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Stick it out for the sunshine

I've spent nearly 40 years in agricultural journalism, through a lot of seasons and economic storms.).

I have interviewed hundreds of farmers across the years. One of my favorite questions is what did they expect to do in the early season of their life? Who were they in high school? How did they become a professional farmer?

Often the story goes something like this:

  • I started renting some farmland or buying some animals while in high school.
  • I attended a trade school or an ag-beneficial course, or went on to a land grant university for an ag-related curriculum.
  • I went off to work somewhere, but would get back home when I could.
  • Something happened.

Many times that "something" is the untimely health problem of a father. Perhaps a death or farm accident. When this kind of trouble hits, the family is thrown into a sink-or-swim situation. Land rental deals must be dealt with. If there are animals, someone has to be pressed into service to take care of them.

Usually when I hear about these emergency career changes, the transitions aren't the main topic of the story. They're always jarring. Sometimes the farmer will reveal that the turning point was even more tragic — a suicide.

With that, the topic is dropped.

In recent weeks in a cold, snowy (bleak?) winter, I have been looking into incidents of intentional self-harm, where farmers had completely lost hope and lost their way. I don't know how much I'll be able to write about them, even though I have lots of facts.

I sense that we'll also hear of some of these farm-related tragedies as the Dakotas, Minnesota and Montana move into the fifth year of declining commodity prices and poor farm returns. Outsiders might think these choices are strictly about finances, but they're not.

Some farmers I've talked to have acknowledged their problems were related to substance abuse. Some have told me about a deteriorating marriage situation. Sometimes he's had an affair. (Sometimes she's had an affair, too.)

Sometimes the farmer has failed to keep any balance in their lives, driving themselves to expand beyond their sustained ability to take care of everything properly, or to prove something to a spouse or family. When a commodity marketing decision goes bad, the whole world seems to be tumbling down. A farm failure is not only about the farm, but the whole multi-generational aspect gets mixed in there.

Life is better for a family and his community if the farmer is alive and present, and whether he or she is able to stay farming or not. State departments of agriculture are ramping up efforts to help farmers, including a good one in Minnesota.

There are examples of healthy coping.

I talked to a farmer recently who started out dour but turned into a bright spot. He started out saying he had looked at more than a dozen cropping options in the year ahead but could see that "almost nothing" showed any profit probability. But then I knew he'd be OK. He said things can turn out better than predicted — usually not as bad as feared. The man was looking at the long game.

Why the good attitude? This western North Dakota farmer was active in commodity organizations and told me that with one of his specialty commodities, he was going to work for better governmental action that would help give him and others a better future. Maybe that crop would be on to help him stay in the black ink, or at least not drift into a bright shade of red.

I sensed that this farmer had hope and power because he was keeping his mental and physical wheels moving, doing something constructive for the future. The farming circumstances will change, he said, like the weather. But I knew this attitude would keep him around for his family and the warm sunshine that is surely on the way.