Drought leading to more mental health calls from farmers

Mark Zdechlik
Minnesota Public Radio
Lance Wheeler shares a moment with his cattle on his family ranch, Rafter W. Connection with the animals and land helps get him through stressful times. "I guess my cows are my therapists," said Wheeler.

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) – Agriculture officials in Minnesota say they are seeing an increase in inquiries about mental health. 

"We are seeing a lot of despair right now, a lot of fear, a lot of anxiety," said Meg Moynihan, who works for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture with a focus on the human side of farming.

Moynihan recently put an ad on Facebook with a link to mental health help. The response caught her attention: nearly 2,500 clicks in 18 days, Minnesota Public Radio reported.

"So they're not just looking at, 'Oh, there's the phone number in the ad I could call,' but they're clicking through for more information," Moynihan said. "And I'm hoping that's some people who want that kind of help and support for themselves. But I'm also hoping it's for people who might be concerned about somebody they know."

Minnesota Commissioner of Agriculture Thom Petersen recently surveyed conditions in northwestern Minnesota, where the drought is taking its biggest toll on the state. 

"I thought I was in Arizona," Peterson said. "I just looked at this bare church with no grass and the graves, you know, looked like a ghost town. And I kept going, and the pastures were the worst I've ever seen in my life."

Peterson said he also met an 80-year-old farmer who had just sold off all his sheep who said the situation was the worst he's seen in his lifetime.

"We've got a lot of multi-generational farmers that are worried, 'Am I going to be the one this year that can't make this farm last and sustain?' We have no rain," said Shauna Reitmeier, who runs a behavioral health clinic called Alluma that serves several counties in northwestern Minnesota. 

Reitmeier said she thinks people are much more comfortable with the term "stress" than mental health. She also said the explosion of telemedicine has made it easier for people to discreetly seek help because they no longer have to park their truck outside a clinic. It can be helpful for farmers to come to terms with what they can and cannot control, Reitmeier said.

"It's definitely been a struggle," said Josey Weik, 24, who raises heritage pigs and cattle on his mom and dad's farm in northeastern Minnesota, who says his coping strategy is "extremely aggressive optimism." 

Weik has been spending a lot of time this summer cooling off the animals he cares for and making sure they have enough to drink. 

"I mean, in a normal summer, I'm watering twice a day," Weik said. "And some of these days I've found myself out there watering, you know, three, four, five times a day."

Weik said he and his family are not in need of counseling. 

They are, though, trying to figure out a way to pay for automated watering systems. 

Weik said looking beyond his farm has been another one of his coping strategies. He remembers well how some of his customers who are restaurateurs persevered during the COVID shutdown.

Unlike many older farmers, Weik grew up with an understanding of climate change. He expects extreme weather to continue to make farming even more challenging than it's always been.

"The certainty of uncertainty is what keeps us sane," Weik said. "I'm just going to assume from now on that we're going to have either record-breaking heat waves and droughts or record-breaking monsoons and floods, and I'm assuming it's going to get worse."

In the short-term, Ag Commissioner Petersen says he expects state lawmakers will soon come up with a relief package for drought-stricken farmers — especially those who lack federal supports including crop insurance. 

"I hate to use the term Band-Aid, but it really is what it is," Peterson said, adding that in the long-term, he too is worried, "I'm not convinced that this may not go into next year. God help us if we do."