Becky Kopp-Dunham knows farmers aren’t likely to openly discuss their worries.
Not only is Kopp-Dunham married to a farmer, the licensed clinical social worker at LSSND-Abound Counseling also specializes in “Farm-to-Farm Therapy,” a telehealth option that allows farmers and ranchers to receive virtual counseling via cell phone, tablet or laptop from their homes and farms. What's more, LSS has funds available to offset therapy costs for farm families, which is especially welcome at a time when more agricultural producers are struggling to make ends meet.
But even if ag producers aren’t ones to discuss their troubles, recent events have given them a far greater burden than anyone should be expected to bear:
The farm economy continues to be pulled down by low commodity prices, trade-related demand uncertainty and natural disasters including flood-related planting delays and crop losses and catastrophic hurricanes. March 2020 data shows a 23 percent increase in farm bankruptcies.
COVID-19-related issues have only contributed to the problem, jamming up markets like the beef industry and produce farming.
Farmers are getting paid less and less for what they produce. The United States Department of Agriculture reports that net farm income in 2018 was down 31 percent from the 2013 high.
This “perfect storm” of trouble has only fueled dire predictions of a 1980s-level farm crisis and a spike in rural suicides. That's grim news anywhere, but especially so in North Dakota, which already saw a devastating 58 percent spike in suicides from 1999 to 2016 – the sharpest increase in the nation.
Yet quietly, compassionately and ably, Kopp-Dunham is warding off the storm – one farm family at a time. From the home office of her family’s farm near Hawley, she talks to farmers every week, reminding them to recalibrate their tired brains and bodies, reassess the huge expectations they place on themselves and, perhaps most importantly, admit they are hurting.
It’s making a difference.
While it was an uphill battle to get farmers to even call at first, Kopp-Dunham’s farm clients have picked up steadily in the last few months. Some of their stories are hopeful, some heartbreaking, as this historically private and independent population sector does something that doesn’t come easily: reveal their fears and talk about how they feel.
“I’ve had several farm stress clients say that if they couldn’t do telehealth from their farm, they wouldn’t have services at all,” Becky says. “Traveling to therapy takes time away from the farm and is impractical.”
Another man admitted it was nice to keep therapy private, as no one will see him drive to town and park by a therapist’s office.
One reluctant farmer told her he was initially skeptical about talking to a counselor but discovered “it really does feel good to talk. Let’s schedule another session.”
Yet another admitted: “You helped me get my head on straight. I wasn’t thinking straight and therapy helped.”
Others commented they appreciated a fresh perspective from beyond their small towns. “They get stuck in that thinking and it helps to have someone outside of their community to talk to,” Kopp-Dunham says. “There's a lot of shame and/or feelings of failure in farm/ranch stress and feeling the weight of community judgement is a large contributor to some darker thoughts: feeling weak, like a "’loser,’ crazy, etc. I normalize for them what they're going through.”
Another remarked that he valued talking to someone who also farmed, because he felt understood and like “we were in this together,” Kopp-Dunham says.
Kopp-Dunham, along with Abound Counseling’s 25 statewide providers, still have openings for telehealth counseling. Farm-to-farm telehealth is convenient, confidential, surprisingly easy to set up and, as long as funds last, offered at no charge to qualifying families.
Get practical skills and free resources for dealing with farm stress at www.lssnd.org/farmstress .
– Tammy Swift