Farmer mental health
About 200 people attended the second-ever statewide conference dedicated to addressing farm stress and farmer suicide.
One of the main topics of the conference was addressing farmer suicide and understanding some of the warning signs to look for.
The conference was free to attend and was held in Boise Jan. 4-5 by the Idaho State Department of Agriculture’s Idaho Farm and Ranch Center. This is the second time the ISDA has held this type of conference, the first one occurring in October 2022.
Part of the conference focused on tools and advice farmers and ranchers can use to deal with financial challenges. That included a presentation on farm management strategies and farm transition and estate planning by consultant Dick Wittman.
Wittman formerly managed a 20,000-acre crop, cattle and timber operation in North Idaho. He is now a consultant who focuses on family business management and transition planning.
He emphasized the importance of detailed planning, setting clear policies, financial frugality and defining clear roles in a farming operation.
“It’s not rocket science. It’s Management 101,” he said. “Every one of you here today should be asking, ‘Does our business need professionalizing?’”
He said the key to the success of his family farm is “a multi-generation commitment to running a professionally managed business.”
A big part of the conference was focused on mental health on the farm and encouraging people to openly discuss the issue of suicide among farmers and ranchers.
Darla Tyler-McSherry, who was born on a Montana wheat farm and has worked in the mental health field for 29 years, spoke openly about her father’s suicide in 2016 when he was 82.
“My dad was born on a farm and died on a farm of his own hands,” she said, adding that before that happened, she used to think suicide was something that happened to other families.
The title of her presentation was, “Ask in Earnest,” and she encouraged people to be willing to earnestly ask tough questions of people they care about in order to possibly save their life.
In agriculture, Tyler-McSherry said, farmers and ranchers tend to be self-reliant people and the industry doesn’t make it easy for them to say, “I’m hurting mentally.”
There has traditionally been a stigma in agriculture when it comes to talking about mental health, she said. “Luckily, we’re changing that attitude.”
It’s a myth that talking about suicide helps cause it, Tyler-McSherry said. “That has never, never, ever been shown to be true. We never want to think talking about it causes it because that is not true.”
She said one way people can help prevent suicide is by recognizing the warning signs, which include someone talking about becoming a burden or becoming depressed, loss of hope, and deterioration in personal appearance.
Tyler-McSherry said if someone suspects a friend or loved one may be thinking about taking their own life, the worst thing they can do is say nothing.
“What we can do is we can ask in earnest,” she said. “We have to be willing to ask the hard questions: ‘Are you OK? I’m really worried about you.’”
She said people need to be direct when asking this type of question: “I’m worried about you. Are you thinking about suicide?”
“The worst thing you can say if you’re worried about someone is nothing at all,” she said. “Farmers take care of one another. Let’s have these important life-changing conservations and change the stigma of talking about mental health.”
Tyler-McSherry said if she could have people remember one thing from her presentation, it would be: “Ask in earnest and you may save a life.”
Panel discussions and breakout sessions on a host of topics were also held during the conference, including one titled, “Speaking Up for Agriculture,” which was led by Alan Clark, who farms in Jefferson County and serves on the Jefferson County Farm Bureau Promotion and Education Committee.
Clark, who also serves on the American Farm Bureau Federation Promotion and Education Committee, said with most of society being far removed from agriculture, it’s critically important for farmers and ranchers to share their stories.
“If farmers and ranchers aren’t sharing our stories, nobody else is,” he said. “Every farmer and rancher has a story to share and it’s important that we share it.”
Society is being bombarded by anti-agriculture voices and it’s vitally important they hear the real story about agriculture from farmers themselves, Clark added.
“Farmers and ranchers need to share their story,” he said. “You have a story to share. Share it.”
The Idaho Farm and Ranch Center website – farm.idaho.gov – features resources such as financial management trainings, guidebooks and videos on succession planning, tools and tips for managing a family business, and a calendar of events. It also has a link dedicated to managing farm stress.