Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

New efforts to help Minnesota farmers in crisis November 19, 2019

Tilling at sunset, Redwood County, Minnesota.


I WITNESSED THE DESPAIR first-hand. The overwhelming concern that can settle in when bad weather affects crops, prices drop and the bills pile high.


A well-kept, stately barn west of New Ulm, Minnesota.


Too many years I observed the struggles my dad faced as a farmer. Even as a kid I understood. But now, as an adult reflecting on my past, I understand even more. I observed the stress Dad faced in 1976 when a drought left him without enough feed for the livestock and necessitated purchasing a boxcar full of hay from Montana. I recall, too, the time he dumped milk down the drain, part of a National Farmers Organization protest over low milk prices. And then, when a tornado hit our farm, he had to make agonizing decisions about whether to rebuild.


A farm site in my native Redwood County, Minnesota, where the land and sky stretch into forever.


Certainly, my years on a southwestern Minnesota crop and dairy farm in the 1960s and 1970s differ from today in many ways. Farms are bigger now, family farms fewer. Technology weaves into every aspect of farming. And many farmers (and their spouses) now hold off-the-farm jobs to make ends meet, to continue farming. Yet, the basics of unpredictable weather and prices and resulting stress remain unchanged.


About 10 days ago, farmers in southwestern Minnesota rushed to harvest crops.


This has been an especially difficult year for farmers in Minnesota. Too much rain. Dairy prices that have plummeted. I don’t know all the intricacies of what’s happening. But I understand enough to recognize that many farmers are in crisis. Financially. And mentally.


Harvesting with snow already on the ground near New Ulm, Minnesota, on a recent Saturday.


Unlike the era in which my dad farmed, people are doing something about these issues. The Minnesota Departments of Agriculture and Health are holding safeTALK training at locations around the state—including in my community of Faribault on Wednesday, November 20—to help people help farmers in crisis. The training is aimed specifically at suicide prevention and intervention.


The grain elevator in Morgan in southwestern Minnesota.


This latest focus on the mental health of the ag community is long overdue. Farmers have always been there for one another in times of need, when another farmer, for example, battled a disease like cancer. But when it came to mental health, not so much.


Still bringing in the corn in early November in southwestern Minnesota.


These latest efforts reflect a societal shift in mental health awareness. More and more of us are talking about it. And that is a good thing. Now we need more mental healthcare professionals in rural areas. Talk is only as valuable as the resources and action to back it up.


© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


26 Responses to “New efforts to help Minnesota farmers in crisis”

  1. One drop of milk in the bucket is always a start to a full bucket of milk. Helping those who feed the world is incredibly important! This is important in the small communities that feed the world. Thank you Audrey for making it important enough to share with those who may not know the sacrifices and hard times our farmers face year in and year out.

  2. Jackie Hemmer Says:

    I cannot fathom the stress that farmers face, I think the “safe talk” training is a great idea. I recently learned that my Maternal grandfather had what they called then a “breakdown”. It was during the end of the depression, a hardworking farmer with 7 kids to feed, and things were too tough for him. I dont know all of the specifics but my mom says she remembers he was in his bedroom for a LONG time. She says that my grandma would sometimes have all the children play outside his window so he could hear them in hope that it would help him get better. I never got to meet him, but I know I would have loved him!

    • Thank you for sharing this story about your grandpa. I’m sure many others could share similar stories of long ago family who dealt with mental health struggles, although those health issues were not understood at the time. I am so thankful awareness is growing and help is available.

  3. valeriebollinger Says:

    Your pictures are wonderful.
    What a good idea to have these talks geared to farmers and the ag community. No one is immune to mental health issues.

  4. Gunny Says:

    One thing I never forgot while serving in the military is that farmers were my mainstay providing the food we ate. Not saying someone along the way in the food chain (from crop to the “mess” didn’t mess up.

    One thing I have found is that among our ancestors in the rural (more so then than now) were much more isolated than they are today. I have found stories of people with “prairie fever” (isolation). One way to combat this, is to make good friends, particularly those in the same occupation – not necessarily in the same location. A “next door” neighbor/friend may be in the same plight that you are and is hopelessly without a solution. This adds to the depressing situation that one is already in!

    A good friend can help you stay “grounded” and may have some solutions or at least can sympathize with your plight and offer some suggestions about diminishing the adverse impact the situation has on your life.

    My father’s parents were share croppers in the south. They were “dirt poor” until my grandfather took a mill job (but still farmed). On my mother’s side, 2nd generation (from 1854) children moved to the cities for employment after their mothers and fathers worked the fields to send their children to school (St Olaf is in that list). There is one farmer in the family that now seasonally conducts a farm event that is open to the public – for the price of admission. They are now the biggest employer in the county , if only for the 30 plus days of the event. That family has been farming for over 100 years in that area.

    What I know about farming wouldn’t fill that blank page in a book we all have laying around. I learned early in life that I did not have what it takes to be a farmer.

    • As always, Gunny, I enjoy hearing your family stories. Like your mom’s second generation, many of my generation left the farm for opportunities outside rural areas. Like you, I don’t possess the stamina or grit to farm, although I often thought I did.

  5. kathy swanson Says:

    Hi Audrey,
    And tariffs! Devastating for farmers. i too grew up on a farm and see how tariffs are hurting farmers (my family). The markets lost to Australia and Brazil are going to be hard to get back. Unlike bad weather, we all have control over removing tariffs and making farming a more viable profession by our vote in the 2020 election. Save our farm(er)s!
    Thanks for your thoughtful post. .

    Kathy Swanson

  6. Kiandra Judge Says:

    I think this is wonderful news. Anytime mental health is being talked about in a positive way and not shamed, is a good thing. I have farmers in my family and my husband, son and I lived on a farm in Southern Minnesota for 3 years with my uncle -in- law who is a farmer. The farm across the road belonged to a farmer who has mental health concerns that and they eventually forced him off the farm and into a care facility. Even during the short time I lived on the farm, I saw how it can be isolating. I would imagine the stress of running the farm and maybe that feeling of isolation that I experienced, can cause farmers and their families to feel hopeless. I’m so glad that there is help for those who need it.

  7. It is most certainly a huge issue for farmers and has been for quite awhile. It is not getting any better and while farming has always been quite dependent upon the elements and Mother Nature maybe we are hearing more about the actual stress it places on the individuals. Mental health issues are such a complicated and complex area and it is such good news to know that the stigma is being lifted a little bit.

  8. Wonderful post, Audrey. Thank you for this. I must share. 🙂

  9. I, too, like the more open discussion regarding mental health. Gut health, mental health, joint health, dental health . . . to me, they all seem like different aspects of the same entity: our health.

  10. Almost Iowa Says:

    Let’s talk about another aspect of rural mental health. The profile for rural suicide is skewed heavily toward traditional American males, a demographic that the mental health community has taken every effort to alienate itself from.

    The American Psychological Association produced a highly ideological cringe-worthy document earlier this year that claimed, among other things:

    “Traditional masculinity ideology has been shown to limit males’ psychological development, constrain their behavior, result in gender role strain and gender role conflict and negatively influence mental health and physical health,”

    “The main thrust of the subsequent research is that traditional masculinity – marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression – is, on the whole, harmful,”

    “Research suggests that socialization practices that teach boys from an early age to be self-reliant, strong, and to minimize and manage their problems on their own yield adult men who are less willing to seek mental health treatment.”

    As I have often written: a vice is nothing more than a virtue taken too far. Stoicism, competitiveness, self-reliance, strength and managing ones own problems and yes, even dominance and aggression are virtues. Only when they are taken too far do they become vices.

    Psychologists, two-thirds of whom are women (and suburban women, I might add), apparently refuse to recognize the virtuousness of the very traits that are at the core of what it is to be a traditional male. So how can they help any male – much less a traditional rural one?

    Included in this training should be a section on: how to find a good counselor/therapist and how to recognize a bad one – or at least one who is bad for you.

    Personally, if I were running this program, I would run it through volunteer fire departments. Who better to trust than the people you call when your kid breaks a leg, your grain dryer catches on fire or you put your truck in a ditch.

    In other words, talk to them now because they are the ones who will find you when you take your life.

    • I’ve not seen that document you reference, Greg. But from what you’ve shared, wow, yes, cringe-worthy.

      I don’t pretend to know the intricacies of the safeTALK program. It’s a start, an effort, a step in, at the very least, raising awareness. Your suggestions on what to include seem valid considerations. And including volunteer fire departments seems like an especially good idea.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

      • Almost Iowa Says:

        I just want to add one more thing. It is not just about finding help, it is about finding the right help.

        Case in point, myself. In the early 90’s, I went through a tough divorce while I was under a tremendous amount of pressure at work. When I told my Lieutenant that I would need to take some time, she gave me a business card and chased me out of the office. I didn’t see the guy on the card right away, instead I had another referral.

        That didn’t go well. Let’s just say: stuffy chairs, soft-lighting and a box full of tissues. Talking accomplished nothing. It only made me feel worse, so I saw the guy who my Lt. refereed me to.

        I started to explain my situation but he cut me off. “What are you going to do about all this?” he asked

        And there it was, the magic American male word: DO.

        “Well,” I started and he cut me off again.

        “This ain’t about you,” he said.


        “You got two kids, right?”


        “Forget about you. It’s about them. It’s about making them feel secure, loved and protected. ”

        My ex moved out later that week and took all of our stuff. I mean all of it. Even the toilet brush.

        So that night, I drove the kids down to Slumberland and we picked out dressers, desks, beds, sheets and comforters. That night they slept like rocks.

        The next night, I cooked supper. Now, I have cooked for myself for years when I was single – but once I got married, my ex declared the kitchen her turf and banished me from it. That first night with the kids, being out of practice, I burned the stir-fry.

        We still laugh about it – but soon they were getting fat on comfort food.

        So do you see what is happening here? Help has to be the right help at the right time. It can come from a therapist, a minister or a bartender. It just has to be right.

  11. Missy’s Håndarbeid (Missy’s Crafty Mess) Says:

    I’m hoping that next year is going to be better for farmers but with already over saturated land and predicted heavy snow falls…

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