and Watertown. Stluka says they can also provide workshops for individual companies and groups.

As for Walt Bones and his family farm:  they have a few contingency plans. His great-grandfather homesteaded the land in 1879, and so far they’ve survived the Dirty-30s and the Farm Crisis of the 80s. He understands both the pressure and pride that comes with that legacy. His advice when things get  overwhelming? Talk to somebody.

“We just feel we’ve been brought up to--there’s nothing we can’t deal with, you know. We can fix this. Something gets broke, we can fix it. Sometimes, um, that doesn’t work. And we--there’s a lot of help out there.”

Whether it’s a hotline, a banker, a faith-leader, or a friend, Bones says there’s no shame in asking for a little help.

Regional Health supports Education and Healthcare reporting on SDPB.