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Minnesota farmers learn to detect depression, embrace self-care

Dennis Hoiberg, a consultant who helps rural communities adapt to change, speaks with farmers about mental health and stress, Friday, Dec. 7 in Sauk Centre. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service 1 / 2
Emily Wilmes, an educator with the University of Minnesota Extension, speaks with farmers in Sauk Centre Friday, Dec. 7. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service 2 / 2

SAUK CENTRE, Minn. -- Central Minnesota dairy farmers on Friday, Dec. 7 joined a sobering discussion: how to detect symptoms of depression and step in to prevent suicide.

The talks put on by the University of Minnesota Extension aimed to help producers and other better understand mental health and provide support as they weather another tough year.

Low milk prices and the hit from tariffs have left farmers reeling. Farm bankruptcies, especially among dairy farmers are up. And others are simply leaving the industry.

“It’s more people just quitting,” Merri Post, a Chandler dairy farmer, said. “They just can’t do it anymore.”

And as farmers feel the financial strain, it’s crucial that they acknowledge to themselves and others what they’re feeling rather than keeping it bottled up, said Dennis Hoiberg, a consultant who helps communities navigate change.

"You folks have got to start taking care of yourselves," Hoiberg said. "You people are really important to the future of the world."

And above all, Hoiberg said, farmers need to talk to someone, whether that be a loved one, friend, counselor or another trusted person about what they're going through.

Emily Wilmes, a University of Minnesota Extension educator, said farmers, as well as their friends and family members, should also offer an open ear if it's needed. And though it can be awkward, she urged attendees to say something if they see a farmer who shows signs of stress or depression.

“Don’t make excuses for people because you’re afraid of having a conversation,” Wilmes said.

She said those check-in conversations should center around expressing concern for a person and emphasizing a desire to listen.

Area farmers also shared their stories of navigating tough times and strategies for rebounding.

Mark Koehn, a Stearns County agricultural assessor and former hog farmer, said he'd had to leave farming after his daughter and wife had serious health issues and their family could no longer afford it.

While the fourth-generation farmer struggled emotionally with the transition, Koehn said he's found joy in his new profession and is still able to work with producers.

"Not all of you are going to survive this and that's OK," Koehn said. "There's life after farming."

Farm advocacy groups have said they'll ask Minnesota lawmakers for additional mental health resources in the 2019 legislative session. Lawmakers return to St. Paul on January 8.

Mental health and stress management resources:

Minnesota Farm and Rural Helpline - (833) 600-2670 x 1

Mental Health and Family Services Line - 1-800-FARM-AID

Ted Matthews, rural mental health counselor - (320) 266-2390

Mental Health Minnesota - text "MN" to 741741