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Family farmers and ranchers feeling daily economic and psychological pressures aren’t out of options. That’s the message of Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring as well as FirstLink Executive Director Cindy Miller.

“Sometimes, they just no longer have the ability to hang on,” Goehring said. “They’re getting squeezed to death.”

For farmer and ranchers facing financial difficulties, consider using the state’s mediation service, Goehring said. It was established in 1984 “to help financially distressed farmers and ranchers through assistance with credit and financial matters, and resolving disputes.”

In 2011, the legislature expanded the North Dakota Mediation Service to include property rights issues that deal with energy and conservation. The North Dakota Credit Review Board establishes the policies for mediation services.

Goehring said the mediation service seems to be used “a little less every year.” However, he said farmers and ranchers need to take advantage of the program.

“It’s a matter of need — not everybody has some place to turn,” Goehring said. “And even if you get other advocates involved to help you deal with your situation on the farm, they may not have a good and true understanding of those challenges. A lot of what we bring to the table is that experience, knowledge and background.”

Agreeing to mediation means a neutral party guides the process for those involved and helps to identify solutions. The service is confidential and privileged. Farmers and ranchers can also request a credit counselor through the service.

Goehring said when agriculture started its downward trend, it was mostly young operators without much equity using mediation. Lately, however, it’s longtime farmers and ranchers asking for help.

“The last three years, we’ve been getting operators who have been in the business a long time that just no longer have any equity,” Goehring said. “There’s a problem with pay-ability. There’s nothing left for them to squeeze out of the farm.”

Mediation can lead to having some hard conversations, and even if it means getting out of farming and ranching, Goehring said it’s worth seeing the process through.

“For some, we might have to be the ones to tell them that they don’t have any other options left,” he said. “We always want to try and help them preserve the farm. But the reality is, sometimes there is nothing left to do. Then it’s about helping them develop a good exit plan that allows them to save some of that equity and have a future beyond farming.”

For more information or to request mediation, go to nd.gov/ndda and click “Mediation Services” under the programs tab. The North Dakota Mediation Service can also be reached at 844-642-4752.

Ag mediation is one tool for farmers and ranchers feeling the pinch. Another tool is reaching out to someone.

FirstLink assists people to “identify, access and make effective use of community and volunteer resources 24 hours a day.” The organization, which began in 1970, might be best known for its 2-1-1 hotline that has helped countless realize there is a way out that doesn’t involve inflicting physical harm on themselves or others. FirstLink officially maintains the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for North Dakota.

Miller said calls are on the rise, noting a 3,000-call increase in the last year.

“We had 55,340 calls in 2018, and 10,100 were suicide-related,” she said. “That’s a significant increase. Out of those calls, we only had to send emergency services without their permission 91 times.”

Ninety-one calls may seem like a lot, but for FirstLink, it’s respectable considering the daily volume of around 151 calls. That means one emergency call without permission for every roughly 600 calls. It’s a number that also tells Miller something else.

“(The hotline) makes a big difference for people,” Miller said. “It’s amazing how strong of a connection you can make from telling people that you care and are concerned. It has saved law enforcement and emergency personnel a lot of time. It’s difficult for people to ask if someone’s thinking about suicide, especially with farmers and ranchers.

“But once you open that door, it can be a sense of relief for them to tell someone that they’re struggling.”

Farmers Union Insurance recently donated $20,000 to help defray the increased costs that come with more calls.

“There aren’t a lot of people who haven’t been affected by suicide, whether it’s a family member or someone in their community,” said Kevin Ressler, FUI chief sales, marketing & branding officer. “There is a lot of stress right now in farm country. This donation melds the mission of our company and our farm organization. Both are focused on community support. FirstLink is local people helping local people.”

Miller said FirstLink has expanded over the years to be more than just a phone call. She said they follow up, as the first 24 hours after receiving help are the most critical. FirstLink will help its callers with medication and appointments.

“We’re going to help de-escalate things,” Miller said. “We offer coping strategies and resources. … We call them back to see how they’re doing. And if they’re leaving a hospital after getting help, it can be overwhelming. They appreciate having someone check on them, telling them they care, and they’re worried about them.”

Miller emphasized that anyone who calls 2-1-1 will get to talk to a fellow North Dakotan — with some very small occasions where the number is forwarded to another state if all lines are busy.

“You’ll get someone who understands our economy and our state,” Miller said. “We have staff that come from small communities, and we understand what it’s like. It’s local people helping local people.”

To learn more or to make a donation, go to myfirstlink.org. For anyone who needs help or just someone to talk to, please call 2-1-1.

— Chris Aarhus, NDFU