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Strengthening the farm family

EDGERTON -- Communication and honesty are key in strengthening families, especially dairy farming families, who face enormous time constraints due to their work and also suffer increasing economic pressure due to the flagging dairy market, said Rural Mental Health Director Ted Matthews at a public forum Wednesday at the Edgerton Pizza Ranch.

"With the way roles have changed for women, we can't look back and say 'This is the way our parents did it, our grandparents did it, our great-grandparents did it,'" Matthews said. "(The way) farming was, forever, the women had a role, and they followed that, and men had a role, and they followed that."

Times have changed, and when Matthews asked which of the women in the room did the books for their farm, many of them raised their hands. Because women now often become involved in farming at that level, Matthews explained, they have enough information to form opinions, making communication absolutely necessary between husbands and wives. And communication styles differ between men and women, which can cause problems in relationships.

"Because we do things differently, the first thing we need to remember is, if we're different, how are we different? If we communicate and don't understand the differences between the two, we're going to have a lot more problems," Matthews said, emphasizing the importance of listening. "The other person has to be listening, and not listening to words, but listening to me. Not listening to say 'As soon as he gets done, I've got some things I need to say.'"

One of the barriers to communication is anger, which often causes people to stop listening because they only hear the anger rather than what's being said. Then they become angry themselves, Matthews said, and instead of thinking clearly and intelligently, both people might say things they normally would never say -- things the other person will remember long after the anger is gone.

A couple made up of one introvert and one extrovert will need to communicate more, and may also need to make compromises in order to keep both people happy, Matthews said.

"Before I ever started working with farmers, a long time ago, people always told me that farmers were all introverts. That's why they like to farm," Matthews recalled. "They just like to... talk to themselves while they're in a field. With a piece of straw in their mouths."

Of course, that wasn't true. As Matthews quickly found out when he started counseling farmers, they were just as likely to be outgoing extroverts as quiet introverts.

He told the story of a married couple, one an extreme introvert and the other an extreme extrovert, who couldn't agree on how much time the extrovert could spend outside the home. The introvert saw her husband being gone as meaning he didn't love her, and the extrovert couldn't understand why his wife wouldn't allow him to go out every night.

They were ready to get a divorce, but ended up reaching a compromise on the number of days the extrovert could spend bowling, attending Knights of Columbus meetings, singing in the choir and golfing. In the end, the couple had to accept that each would never truly see the issue the same way.

Ted Matthews Mental Health Director

Honesty in relationships is very important, Matthews said, but it's also very difficult, because once a person finds out another person lied, that person will never again be sure the second person isn't lying again.

"The reason (honesty) is hard is because we can't mess up," Matthews explained.

In many cases, people lie because they don't want to hurt someone else. Honesty between husbands and wives and between generations of farmers is critical. Now that people are living longer, Matthews said, many farmers are farming well into their 70s and 80s, some while telling their children each year that next year, they'll give the children the farm.

Families need to take extra care to communicate clearly about the future of the farm.

Matthews also talked about moods, which naturally swing up and down for most people. At the low point in the cycle, people can sink so far into depression that they consider suicide.

He told the story of a St. Cloud-area dairy farmer who committed suicide and left a note telling his wife to get rid of the cows. The wife was devastated, and believed she should have known her husband was going to kill himself. But even he might not have known he was going to kill himself, Matthews pointed out.

"Suicide is not logical," he emphasized. "Remember, if a person commits suicide, they're hurting every person in their family, they're hurting all their friends, they're hurting everybody at their church, they're hurting their community, because everybody, at one level or another, is going to feel really bad."

Most people who commit suicide, however, truly believe the world would be better off without them, Matthews added.

One key in preventing suicide, he said, is lowering stress levels, identifying people with really high stress levels and doing everything possible to lower them. One way to do that is by taking breaks, scheduling time for recreation and going on vacations -- all difficult prospects for dairy farmers, who must milk the cows each day, rain or shine.

"Be nice," Matthews encouraged his audience. "Be nice to yourselves. Take care of yourselves."