Every other week, someone in farm country sits down at a microphone to talk about the unspeakable.
The farm they lost.
They talk because their neighbors need to hear they’re not the only ones hurting. They share their stories because sometimes it takes a farmer to pull another farmer through.
A new radio program and podcast is tackling the rural mental health crisis the way farmers tackle every other hardship: clear-eyed, head-on. You’re not alone, they tell one another. You can find help. Here’s how.
“After I started seeing a therapist, it made me realize it helps to talk to other people,” said Doug Kramer, who battled depression on his family farm in Bejou, Minn., during the 1980s foreclosure crisis, when more than 10,000 Minnesota farms vanished on the auction block.
Kramer and his daughter, Monica Kramer McConkey, taped an episode of TransFARMation, a program produced with the help of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
The title of their episode was “It’s OK not to be OK.”
Because things are not OK for a lot of Minnesota farmers right now.
They are collateral damage in an escalating, multifront trade war. This year’s weather forecast brought nothing but barn-crushing snowfall, spring floods and threats of an early frost. Commodity prices have been so low for so long, the median farm income in Minnesota is lower now than it was two decades ago.
Red River is a farm news network. Its president, Don Wick, was so alarmed by the news he was hearing from his listeners that he walked into the Prairie St. John mental health center in Fargo to find out how he could help.
He spent months talking with mental health experts, with people who got the help they needed, and with the survivors of those who didn’t.
“I’m telling you, sitting at a kitchen table with a farmer telling you these stories, pulling out pictures” of loved ones who died by suicide, Wick said. “That was a hard day.”
“ ‘Dad, that’s my only life,’ ” Nathan Zahradka once said about his dream of becoming a farmer. “ ‘That’s the only thing I ever want to do, is farm and till the soil and smell the earth and be a part of agriculture.’ ”
Nathan was kindhearted and fun; he had a lovely wife and a new baby; and it was only after his 2017 death that his family realized there had been warning signs. The angry outbursts, the weight loss, the way he withdrew from friends. He was 29 years old.
“If we can help somebody, if somebody out there can hear our voices … there is hope,” said his grieving father, Dale Zahradka of Lankin, N.D.
Finding hope, asking for help, isn’t easy — particularly in a small community, where everyone knows which day the visiting therapist comes to town to hold office hours in the county building.
“Everybody who sees your truck there on that day, during that time, is going to assume you’re at the therapist,” said Monica Kramer McConkey, who grew up on her family farm in Bejou — population 94 — and went on to become a therapist herself.
“The first few times, I kind of felt like I didn’t want nobody to know, didn’t want nobody to see me,” Doug Kramer said. After that, “I guess I didn’t care. I knew I needed help.”
Picture a garage, a therapist once told him. A garage with two doors and rusty hinges.
On one side of the garage are all the bad thoughts. That door’s rusted open right now.
The door on the other side is rusted shut. The good thoughts are on the other side of the door.
Bit by bit, Kramer and the therapist worked to get the hinges unstuck. He took long walks with his head held high, trying to think good thoughts. He made to-do lists and checked items off.
And bit by bit, the hinges loosened. One door started to close, the other started to open, and things got better.
“Find a therapist and don’t give up,” he said. “There’s always someone out there who can help you.”
You can listen to TransFARMation at rrfn.com/transfarmation.
The Minnesota Department of Agriculture has many more resources for people coping with farm and rural stress here: mda.state.mn.us/about/mnfarmerstress