Food & Environment Reporting Network: One counselor’s lonely struggle against farm country’s mental health crisis

by Leah Douglas

In Minnesota, one of the country’s top farming states, just one man is responsible for dealing with farmers’ mental health needs. As low crop prices and farm closures weigh heavily on farming families, he is joining state legislators and advocates to push for allocating more resources to the pressing issue.

“With farming, it’s a way of life,” says Ted Matthews, director of mental health outreach for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. “So if you lose the farm, you lose you. What [farmers] struggle with is a fear of losing themselves.”

Matthews started as Minnesota’s lone farmer therapist in 1993. He wasn’t trained to work with farmers, he says. While working as a crisis interventionist for FEMA, he got a call from someone asking if he could support farmers. He went out for a farm visit, and word soon spread that he was available to talk to farmers as they struggled with mental health issues.

As farmers’ mental health garners national attention, Matthews’ home state is debating whether to expand its work on the issue. The Minnesota legislature is considering a bill that would add another $150,000 to its farm mental health program and would increase funding again for the following two years. Matthews has testified in support of such legislation multiple times, most recently in late January.

The governor’s budget, introduced Feb. 20, also includes funding for an additional mental health counselor to join Matthews. But the allocation will need to be approved by lawmakers.

Farmers across the country are in a precarious economic state. Years of low crop prices, a trade war with China that has hammered U.S. exports, and the growing power of massive food corporations have resulted in a dramatic decline in farm income. The USDA projected that median farm earned income fell to negative $1,548 in 2018. Matthews says that all those factors weigh heavily on farmers’ psyches.

“The biggest problem is the unknown,” he says. “When are they going to take care of the tariffs? How are they going to take care of it? Who’s going to be affected by it, and how much are they going to be affected by it?”

Matthews says that Minnesota’s dairy farmers are particularly concerned, since milk can’t be stored like some other commodities and instead must be sold immediately. “They’ve got to sell [their milk] for whatever price you can get for it right now. So that creates a lot of stress. When prices are down, they simply have to take what they can get.”

Low prices have driven thousands of dairy farmers out of business across the country. In Minnesota, there were 3,210 dairy farms at the start of 2018, a drop of 260 farms since 2016.

The past year has brought heightened attention to the issue of farmer mental health and suicide, in part due to reporting that cited a 2016 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that ranked agricultural workers as the occupational group with the highest suicide rate. Although the CDC retracted those findings last year, Matthews says that he has, in the course of his work, noticed an upward trend in mental health crises and suicide risk among farmers.

“I have to say yes, indeed, the numbers have gone up,” Matthews says. He attributes the spike to the current volatility of farming. “With farming there’s so many unknowns. It’s not just what’s the price of the crop going to be — it’s how much is cash rent going to be, how much is feed going to cost? All of those things can go up, and the price of the product can go down. Farmers are under stress, and always have been under stress, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

Matthews says he doesn’t have a professional network of peers who hold his job in other states. So he spends time traveling the country, speaking to groups of farmers, farm business managers, farm lenders, veterinarians, and other groups that interact with the agriculture sector.

The first step farmers need to take to manage their mental health, he says, is to identify someone they can talk to when stress becomes unmanageable. He’s worked with clergy, extension agents, and loan officers to help them identify the signs of mental health distress and field calls from farmers.

“When we don’t know what to do, we do nothing,” he says. “Every time I do speeches, I talk about that. I say, you need to know somebody that you can call if you feel like someone is under crisis.”