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Suicides make farm crisis real

Bob Worth of Lake Benton, Minn., urges fellow farmers to seek help if stress is getting to them during a Tueday, Aug. 1, 2017, Farmfest forum. He said two close friends, both farmers, recently commited suicide. Don Davis / Forum News Service1 / 2
It may not be a jungle gym, but it served that purpose Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2017, for, from left, McKenna Benck, 11, Lane Kruse, 9, and Lindsey Kruse, 11, of East Chain, Minn. The youths p;layed in the Farmfest tillage equipment display of Will-Rich of Wahpeton, N.D. Don Davis / Forum News Service2 / 2

REDWOOD FALLS, Minn. — Bob Worth barely kept his composure as he revealed two close friends, both fellow farmers, recently committed suicide.

They killed themselves over agriculture stresses, he said, speaking as part of a panel discussion about challenges of farming.

"Don't ever do that to your family," he urged farmers in the Tuesday, Aug. 1, audience at Farmfest, an annual agricultural event in southwestern Minnesota.

Worth, a Lake Benton farmer and official of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association, urged farmers to maintain close contacts with people such as their bankers so things do not get out of hand.

He said he was around during the tough agriculture economy of the 1980s, and today does not seem as bad overall. But he and other experts told farmers that how bad it is depends on a lot of factors, and it can be just as bad as the 1980s for some, like Worth's friends.

Minnesota's top agriculture official confided in the audience that he, too, has been near breaking down over farm issues.

Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson said that he went to his banker during the 1980s farm economic crisis and began crying because the picture looked so bad. His banker assured him that help was available, and now Frederickson's department is one of many sources of help for farmers facing economic and emotional crisis.

The panel of experts painted a bleak picture of farming, with prices low and costs of inputs such as seed and fertilizer high.

"Farming is about ups and downs," Worth said in an interview, but farmers can plan for down times during better years to even out their finances.

Young farmers can keep themselves out of economic trouble, he said, by buying used equipment. "Don't think you have to have everything new."

Renting land instead of buying also can help, he added, as can finding a farmer who wants to retire to help.

"Farming is a great life," Worth said. "There is nothing better than putting a seed into the ground and watch it mature."

Farmer Charles Svoboda, 73, of near Jackson agreed with Worth.

"It is not as good as 20 years ago," he said when asked if he would recommend farming to young people. "Look at farming if you have somebody that can help you get a good start."

Pauline VanNurden of the University of Minnesota Center for Farm Financial Management emphasized the importance of communications. She said communication is needed all around, with bankers and landlords, certainly, but also will family. "Don't bottle it up."

Economic problems are caused by issues such as from global competition, which Svoboda said comes from countries like Brazil that can produce good crops for less money than Americans.

Worth said American farmers need to look overseas for customers: "We need to export six of every 10 rows of beans grown in the United States; we just don't have the market for it."

David Bau of the University of Minnesota Extension Service said that 2015 was a tough year on farmers, 2016 a bit better, but "2017 is looking at being the worst of the three years."


A few places Minnesota farmers can go for economic and emotional help:

• The Minnesota Department of Agriculture has help available for a variety of issues, from mental health to invasive species, at (651) 201-6000

• The Crisis Connection hotline at (612) 379-6363 is available to help prevent suicides and handle other serious mental health situations

• Farmer mental health issues from anywhere in the state also are handled by the Southern Minnesota Center of Agriculture at (320) 266-2390

• For agriculture issues not time critical, more about farming issues than emotional needs, farmers may call the University of Minnesota Farm Information Line at (800) 232-9077

• Local banks know about state loan help available for many farm situations

Hearing to Farmfest

One of the biggest events ever at Farmfest will come Thursday, Aug. 3, when the U.S. House Agriculture Committee holds one of a half-dozen listening sessions.

Farmfest, held annually since 1980, will host several members of the committee at 9:30 a.m. They will hear testimony from people who want to influence the 2018 farm bill, which will set federal farm policy for several years. They also will hear about nutrition programs such as what used to be known as food stamps that make up 80 percent of farm bill spending.

Also on the Thursday agenda is a farm family of the year recognition program.

On Wednesday, panels will discuss national agriculture policy and transitioning to the next generation of farmers.

Throughout the event, makers of farm products display their wares and farm-related organizations man booths.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.