Saving the farm: Heartland clergy train to prevent agriculture workers’ suicides
LAKE BENTON, Minn. (AP) ‒ With traces of winter’s unusually heavy snow still lingering, farmers were out dawn to dusk in early May, planting corn and soybeans across southwestern Minnesota fields many have owned for generations.
The threat of losing beloved family farms is a growing worry, affecting many farmers’ mental health and raising concerns of another uptick in suicides like during the 1980s farm crisis. Much of the stress stems from being dependent on factors largely outside their control – from the increasingly unpredictable weather to growing costs of equipment to global market swings that can wipe out profits.
“You’d be surprised how many people are suffering with depression. Farmers have been a group of people who keep problems to themselves,” said Bob Worth, a third-generation crop farmer near the hamlet of Lake Benton, who credits his wife with saving his life during a bout with depression in the 1980s. “The more you talk about this, the more you realize it can be fixed."
States such as Minnesota and South Dakota are offering suicide prevention training to clergy – a crucial, trusted presence in rural America.
In Pipestone, the bigger town down the dirt road from Worth’s farm – with 4,200 residents and a dozen churches – pastors from three Lutheran parishes are taking the four-week suicide prevention program that Minnesota’s departments of agriculture and health launched this spring.
“I want to learn to help. This could be anybody,” said the Rev. Robert Moeller, recalling his first realization of the scourge of suicide among farmers, when a customer in the feed business he once worked at killed himself.
While rising levels of stress and anxiety are affecting Americans from students to service members, the dynamics are different in the farmland, where churches remain essential social gathering points.
“Every farm family I know has a relationship with a house of worship,” said Meg Moynihan, a dairy farmer in southern Minnesota who works on clergy-focused training programs as a senior advisor to the state’s agriculture department.
The evident satisfaction that farmers take in growing crops and raising livestock to feed the country makes the fear of being unable to keep going a key factor in mental health distress.
“There’s a sense of threat to one’s identity and generational legacy across time,” said Sean Brotherson, professor and extension family science specialist at North Dakota State University. “People treat the farm as a member of the family – and the longest-living member of the family.”
Under financial pressure, Keith and Theresia Gillie started talking about finding jobs away from his homestead in northwestern Minnesota.
“I never realized that in the midst of us quitting farming, that was his identity,” said Gillie, who found her husband of more than 30 years dead on a gravel road.
Male agricultural workers’ suicide rates are more than two times higher than the national average, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There are several issues that play a role, including increased isolation and exacerbated family tensions during the pandemic, the difficulty in rural communities to find in-person mental health counseling or to access broadband for tele-health, as well as the disruptions brought by climate change-driven unpredictable weather patterns, inflation and international trade disputes.
As the average age for farmers inches toward 60, the pressure of passing on a life-defining legacy to new generations is a growing problem, said Monica McConkey, a rural mental health specialist contracted by Minnesota’s agriculture department.
Driving his tractor and planter, some $750,000 in machinery, outside Flandreau, South Dakota, Todd Sanderson, 61, said he hopes a nephew will take over eventually.
“That’s what’s keeping me up at night, the transition,” he said. “The more I get stressed, the more I get quiet.”
Breaking farmers out of that proud reserve is a big challenge even for clergy, said the Rev. Alan Blankenfeld, the rural ministry liaison for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s South Dakota synod.
“They’ll share on their terms. Our place is not counseling, but we can walk with them,” he added.
Back in Pipestone, the Rev. Ann Zastrow of First Lutheran Church, who’s taking Minnesota's online prevention course, plans to remind those struggling with mental health that “God is still in the picture.”
In many farm families, faith and struggle have long coexisted. First Lutheran’s council president, who raises lambs from 500 ewes outside town, said he still remembers when his mother asked him to take guns out of the house because she was worried about his father.
“I remember the look on (my father’s) face when they sold his cows,” Craig Thies said as newborn lambs tottered around him. “Realistically, they’re like your children. But somebody is eating tonight because of you.”
Seeing themselves as part of a crucial creation plan cements farmers’ faith, which in turn makes the clergy potential lifesavers when given the right tools.
“One place we struggle within the church is if we treat suicide as shameful, then they won’t share they’re not okay,” said the Rev. Kelly Ahola, a Lutheran pastor in the Red River Valley between Minnesota and North Dakota.
For one of 80 clergy taking the spring training course, the Rev. Jillene Gallatin, the call to prevention is excruciatingly personal. It was her pastor who drove her to the hospital when, at 15, she tried to kill herself a year after her mother took her own life. And it was in her church that she met comfort instead of the deafening silence and averted eyes elsewhere in her community.
“That’s a gift we can bring as church, being a safe spot,” Gallatin said in the sanctuary of Grace Lutheran Church in Waseca, about an hour south of Minneapolis.
Later that spring day, she visited a church member's dairy farm that's been in the family since the 1870s.
There wasn’t a dry eye in the room when the relatives discussed the option of stopping the milking operation, Jason Eldeen recalled.
But they persevered, which makes them among the 1.3% of U.S. workers with direct on-farm employment, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2023 data.
“How lucky we are that we get to farm,” he said, as some of the cows reached out to lick his and Gallatin’s hands in the spring sunshine.