By Maddie Smith
National FFA Officer
ATV training, grain bin safety, rural resilience… These were a few topics discussed during the Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center (UMASH) virtual expo last week. One topic was more frequently discussed than any other, however: mental health.
Stress levels on the farm are higher than ever. Those of us in Fillmore County who are on the farm live with it, and those of us who are off the farm have observed it or felt its impact. Weather is unpredictable, market prices have been low since 2013, COVID-19 has disrupted the food supply chain, and the lifestyle is demanding. These are all direct challenges that our farm families face.
Looking at farm families under stress, we are beginning to shift our conversations to focus more specifically on farm youth. During the UMASH Expo last week, Monica McConkey— a farmer and farm stress specialist—and I spoke on the Farm Youth Stress Panel. We recognize high stress levels are to the degree that dairy farmers (including those in Fillmore County) see the suicide hotline number on the bottom of their milk check — and it takes a toll on farm youth.
In a perfect world, hay would never get rained on, livestock would never get sick, equipment would never break, and market prices would throw a profit. Most of these problems will either be solved with long-term solutions or not at all. We require a more immediate solution: resilience.
The agricultural community is already incredibly resilient. Resilience is what helped farmers endure the Great Depression and the 1980s Farm Crisis. Resilience is what motivates a farmer to pay for vet bills, take out another operating loan, and keep milking even when the trucks don’t come to pick it up. There is no population with as much hope and faith as farmers.
Our downfall is not that we face problems or fail to persist during hardship. Our downfall is that we don’t allow ourselves to care for our health, take a break, or even talk about our problems. That is the piece that hurts our youth more than anything else. 4-H did a study in June to gain a deeper understanding of teen mental health. In the study, teens reported feeling 3 times as pressured to hide their feelings as they do to drink or do drugs. 62% of youth responded saying they are “tired of pretending to be happy all the time, being sad or anxious sometimes is part of a human experience.” As youth, we want a healthy way to manage hardship, not avoid it.
So how do we support our farm youth? As a parent, allow your student to have an escape. Allow them to participate in a sport, be on an FFA team, or join a club. As a high school student, I was incredibly fortunate that my parents allowed me to take time away from home to “be a teenager.” If you are someone who interacts with a farmer in your personal or professional life, utilize resources such as recordings from the UMASH expo. To learn strategies for recognizing and communicating with those under stress in your community, complete the new online Rural Resilience: Farm Stress Training course for free (opencoursesstore.d2l.com/product?catalog=msu_urmfs_2020).
If you are a parent and farmer, you are one of our greatest sources of strength. Your life is more important than a lifestyle. We model your self care habits. When you take care of yourself, you permit us to do the same. Whether you hide your feelings and wear yourself down or find a support system and seek outside strength, we model after you. Seeking help doesn’t just benefit
us, it also benefits those around us. To explore available tools, listen to other farm stories on the
Red River Farm Network’s TransFARMation podcast (rrfn.com/transfarmation), attend a virtual Cultivating Resiliency Coffee Chat to anonymously speak with other agriculturalists
(umash.umn.edu/upcoming-events), or schedule a personal meeting with one of the two state-provided farm resiliency professionals (Monica McConkey: (218) 280-7785, Ted Matthews: (320) 266-2390). In the event of a crisis, call the Minnesota Farm & Rural Helpline:
(833) 600-2670. For more resources, visit mda.state.mn.us/about/mnfarmerstress/copingstress.
Times are tough, and so are we. The trainings, podcasts, webinars, and phone numbers noted in this article are all powerful and available resources to those on and off the farm to help us build resilience for our youth and rural communities. We are incredible at finding strength within ourselves. When we start looking for strength around us, we allow our farm youth to do the same. It’s time to invest in the future of agriculture another way: by investing in ourselves.
In the upcoming weeks, I will be sharing what I have learned and continue to learn from my experiences and conversations across the state. Topics will range from local stories to understanding the relevance of policies and current events in agriculture. Literacy is listening. To share any questions, story ideas, or comments on published or potential articles, please feel welcome to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.