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Minnesota farmers address stress, mental health at workshop

By NORA G. HERTELDecember 22, 2018
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Brenda Rudolph, a dairy farmer and blogger, talks about mental health at the Farming in Tough Times workshop in Sauk Centre, Minn., on Friday, Dec. 7, 2018. (Nora Hertel/The St. Cloud Times via AP)
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Brenda Rudolph, a dairy farmer and blogger, talks about mental health at the Farming in Tough Times workshop in Sauk Centre, Minn., on Friday, Dec. 7, 2018. (Nora Hertel/The St. Cloud Times via AP)

SAUK CENTRE, Minn. (AP) — Brenda Rudolph went in February for her first physical in three years, and she flipped out on her doctor about the price of milk, the 38-year-old dairy farmer and blogger said.

After that doctor’s visit, Rudolph started seeing a counselor, addressed a vitamin deficiency and noticed her negative thoughts about being a failure.

“I realized that I can’t change the situation that we’re in. I can’t change milk prices. I can’t stop farms from going bankrupt. But I can change how we are. And we are together, and that really does matter,” Rudolph said to the Saint Cloud Times .

She recounted her experience in her Raising a Farmer blog in June and again Dec. 7 at the Farming in Tough Times workshop held by the University of Minnesota Extension.

Rudolph and her family aren’t the only farmers struggling with four years of low milk prices. Dairy farms across Minnesota have been closing. And the Rudolphs aren’t the only farmers facing down mental health challenges.

After a farmer died by suicide this fall, Emily Wilmes received calls from other farmers who wanted advice, said Wilmes, University of Minnesota Extension educator for Stearns, Benton and Morrison counties who organized the Farming in Tough Times workshop in Sauk Centre.

Farmers aren’t getting paid; they’re losing money; they’re struggling to feed their kids, Wilmes said. “We’re in a prolonged state of low prices, really across agriculture.”

Farmers also must face market uncertainty, including international trade tensions and tariffs.

“There is a conversation you people have to have in America, rural America, that says, depression is part of your life. It is not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of reality,” said Dennis Hoiberg, an international consultant on farmer mental health who spoke at the workshop.

Hoiberg, an Australian with a psychology background, has worked with farming communities in South Africa, Vietnam, New Zealand and the United States.

“It’s like coming to a parallel universe when I come to the U.S.,” he said. Farmers and rural residents face challenges all around the world.

The U.S. “is a bit more repressed” on the topic of mental health compared to other countries, he said. Stress tends to be the focus rather than resiliency.

Hoiberg provided a number of tips to build resiliency at the workshop. It’s the second on the topic held by U of M Extension, Wilmes said. About 80 people attended, and Wilmes hopes there’s a ripple effect in part because of the agribusiness professionals who may pass on the lessons.

Mark Koehn, agricultural appraiser for the Stearns County Assessor’s Office, was there, talking about the strain he witnesses among farmers and his journey as a former farmer.

“I’ve had about a dozen of you folks break down in tears this summer,” Koehn said. “I see the stress out there, and I know what it’s like.”

Koehn grew up on a dairy farm in Central Minnesota then raised hogs in Holdingford. He won national Hog Farmer of the Year in 1987.

“Not all of you are going to survive this, and that’s OK,” Koehn said. “There is life after farming.”

But that reality can be tough for farmers debating whether to sell their farm or muddle through.

There’s a lot of emotion in the work of farming, Wilmes said. “For farmers, it’s more than just a job.”

When Rudolph was having a hard time, other people didn’t always understand that she and her husband couldn’t just skip a milking on their Morrison County dairy farm. It’s one of the reasons she started her blog, she said.

The emotional buy in to farm work can take a toll.

“Most of you folk are proud folk, and most you folk are very proud of what you do,” Hoiberg said to the farmers. “You’re also psychologically exposed because you are a true believer (in what you do).”

Here’s some of Hoiberg advice on how to be resilient in the face of stress, depression and mental illness.

— Resilience is not “grit;” it’s not working harder or “working smarter” or “doing more with less” — those phrases Hoiberg translated to working harder.

— “The first trick about looking after yourselves folks is learn to look up. Because there’s always beauty all around,” he said.

— Hope is important to resiliency, Hoiberg said. He turned it into an acronym: Healthy habits, Optimistic thinking, Planning and Enacting those plans.

— “Break it down. Don’t stop moving. Don’t look back,” Hoiberg said about putting plans into action.

— Sleep and diet are crucial to resiliency, he said.

— Stress hormones build up during negative experiences, and if depression evolves into a clinical condition, there are effective kinds of therapy and medications that can help.

— “Resilience is not about being strong,” he said. “Resilience is about being whole.”

Farmers know how to deal with tough challenges, like changes in the cost of their products, Hoiberg said. “What you’ve got to be ready for in your life is not big stuff. It’s minor stuff.”

The little stuff will make you blow up, he said.

Rudolph experienced that when the smallest things, like powdered sugar all over the kitchen, would stir up a feeling that the world was coming to an end, she said.

“Your mental health is just like if you cut your finger and need a band-aid or broke a leg,” Rudolph said. “You need to take care of it.”

She encourages people to listen to their neighbors and friends, and check in on them.

“We just need to be honest with each other,” Rudolph said.

Wilmes echoed those sentiments.

“Don’t make excuses for people (and their unusual behavior), because you’re afraid of having a tough conversation,” she said. “Listen attentively. If people need help, they’ll let you know.”

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Information from: St. Cloud Times, http://www.sctimes.com

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