Wanted: A mental health worker who is willing to get out of the office, meet with people, and sit at a booth at various agricultural events. Having grown up on a farm not required but ideal.
That’s the person the Lake Superior Community Health Center is looking for to fill a new role that might seem surprising for a center whose main office is in West Duluth.
“It will have to be a unique individual,” said Jessie Peterson, the center’s director of strategy and community. “It’s a combination of program development; it’s community outreach.”
The individual, who could be a psychologist, therapist or case worker, will have a single constituency: farmers in northern Minnesota.
“This was a population that we hadn't ever really considered from the point of what more could we be doing,” Peterson said in an interview this week.
Hard evidence is starting to accompany anecdotal reports that life and work on the farm is becoming more stressful than ever, including in the Northland, as the News Tribune reported last week.
Peterson points to a report released earlier this year by the Minnesota Department of Health. Preliminary data show that the number of farm-related suicides in the state rose from 34 in 2014 to 41 in 2015 and to 49 in 2016.
The numbers are disturbing enough, Peterson said, but almost certainly are an undercount. “We've learned that in many cases what may have very well been a suicide is actually reported as a farm accident,” she said.
Over the past year, Peterson said, it’s a topic that kept coming up. A roundtable last fall with then-state Sen. Tony Lourey and the president of the Minnesota Farmers Union was on the subject of access to health care but quickly evolved into almost entirely a discussion about mental health on the farm. The conversation again turned to farm mental health in February, she said, when Gov. Tim Walz and other officials were in Cloquet for a presentation on budget plans.
Driving back from Cloquet, Peterson said, she mused about the need she kept hearing about. She took the issue to her bosses and was told to explore it.
Fortunately for Peterson, she didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. Ted Matthews, a psychologist who lives in Hutchinson, Minn., has been working for the state since the late 1990s, exclusively serving the mental health needs in farm country.
Matthews, 72, said in a phone interview that the job evolved when he had been working as a psychologist for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, responding to disasters in Minnesota. He was asked if he worked with farmers, and he said, “Sure.”
“So I looked, and I noticed that we had not one farmer call in in a year,” he recalled. “Not one.”
With the help from his original contact, he connected with a couple of farmers and began to see an untapped need, Matthews said. He eventually received a one-year grant for outreach to farm country from the Otto Bremer Foundation. That was extended to two years, and then to three. The state saw the value of the program and took over funding.
Now, he gets eight to 12 calls a day from farmers needing help, and a few more on Saturdays and Sundays, Matthews said.
“Every time people call, they need to,” he said. “It’s not like people are calling to chat. It’s because they’re concerned with something that’s going on with their husbands or their wives or their kids.”
Those concerns have only mounted in recent years, he said. “Farms are getting bigger, equipment is getting more expensive, and rent — every farmer that I know of rents land.”
Learning about Matthews, Peterson reached out to him for advice. He was happy to oblige. Turns out Matthews originally is from the Northland — he grew up in West Duluth and in Silver Bay.
“Everything I’m doing for them, I’m doing pro bono,” Matthews said. “Because I want something up there. That’s where I’m from.”
Matthews didn’t grow up on a farm, but his family experienced similar stress through the cycles of the mining industry, he said.
“People up there were always unsure about what was going to happen, and they'd have good years and then all of a sudden something bad would happen,” Matthews said. “And so I'm real aware what that emotional strain does to families, because it did it to my family.”
If you think that the Northland isn’t farm country, Peterson begs to differ. The northern third of Minnesota includes 6,159 farms, she noted, which is 9% of the state’s total. It includes 9,522 farm “principal producers.”
Almost all of them farm on a relatively small scale, Matthews said.
“In the Duluth area and in the northern Minnesota area, there aren’t very many farmers that don’t have a full-time job off the farm,” he said. “The farms up there are small.”
Knowing that Matthews started with foundation funding, Peterson looked for a similar source to start the community health center’s initiative. She found it in the Miller-Dwan Foundation.
It was an easy sell, said Traci Marciniak, the foundation’s president.
“It doesn’t seem like very often we get to see projects that come to us that are really innovative, that are also proven, in a sense, because there’s something similar that is already going on, and then taps into a population that has not been very well served in the past,” Marciniak said.
The Miller-Dwan Foundation board voted within the past couple of weeks to get the program started with a one-year, $130,000 grant.
Peterson also learned from Matthews how the new hire likely will develop contacts with farmers.
“Where Ted gets most referrals from clients, it’s from the veterinarians, and the bankers and the insurance agents and the people who have to deliver the bad news,” Peterson said. “And that’s when they see a farmer or their family hit the breaking point.”
Although he has no plans to retire, Matthews said he is training a second person based in Detroit Lakes, Minn., for the work. He also has volunteered to help train the individual chosen in Duluth.
Peterson said she hopes that position will be filled by March, but she’s determined to make sure the right person is hired for the job.
Those involved are eager to get started.
“Frankly, this is one of the most exciting things we’ve funded in a long time,” Marciniak said.
To learn about the job description and apply: lschc.org/employment/opportunities/
The Miller-Dwan Foundation: mdfoundation.org
For Ted Matthews: farmcounseling.org