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Minnesota Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake

Tackling farmer mental health in Minnesota

All too often, the agricultural policy discussion seems to be limited to crops and livestock. However, the issues facing farm families in Minnesota are much more diverse. With farmers experiencing six consecutive years of extremely low profitability, mental health in the agriculture sector has become a top concern.

In Minnesota, the average net farm income dropped 76 percent from 2011-13 to 2016-17. The impact on farm families has been severe. From increased stress to anxiety and depression, sagging commodity prices have impacted much more than the bottom line. Further, the solitary nature of farming can contribute to feelings of dread or hopelessness.

Unfortunately, Minnesota is not alone in this trend. Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the suicide rate for the farming, fishing and forestry sector is more than five times that of the U.S. population as a whole. Put another way, farmers are committing suicide at a higher rate than any other occupational group in the country.

Over the last two years, the Minnesota Legislature has responded to this issue by investing in farmer mental health counseling programs and farm advocates. Unfortunately, our supplemental farmer mental health appropriation was vetoed by former Gov. Mark Dayton in 2018. However, with a new governor in 2019, the Minnesota Senate has renewed its commitment to tackling this issue.

On March 4, the Senate Agriculture, Rural Development, and Housing Finance Committee held a hearing focused on this issue. Six different bipartisan bills were heard during the hearing, all focused on increasing resources to address our farmer mental health crisis. Included in these bills were increased investments in Minnesota's farm counseling program and farm advocates program.

Of note, Minnesota's farm counseling program focuses on direct farmer-to-counselor interaction. The rural mental health specialists operate on the road, on-call, and literally travel from kitchen table to kitchen table. I have personally authored legislation to increase funding for this extremely valuable program.

While there is more work to be done, this legislative package represents a start in the right direction for meeting the needs of Minnesota farm families. The Legislature looks forward to working with our new Gov. Tim Walz in helping farm families across Minnesota. By working together on this difficult issue, we can help save lives and families across our state.