CATHY WURZER: This summer’s drought and heat has not been great for the state’s corn crop. And while there will be plenty of sweet corn at the state fair this week, the stress of the unpredictable nature of farming and our changing climate has been rough on the mental health of some farmers. And this isn’t new.

Studies show that people in greater Minnesota have a much higher rate of suicide because of gunfire than people in the metro area. The gun suicide rate in greater Minnesota is nearly twice as high as in the Twin Cities. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture has set aside funding rural mental health program that is free to all Minnesota farmers.

Monica Kramer McConkey grew up on a farm, is one of two mental health professionals hired through the state to provide free mental health support for farmers. Monica owns Eyes on the Horizon– that’s an agriculture mental health consulting business. She’s with us right now. Good to talk with you again, Monica. How have you been?

MONICA KRAMER MCCONKEY: It’s good to be here. Thanks for having me. I’ve been well. Busy, as you kind of just alluded to, right? It’s been a tough summer.

CATHY WURZER: It has been a tough summer. I’m sorry to hear that you’ve been busy. It must be– are we looking at farmers who are just tired and distraught over drought and heat?

MONICA KRAMER MCCONKEY: Well, that’s part of it. That tends to culminate into a variety of issues like depression, and anxiety, and relationship struggles. But at the base, it is a lot of those things. It’s those uncontrollables, that combination of weather that has been difficult, commodity prices, which are low right now, interest rates, which are creeping up. And so it’s kind of a perfect storm for a lot of stress and conflict.

CATHY WURZER: As long as there have been farmers, there has been unpredictable weather, unpredictable prices. Farmers have been affected by some pretty desperate situations in the past and have made it through. What’s different now?

MONICA KRAMER MCCONKEY: That’s such a good question. I think size of farms is different. I think that the legacy, I guess you could say, of passing the farm on to the next generation is more pronounced in today’s world of agriculture. We have farmers here in Minnesota that are fifth, sixth generation farms.

And so the thought of not being able to hold on is really difficult. From a financial standpoint, of course, it’s different now because you’re looking at a lot of numbers, a lot of dollars of debt. The equipment is very, very expensive. Land rent and purchasing land is very, very expensive.

So if the crops aren’t what they need to be because of weather, because of commodity prices, it’s really tough to make payments. And those payments are large. So that has added a bit of a difference.

The cost of production is way higher than it’s been in the past. But if you look at history of commodity prices, not significantly higher. And so it’s really a difficult place to be when weather isn’t what it needs to be to raise a good crop.

CATHY WURZER: Say, you mentioned farmers– all these worries are on their shoulders, in their minds. And they’re thinking, I want to hold on to this family farm because it’s been in my family for generations. What kind of worry is there that they’re holding on to give it to the next generation, and maybe the next generation’s not really interested, because they’ve been watching what’s been going on and thinking, psh, I don’t want to get involved in this? Is that also kind of a stressor?

MONICA KRAMER MCCONKEY: Oh, absolutely, that in some cases, there is no next generation that’s going to take over. But the farmer, whether it’s male, female, farm spouse, farm couple, they only see themselves as farmers or ranchers. Their identity is really wrapped up in that work, and in that operation, and in that legacy.

So they’re holding on until older age– the average age of our farmers right now in Minnesota is right around 60– which leads to a lot of other issues– increased isolation, injury, illness as they’re heading into their 60s, 70s, 80s, sometimes 90s and they’re still farming without a next generation to pass it on to. So really difficult, really difficult.

I love talking about Dr. Michael Roseman in Iowa has done a lot of research and coined the term “the agrarian imperative.” And it really talks about the farmer’s innate need to hold on to the land and produce, whether livestock or crops, at whatever cost to their own health, to relationships, to finances. And it is very true. It’s almost like in the DNA of our ag producers.

CATHY WURZER: So as a therapist, you only have so much power to help folks manage their emotions, you know? You can’t change the course of commodity prices or the weather, climate change. How do you help farmers?

MONICA KRAMER MCCONKEY: We really work a lot on coping skills, like how do I deal with these uncontrollables when they’re happening? And it becomes all about our thinking, right? Are we spending time and focus worrying and thinking about things that we have no control over? Or are we refocusing on what we can move ahead with, and tasks we can complete, and decisions we are able to make?

We talk a lot about how our thoughts, how our thinking directly impacts the way we feel. So a lot of my work is around getting a hold of those thoughts, helping them to become more helpful versus destructive, and more problem solving versus emotionally based.

CATHY WURZER: I know you’ve been doing this work now for, what, four years or so since the state has founded this program. Are you seeing improvement anywhere? Do you see any hope?

MONICA KRAMER MCCONKEY: Oh, for sure. And I think one of the major improvements that I’ve seen– I’ve been in the behavioral health field for 27 years– but even just looking specifically at mental health and agriculture, I think one of the biggest improvements I’ve seen is we are chipping away at that stigma that has existed and told people, you can’t ask for help. You need to figure this out yourself.

You don’t want to be embarrassed. You don’t want people to know. That, we’re chipping away at. And what I’m seeing is much more open communication from people just saying I’m struggling and I don’t know how to handle this.

Our relationship is struggling or whatever the case is. So that’s the really good news. And in terms of, is it getting better as a whole? My thought is always, if you make a difference for one person, if you can help one person improve their thinking, manage their emotions, you are making impact for, potentially, generations, because we are all impacted by how we’re parented and how we’re raised. And so if I can help people who are then going to pass that on in future generations, it’s very fulfilling.

CATHY WURZER: Good point. Good point. Glad you brought that up. By the way, Monica, if a farmer is listening right now, where can they call for help?

MONICA KRAMER MCCONKEY: They can call my number directly. It is 218-280-7785. You can also go on the Minnesota Department of Agriculture website and just type in “farm stress,” and it’ll bring you to a page with lots of programs. We have the Farm Advocates. We have mediators. We have Ted Matthews is my counterpart. So there’s two of us in the state. Rural Finance Authority, Farm Business Management.

CATHY WURZER: All kinds of information.

MONICA KRAMER MCCONKEY: Lots of services out there. Yes.

CATHY WURZER: Great. Monica, Thank you so much.

MONICA KRAMER MCCONKEY: You are welcome. Thank you for having me.

CATHY WURZER: That was Monica Kramer McConkey. She’s a mental health counselor for agricultural workers in Minnesota.

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