There's an invisible, deadly storm brewing in farm country.
For many farmers and rural communities, these are hard times. Prices are down. Trade wars rage. The weather won't let up. Many friends and neighbors are going out of business, selling their operations or working extra jobs to make ends meet.
Mental health professionals see all the signs: There is a rural mental health crisis in farm country. One particularly troubling and telltale sign of hard times: There have been alarming upticks in the number of completed suicides in North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota.
In response, state officials and health professionals have swung into action with a bevy of plans, approaches and resources.
Among other initiatives, Minnesota and South Dakota have set up free and confidential hotlines specifically for stressed farmers and other rural residents seeking help. In North Dakota, Lutherans churches have launched a Faith and Farm Coalition to marshal help for struggling farmers. South Dakota is rolling out a new suicide prevention plan. The Minnesota Department of Health has started a series of training workshops around the state called SafeTALK, which aims to equip community members for tough conversations meant to help friends and neighbors thinking about suicide.
The fabled Midwestern emotional reserve does no favors here. It can be hard to talk about hard things. But in recent weeks, reporters from across the Forum News Service network have spoken to people in their local communities to get a sense of things.
Below, you'll read what they heard.
Gladstone, N.D.: 'People see what they’ve worked their entire life for slowly start to be taken away'
Farmers are used to the ups and downs of market and the weather. But this season is the latest in a row of down years. and the costs are adding up, said Lenci Sickler, a farmer from Gladstone. He said the general attitude about farming is somewhat negative, but he tries to stay positive when he can, despite a particularly taxing year.
"I know that’s an epidemic right now, the mental health issues amongst farmers," he said. "We’re going on half a decade of poor prices and a lot of people see what they’ve worked their entire life for slowly start to be taken away. It can be mentally draining."
At 30, Sickler is younger than some farmers, just building up his farming operation. But he can see how someone farming for decades would be stressed and depressed to see their livelihood being taken away. But Sickler has no plans to get out of the business.
"I guess it kind of comes down to the passion that you have for agriculture, and whether you can financially stay in it when you have quite a few bad years in a row, like this," Sickler said. "Both of us, we’ve been able to manage to get by, and we love what we do. I don’t think either of us have really thought about doing anything different."
(Reporting by Kayla Henson)
Floodwood and Wrenshall, Minn.: 'I don't know how much longer I can do it'
Heather-Marie Bloom, 44, is a first-generation organic vegetable farmer. A farmer since 2011, without property of her own, she currently is leasing farmland between the towns of Floodwood and Cromwell in northeastern Minnesota. Not owning her own land is one source of stress for Bloom.
Peter Laveau, a second-generation dairy farmer who lives and farms near Wrenshall in northeastern Minnesota, said he has benefited recently from an increase in price controls for dairy. But prices have been on a four-year roller coaster during which the farm has made little, if any, money, Laveau said.
Laveau, 51, started taking over the farm in 1991 when his father died, said the mental health strains seem the same to him as they’ve always been. But Laveau, who also serves as the Wrenshall fire chief, admits to uncertainty about his future in farming.
“I question myself sometimes,” he said. “I don’t know how much longer I can do it. I’ve got a daughter that if it wasn’t for her I don’t know how I’d make it, because she pretty much works on the farm full time, plus she’s got a full-time job. I don’t want to see her do that the rest of her life.”
(Reporting by John Lundy)
Sargent County, N.D.: It's the sense that, 'I'm a failure'
Roger Zetocha has been farming in southeast North Dakota’s Sargent County for more than 45 years. He’s weathered tough times before, including the farm crisis of the 1980s.
He’s worried about the increasing stresses that are plaguing farmers: low commodity prices, high input costs, trade disputes, a late spring planting season and now a wet harvest season.
“There’s a lot of stress out there,” he said. “You don’t want to see it where they snap, where that switch is finally flipped.”
During the 1970s and 1980s, Zetocha saw some of his fellow farmers die in “accidents,” but he suspected they actually were disguised deaths of despair.
Fortunately, he hasn’t seen a recurrence of that in the current tough times. But the stress and anxiety are real, simmering beneath the surface.
Today, at least, farmers are equipped with cell phones, which makes it easier to connect with others — and to speak privately, when that’s important.
“Just the fact that we’re more connected in that way,” he said.
He’s hoping for a stretch of dry weather to rescue the harvest — and he’s hoping that bankers will exercise the necessary forbearance to allow struggling farmers to survive the storm.
“A lot of farmers are — it’s going to be tight for everybody,” he said.”
Farming is more than a way to earn a living, it’s tied into a farmer’s sense of identity, Zetocha said.
“This is our livelihood,” he said. “If you go under, that’s a real hit on your character and your well-being. It’s a sense that, ‘I’m a failure.’”
Zetocha recently heard about a pharmacist who said he’s been filling more antidepressant prescriptions for farmers than he ever has. That’s a sign of how tough things are, but he’s thankful the medication is available.
(Reporting by Patrick Springer)
Sunburg, Minn.: 'I know a lot of guys that have off-farm jobs'
Mike Gjerde, 35, is a fifth-generation farmer who has been farming on his own since 2002 near the small Kandiyohi County town of Sunburg, a place where small farms are gradually being acquired by very large farm operators.
He and his wife, Ingrid, and three young daughters, raise corn, soybeans, alfalfa and beef cattle on about 1,000 acres of land. Mike also has a full-time off-the-farm job.
Gjerde describes current conditions as "pretty bleak" but he keeps his spirits up through his family and keeping busy. Continuing to farm is challenging, he acknowledges.
He intends to keep farming but said off-farm work is necessary to make that happen. He works 40-60 hours a week off the farm and puts in at least as much time farming, including raising corn, soybeans and a cow-calf operation with 70 cows.
“I know a lot of guys that have off-farm jobs," he said. "I mean, you have to. You have to pay bills.”
(Reporting by Carolyn Lange)
Wykoff and Lake City, Minn.: 'Who am I if I am not a farmer anymore?'
If you think farming in 2019 is bad, Kelly Davidson has news for you: 2017 was worse. That year, a tornado hit her Prosper Valley Farm near Wykoff. Her husband had a motorcycle accident and suffered a traumatic injury. Then her septic system went out because of the never-ending rain.
She tried to get help, but fought with insurance issues, distant appointments and schedules that made no sense for a farmer. She did find help from her medical doctor
"If it weren't for her, I have no idea what I'd do," she said.
"My husband had to get work in town so I can be a farmer. Otherwise there's no way I could live here and be a farmer. I'd have to get a job in town," she said.
Deborah Mills, a dairy farmer in Lake City, says everyone is all holding their breath, trying to ride everything out. But Mills has been heartened to see how mainstream the conversation about rural mental health has gotten this year. So many organizations stepping forward to help, hotlines open all night long.
"I think what really helped me for this year compared to last year is talking about it," she said. "Dairy farmers have been struggling for five years. This year a friend and I started talking about things. Just to verbalize it with someone helps you maintain your hope."
Mills said she'll stop and check in on friends she has who have had to sell their cows. When it's not up to you, you can feel a little displaced, she said: "Who am I if I am not a farmer anymore?"
"We also have reconciled ourselves with the fact that we may not be able to do this forever. We have made peace with that. That's just a process you go through when you start talking about your stress," she said. "Everyone should know that it gets better when you reach out and talk with someone, and there's so many ways to do that now."
(Reporting by Paul Scott)