From extreme weather conditions to volatile markets, farmers have been facing uncontrollable circumstances that have contributed to high levels of stress in recent years. Last January, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a study that said farmers are among the most likely to die by suicide compared with other occupations. And as the COVID-19 pandemic upended the supply chain in its early months, their stress was exacerbated.
“Experiences I’ve [heard] are farmers having to put down animals because the market isn’t there because of the pandemic,” said Aaron Suomala Folkerds, minister for mental health and wellness in the Northwestern Minnesota Synod. “It’s so challenging on so many fronts, and it affects farmers to their core. It’s a lot of really deep grief that farmers are experiencing.”
Last year, the synod hosted a Rural Revival—an evening of worship, music and mental health discussions that was intended primarily for farm communities. (Additional revivals were postponed due to the pandemic.) Leaders in the synod, which is largely rural with many of its members connected to the farming industry, had been concerned about the trends in rising stress and suicide rates among farmers and wanted to bring people together for a message of hope and to share resources.
Suomala Folkerds taught the attendees how to do a suicide assessment. The world of mental health, he said, can be difficult to navigate, and his role is to be a resource for people who have questions or need assistance, especially in a rural area where mental health care isn’t always easy to access.
“Farming isn’t just a job; it’s a way of life.”
In addition to his synod work, Suomala Folkerds is a counselor and professor of counseling at Minnesota State University–Moorhead. He hopes to develop a program for the synod to partner with the university’s free center, which is run by students in the counseling master’s program, to help reach out to the rural community and provide online counseling.
“Farming isn’t just a job; it’s a way of life. It involves your psychological self, physical self, emotional self, spiritual self,” he said. “To face challenging crop prices and not being able to bring animals to the market … [it] affects farmers deeply and their families and community.
“In those situations, it’s so important for those of us caring for farmers to acknowledge that loss and give a ministry of presence and accompaniment. I like the term ‘exquisite witness.’”
Brenda Statz, a member of St. Peter Lutheran Church in Loganville, Wis., is intimately familiar with the mental health concerns facing farming communities. It has been a little more than two years since she lost her husband to suicide on the family’s farm. (Statz was featured in Living Lutheran’s October 2019 issue.)
Shortly after his death, members of St. Peter organized farm stress forums to bring people together to discuss the concerns they were having and work to eliminate any stigma attached to getting mental health care.
The forums were so well received that parishioners pursued partnering with other community organizations to expand the group and serve more people in the area. Now known as the Farmer Angel Network, the project is a collaboration of Sauk County (Wis.) Public Health, Sauk County University of Wisconsin-Extension, area congregations and concerned farmers.
Among the network’s goals are to build community connections, provide education and mental health support, show appreciation for farmers and celebrate rural culture.
After postponing some events last year due to the pandemic, the network began an online educational series in November. Continuing through March, the series is open to anyone who registers. Topics include how to transition out of farming for retirement or to pursue other work, farming as identity, financial practices and more.
Vicki Hanrahan, a deacon and assistant to the bishop for synodical life, said she promotes the network’s opportunities within the South-Central Synod of Wisconsin, as 80% of its congregations are in rural communities. “As someone on synod staff who is responsible for helping to resource and equip our members, I am especially excited to see that programming is not only including farm stress and suicide awareness, but is now addressing the root cause of much of the stress by helping farmers find ways to be more in control of their future.”
Members of St. Peter, including Statz, continue to be heavily involved in the network. Last year she was even interviewed by a news team from France who visited her farm and talked about the stress farmers are also feeling in their country.
Statz said it has been amazing to see the forums expand to include more people. She is glad to be continuing the congregation’s work and that there is an emphasis on providing support for the whole farm family in times of distress.
“I figure God has presented me this opportunity,” she said. “It was something bad that happened to our family, and you don’t want it to happen to another. Farmers are stubborn and very independent, and they think they can figure it out for themselves. Sometimes they need extra help, and we’re like the guardian angels—the angels who have come to help, no questions asked, here to support you [with] whatever you need.”