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Michael R. Rosmann, Ph.D., FarmersÕ Forum columnist

Community workships build farm and support networks

Many farmers and rural communities that depend significantly on agricultural producers are being affected currently by insufficient net farm income. Although a few segments of agriculture are faring satisfactorily, many producers of basic commodities such as dairy, eggs, poultry, pork, beef, grains and oil seeds are struggling financially.

This article follows up on last week's illustration of how community workshops were conducted during the Farm Crisis of the 1980s in hard-hit agricultural areas. Today we examine if community workshops had beneficial effects during a 26-month evaluation period in seven states during the past decade. We also look at other evaluation data.

Community workshops essentially are meetings of local and nearby residents who are trying to figure out how to deal with a serious problem that threatens their welfare. They are designed to be educational and inclusive of the people and organizations whose welfare is being threatened.

Often the workshops are convened to pull people and resources together to respond to a crisis, such as a tornado or a slower-developing problem such as an economic recession in agricultural communities. The events are intended to be informative and therapeutic experiences, and to lead to solutions to their community dilemmas.

The types of community workshops vary. The non-profit AgriWellness program which operated from 1999-2014 conducted community workshops as one of several approaches that had been undertaken earlier during the Farm Crisis of the 1980s.

We wanted to determine if they were beneficial. Project partners in seven states (Wisconsin, South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, Kansas and Iowa) conducted three types of community workshops: 1) professional training seminars, 2) community meetings for local farmers, farm workers, merchants and townspeople like I described in last week's article, and 3) farm family retreats over a weekend with incorporated learning exercises. We examined the period: September 2005 through October 2007.

Are the workshops effective? AgriWellness evaluated community workshops that 9,644 people attended during 26 month study period as part of its overall assessment of what worked best to help distressed farm people.

The findings were reported at the 2014 conference of the International Society for Agricultural Safety and Health and in a 2009 publication of the National Association for Rural Mental Health entitled NARMH NOTES.

Training seminars were conducted by the project partners in five of our seven states during the 26-month period to educate 1,369 psychologists, social workers, physicians, nurses, marriage and family therapists, substance abuse counselors and other professionals in 3-8 hour seminars about agricultural behavioral healthcare.

Participants who evaluated the training workshops gave average ratings of 4.76 out of five possible points for knowledge gained and 4.60 for useful content. All the professionals and graduate students who completed the evaluations said they would recommend the training sessions to others who work with the agricultural population.

7,515 people attended community meetings to deal with concerns about the farming situations in their areas during the 26-month study period. Not everyone completed the evaluations, but those that did said they would recommend the meetings to other people.

While most community meetings were local affairs, some of the workshops coincided purposefully with the 2007 biannual conference sponsored by AgriWellness entitled "The Clock Is Ticking for Rural America: A Behavioral Health and Safety Conference." The conference attracted several foreign participants and 127 people from 15 states.

Farm family retreats were held in three states for 760 participants during the study period. The facilities included church camps and conferences where the adults could find respite, associate together and attend skill-building classes in business and stress management, while their children had their own guided discussions and recreated together. Sometimes grant funds paid neighbors to exchange places to perform such necessary farm chores as milking cows and feeding livestock so that the distressed farm family could have a break.

The farm family participants rated the retreats 4.7 on a five-point scale. Their comments included the following: "I felt like a person about to drown but these weekends pulled me out of the water so I can rest and regroup and survive." Another said, "It gave us a chance to sit down together and plan for the future."

Conclusions. The federal Department of Health and Human Services deemed AgriWellness services as best practices in Rural Healthy People 2010: A Companion Document to Healthy People 2010, and the National Rural Health Association likewise. These services included the three types of community workshops, as well as the operation of farm crisis hotlines, follow-up counseling by people trained in agricultural behavioral health services, and social marketing of available assistance through Farm Service Agencies.

All three types of community workshops were rated highly by the participants but there were no systematic comparisons of people who attended the meetings with those who did not attend the meetings. Nonetheless, community meetings that include stressed agricultural producers and local townspeople would be a useful approach to current difficult times in the agricultural sector.