National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson, a former commissioner of agriculture in North Dakota, speaks about mental health issues and the increasing amount of isolation in rural America during the two-day Life Beyond Breaking Even: Farm Economic Summit 2018 on Jan. 30 at the National Energy Center of Excellence at Bismarck State College. Chris Aarhus / NDFU

As many farms get larger and the landscape of rural America changes, isolation has increased among farm families, said National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson.

Johnson, a farmer from Turtle Lake and former North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner, said that’s led to fewer families asking for help, both financially and emotionally.

“Before, they may have gathered at the local coffee shop, and now the coffee shop may be gone,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of social isolation in agriculture we need to be aware of, and a lot of stigma associated with failure on the farm.”

Johnson was one of two keynote speakers at the two-day Life Beyond Breaking Even: Farm Economic Summit 2018, held at the Energy Center at Bismarck State College. The event was hosted by North Dakota Farmers Union and North Dakota State University Extension Service.

Sixty percent of rural Americans live in a mental health professional shortage area, Johnson said. During the economic struggles of the 1980s, mental health received much attention in rural America, he said. However, that hasn’t shown to be the case in these times of low commodity prices.

“It hasn’t shown up yet in the poor farm economy,” Johnson said. “Maybe folks can get help on the internet, but that doesn’t strike me as the best way to have a one-on-one conversation.”

Johnson emphasized the compounded problems that occur when a farm fails.

“Having a job and losing a job, and having a farm and losing a farm are dramatically different,” he said. “When the farm is lost, the home is almost always lost. That difference is very real. It’s important to keep that in context.”

The other keynote speaker was Rick Peterson of Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service, who spoke about the importance of reducing barriers to getting help.

“Concerns about the family’s reputation, lack of understanding services and how they work, lack of money or insurance, the notion that one must bear one’s own problems, and the fear of being perceived as mentally ill — educate your family and community that it is OK to seek help,” Peterson said. “It’s not a sign of weakness.”

Peterson also had a message for those hoping to help farm and ranch families with their problems.

“Researchers say ag background or experience is essential to communicate with farm and ranch families,” he said. “You have to let them know you understand a little about their culture and situation.”

The conference also featured four farm panels on the economy, financials, stress and outlook.

Ryan Larson of Utah State Extension cautioned farmers about their cash situations.

“Liquidity is really stressed right now, but at least we have strong equity in the land,” he said. “Some may sacrifice some of that solvency to boost liquidity. Don’t weaken the balance sheet just to boost liquidity.”

David Ripplinger of NDSU Extension was part of a panel on farm financials and alternatives. He said in times of hardship, farmers need to sit down and pay close attention to their books.

“Farmers love to grow crops and raise livestock, and they don’t love to do financials,” he said. “They generally let that go, and in good years, they can do that. You’re not able to do that anymore.”

The third panel was on farm stress and featured mental health professionals as well as NDFU District 2 Director Jim Teigen and Ward County Farmers Union President Bob Finken.

Monica McConkey of Prairie St. John’s said farmers and ranchers seem to be great about helping each other out in many other situations, but not mental illness.

“We often see a community coming together to help get the harvest in, but I’m not sure if that’s ever happened for a farmer who had to be away for substance abuse treatment or if he had to be hospitalized for a suicide attempt,” she said. “People generally stay away and don’t talk about it. And there’s a stigma attached to that family, and it even affects the kids.”

She asked all farmers and ranchers to keep an eye on their neighbors for warning signs.

“It could be a change in baseline behaviors, giving things away, the farm falling in disrepair, making statements of hopelessness — any of those red flags,” McConkey said. “We’re talking about life and death in a lot of these situations. It is scary.”

The final panel discussed a general farm outlook for the coming year. Frayne Olson of NDSU Extension said he believes the new pattern in the markets is to see short spikes in prices, which he calls the “heartbeat model” because of its similarity to a heart monitor in a hospital.

“There will be periods in which markets skyrocket, but inevitably come down to earth,” Olson said. “We don’t know when these happen. If it does happen, be prepared and don’t expect it to last for a long time.”

— Chris Aarhus, NDFU