The Ghosts of Christmas is a group in Dawson, Minn., that's known to leave presents at the doors of families who need a little help during the holidays.

The group stays anonymous, said Ruth Ann Karty, who lives nearby, but it's a good bet those ghosts are busier than usual this December.

Families in farm country are struggling to pay the bills, let alone give one another Christmas presents, thanks to already depressed prices for farm products and a trade war that's driven prices lower.

"It's probably been eight to 10 years since I've seen it on this level," said Karty, a farmers' advocate employed by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture who has worked with struggling farmers since 1986.

Companies that do business with farmers are trying to be sensitive. Ag bankers are doing what they can to work with customers without running afoul of bank examiners.

The weeks before Christmas can be an especially tense time for farmers who suffered losses in 2018 and must look ahead to an uncertain 2019.

"We talk about it as a company," said Mac Ehrhardt, one of the owners of Albert Lea Seed. "The people that pay our bills, farmers, they're having a tough time right now and we need to really be mindful of that when we're talking to them on the phone, because it's not necessarily happy times down on the farm."

Ted Matthews, a psychologist who counsels farm families, was named Ag Person of the Year by the Hutchinson Area Chamber of Commerce.

"All of us want to do what we can for our children or our loved ones to help them have a happier Christmas," Matthews said in an interview. "If you don't have any money or you're in the red, it's going to be hard to focus on Christmas presents."

He said the families he's most worried about are dairy farmers. Corn and soybean prices will eventually rise again, he said, and farmers can store grain in hopes prices will rise. The situation for milk producers is more dire.

"With dairy farmers, they're losing money every day, and with their product, they can't hold on to it," Matthews said. "These are people that work 12 hours a day, seven days a week."

Matthews said his advice at Christmas is to focus on being together, loving the other members of their families and not worrying too much about gift-giving.

"People feel guilty about not being able to do something for someone, but by loving your spouse or your kids, you are doing something for them," he said. "When things get tough, sometimes the parents step up and the kids step up."

Several Minnesota farm families will be getting help with Christmas presents from the state Agriculture Department, which has a long-standing tradition of a giving tree. Farm advocates like Karty — there are about 10 of them around the state — gently try to find out if a family wants help with gifts for Christmas.

"It's just a matter of listening, and figuring out if it's appropriate to ask them if they're going to be OK for the holidays," she said.

Often a mother is more willing to ask for help than the father, Karty said. She passes a wish list on to the department, which lists the items on tags hung from a Christmas tree at the office in St. Paul. Employees of the department take tags and buy gifts that are collected and sent to the advocates.

Karty sometimes hands the gifts over unwrapped and sometimes helps the parents wrap the gifts at her home west of Clarkfield, Minn. Talking on the phone last week, she said three boxes had just arrived at her door.

"It's fun to sit around and have a cup of coffee and wrap gifts and give everyone a break and something else to think about," she said.

Karty, who lives on a farm herself, helps farmers work through their finances every day and comes across families who need help regularly. In the days before Christmas, it was too late to add anyone's wish list to the giving tree in St. Paul, but she said there are ways to help.

"I tend to call pastors and priests," she said. "They know who's out there, and they know how to manage it well."

She spoke to a farmer last week who sounded like his family's situation was very serious, so she called a priest to see if something could be done.

"They just need that extra hug, that somebody out there really cares," she said. "Sometimes that's all you need, somebody to say 'You're a good person, it'll get better next year.' "

Adam Belz • 612-673-4405  Twitter: @adambelz