Earlier this year, the University of Minnesota Extension reported that farm income in the state hit its lowest level since it began tracking the figure in 1995.
There's little data to show how persistent financial stress is affecting the emotional wellbeing of farmers, but for Don Wick, it's clear. The radio broadcaster and president of the Red River Farm Network is used to putting out calls to farmers for his reporting on agribusiness. Now he's fielding the calls.
"I gotta tell you, I'm getting calls from farmers who just want to talk," he told Meg Moynihan, a senior advisor for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, after he interviewed her on farmer mental health.
That's when TransFARMation was born. The twice-monthly podcast features farmers talking through how they navigated tough times.
"This is not about finding experts from Washington, D.C., or San Diego to come on the air to talk to farmers and lecture them, Moynihan told MPR News host Tom Crann. "This is about helping farmers support each other.
"Farmers are — in a good way — extremely proud people and they are people who are used to solving their own problems. In fact, they're used to solving other people's problems," she continued. "Your neighbor's barn goes down or there's a fire, there's a flood, and farmers pour out to help each other."
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The first episode offers a frank discussion on "how to not let the farm wreck your marriage." Little Falls dairy farmer Brenda Rudolph talks candidly about the stress of running a farm with your spouse and ways they've found to minimize tension, like scheduling meetings and writing up agendas as if they were office colleagues.
"There's farm life and then there's family life, and how do we navigate being a family without things that we're mad about at the farm [getting in the way]?" she says in the episode.
A grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention initially funded five episodes of the podcast, but 10 sponsors quickly reached out to Wick and Moynihan about expanding the project.
"That tells me that other groups and organizations that are keyed into agriculture are really concerned, because they see what's happening to farmers and they know that ultimately they are all tied to the fortunes of farmers — the banking industry, the school districts, the hospitals, the feed dealers, the implement dealers," Moynihan said. "Everybody is tied together in these rural economies and so the health of the farmers is really paramount."
In addition to the podcast, farmers and their families can seek information and help through the MDA's Farm & Rural Helpline: (833) 600-2670. A farm counselor, financial counselling and legal help are also available at the link above.
This interview is part of "Call to Mind," MPR's initiative to foster new conversations around mental health.