From Hardship to Hope
A team from CALS and the UW–Madison Division of Extension cultivates communities that can contend with farm stress together.
Leon Statz used to get stressed about almost everything on his Sauk County farm. He worried about the weather, the bills, the crops. And when he sold his milk cows, he fretted about whether he could successfully transition to something other than dairy farming. Eventually, the stress built to a level that Leon couldn’t handle, and he took his own life.
“He thought he was a failure and he did everything wrong,” his wife, Brenda, says. “He let the anxiety get the best of him.”
Stress has been a pervasive emotion in the farm community for as long as farmers have grown crops and raised animals. But there are signs it’s getting worse. In a 2021 American Farm Bureau poll, 61% of farmers and farm workers said they were experiencing more stress and mental health challenges compared to the previous year. Some farmers can take the ups and downs of their profession in stride, but others struggle with the uncertainties and the multitude of decisions they have to make each day.
But they don’t need to endure it all alone. Two experts from CALS and the UW–Madison Division of Extension are helping Wisconsin farmers deal with the occupation’s stressors before they can take a heavy toll.
John Shutske is a professor in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering at CALS and an agricultural health and safety extension specialist, and Joy Kirkpatrick is a farm succession outreach specialist with the UW Center for Dairy Profitability. Together, they’ve been working on farm stress-reduction programs for about six years. Little by little, they believe their efforts are improving lives.
One of the extension programs they’ve adapted for agricultural applications is called “WeCOPE” (COPE stands for “Connecting with Our Positive Emotions”). The program was developed by staff in the Division of Extension’s Health and Well-Being Institute in early 2021. Later that spring, Shutske and Amanda Coorough, at that time an extension health and well-being educator in Sauk County, created an agriculture-friendly version with the help of a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a partnership with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
Through an exploration of 11 emotional skills, the seven-session WeCOPE (available in-person and virtually) helps farmers and agricultural professionals practice ways to improve their emotional and physical well-being while decreasing the negative feelings and emotions connected to stress.
“Often, programs focus on telling farmers they have stress — farmers know that,” Shutske says. “WeCOPE instead focuses on high-impact, proactive skills we know measurably improve one’s sense of well-being while improving all aspects of health. A per- son who is able to live and work with more positive emotions will see less of an impact on the stressful conditions and issues that affect farmers, and they can also more effectively make decisions for success when times are challenging.”
Kirkpatrick, who has been UW’s go-to person for farm succession planning for more than two decades, began devoting more of her time to farm stress in 2016 when milk prices plummeted and farm stress soared. It was easy for her to tie her farm succession specialty to the topic of farm stress since transitioning out of farming is often an arduous task. She recalls asking Shutske to do a presentation titled “This is Your Brain on Stress,” which encouraged farmers to think about chronic stress and how it affects their decision-making ability.
“A lot of the time, farmers don’t like to plan too far ahead because they think it boxes them in,” Kirkpatrick says. “But it can really give them a roadmap to know what decisions to make as they’re moving forward. The value of planning hasn’t been emphasized enough to realize how much of a stress reducer that can be.”
Coorough, who is now working in a new role with the Extension Institute of Health & Well-Being, has been collaborating with Shutske and Kirkpatrick locally and statewide on WeCOPE and other farm-stress initiatives. After working together on a series of workshops with farm audiences, Coorough developed a seven-episode podcast series that emphasizes the positive emotions of the WeCOPE program. They also plan to record a series of short videos to deliver the messages in another format.
Coorough says some programs reach a saturation point, where everyone who is interested in the program has participated. But WeCOPE continues to be popular.
“Sometimes I have people take it more than once,” she says. “They like having a community of people who they can share their experiences with.”
After Leon Statz died by suicide in 2018, a group of people met in a church basement in Loganville to consider how they might address the problem of farm stress and suicide. Dorothy Harms BS’81, who farms with her husband, Don, near Reedsburg, attended that meeting and eventually became one of the organizers of a local group they call the Farmer Angel Network.
“Leon’s death was a call to action,” Dorothy says. “We decided we couldn’t just stand by — we had to do something. We are focusing on providing education and resources to farm families who need support.”
Dorothy says she attended the initial meeting because she and Don were going through a difficult transition from dairy farming to beef farming, and she was concerned that the change would be especially hard on her husband. The Harmses then took advantage of free mental health vouchers offered by the Wisconsin Farm Center, an arm of the Wisconsin agriculture department, to meet with a mental health professional and discuss what they were going through. They also met with Kirkpatrick to talk about transitioning their farm to their daughter.
Brenda Statz speaks openly about her husband’s suicide in an effort to help others understand that it’s okay to seek help. “I want people to realize they’re not alone,” she says. “If a neighbor stops by and you are stressed out, tell them you haven’t been feeling too good. After you get done talking about the weather, talk about what’s bothering you. Sometimes I’ve had people say, ‘After I talk about it, I feel a lot better. I think I’m going to be OK.’ It just makes them feel better to know somebody cares.”
And she’s learned that sometimes it’s best to ask a person point-blank if they are considering suicide. “That might snap them out of it,” Brenda says. “They might think, ‘Maybe I’m OK, and I can work through this.’ Sometimes all it takes is someone who’s willing to listen.”
Shutske says while the blunt question is often appropriate, the people asking the question should do so within the context of knowing what to do next. This is why university officials have been offering programs on suicide prevention, such as Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) and QPR (Question. Persuade. Refer.). MHFA helps people assist someone experiencing a mental health or substance-abuse challenge. QPR teaches participants how to recognize the warning signs of suicidal thinking and refer people at risk for help. Shutske is a certified trainer in QPR, and Kirkpatrick in MHFA, so they are well pre- pared should such a situation arise.
When the first meeting was held in the church basement in response to Leon’s death, about 40 people came, some from as far away as 100 miles. Brenda recalls one woman in attendance who mentioned that three members of her family had died by suicide. She suspects the rise in suicides may be tied to a growing sense of isolation.
“Back in the day, neighbors worked together to plant and harvest their crops,” says Brenda. “As farms have gotten bigger, we’ve kind of lost that community. Now everybody is so busy they don’t even take five minutes to stop and talk.”
Dorothy Harms says farmers often tell others about the pain in their hip or knee, but they don’t feel comfortable talking about the pain they’re feeling inside their heads. “We all need to take a moment to talk to our farm neighbors and say, ‘How’s it going? No, really, how’s it going? I’m here to listen,’ ” she says.
Kirkpatrick has made presentations to the Farmer Angel Network about stress and transitioning to emphasize to farmers their high levels of employability. Many farmers have plumbing, carpentry, welding, electrical, and mechanical skills that will help them find jobs quickly, yet they often feel a career outside of agriculture is not an option.
Farmers sell their family estates for a variety of reasons, and many consider it a personal failure, Kirkpatrick says. They don’t blame government farm policies or buyers who don’t pay them enough for their products — they often blame themselves. The decision can weigh heavily on a farmer, especially if he or she is the last in a line of family members to run the operation.
Kirkpatrick is working on connecting people with the MHFA training program. She says it’s important to get the information to agricultural organizations, agricultural service professionals, pastors, or anyone who comes in contact with farmers to give them the skills they need to identify people who might be in crisis. In some cases, physicians and other healthcare professionals might need the training to help them understand farming and ask their patients better questions.
“An example we use is a farmer might come in and finally have worked up the courage to talk to his doctor about how stressed out he is, and the prescription from the doctor is to take a vacation,” she says. “That does not go over well.”
Ryan Sullivan, who runs a small, diversified crop and livestock farm north of Manitowoc, enrolled in a workshop organized by Kirkpatrick this past summer called “Cultivating Your Farm’s Financial Future.” It provides farmers with tools to address fiscal challenges and other stressors related to their farms.
Sullivan, who recently retired from a career as an Air Force technician, says he was all too familiar with the perils of stress during his military service.
“We got a lot of training dealing with stress and suicide awareness; it’s a big issue in the military,” Sullivan says. “There are a lot of different types of stresses in farming. We’ve been building our farming operation, and as we’ve been doing so, a lot of our personal savings have gone into the farm. There are a hundred different things that could go wrong and cause you to lose a lot of money real quick.”
“. . . realize that there’s way more going right than this one thing going wrong”
Sullivan says it’s a “very great, specific therapy” to be able to talk to other producers at these workshops, and it’s a stress reliever just to hear that other farmers face similar issues and find ways to deal with them. He says he’s been working on shifting his mindset from negative to positive, and he’s refusing to let one setback send him into a tailspin. He’s also come to realize that paying attention to his mental health is just as important as crunching the numbers that make his farming operation successful.
“I’m really working on taking full, deep breaths,” Sullivan says. “You can slow down your heart, your anxiety, and your stress. When you start to think that everything’s terrible, realize that there’s way more going right than this one thing going wrong.”
At Farm Technology Days in Clark County this past summer, Kirkpatrick set up a booth and put six jars on a table. Each jar had a label: farm succession, time pressure, unpredictability (weather or commodity prices), financial pressure, interpersonal conflicts, and isolation. She gave three navy beans to farmers who stopped by and asked them to put beans in the jars that represent top stressors.
The financial pressure jar earned the most beans, although unpredictability came in a close second. Employee recruitment has also been a big problem for farmers in recent years, as it has been for many employers.
Shutske has had a strong personal interest in helping farmers deal with stress like this since the 1980s, when he saw his parents and other farmers struggle with high interest rates and drought. He completed training that gave him the tools he needed to respond appropriately in his early career. During the drought of 1988, he became deeply involved in stress and mental health management programming as a farm risk education specialist for an Illinois Farm Bureau-based insurance company.
“It was an area I was super interested in,” he says. “I have the family background in it, and I have a passion for it.”
Shutske worked as a farm safety specialist in Minnesota for nearly 18 years before joining the CALS faculty in 2008 as an associate dean and extension program director. During that time, he worked on unique educational programming using theater and the arts for more than 8,000 farmers and agricultural service providers in several Midwestern states. Shutske again became immersed in the farm stress and suicide prevention issue in 2016 when he left his administrative post and moved to a role as a professor and director of the UW Center for Safety and Health. He held that position until mid- 2022, after which the center shifted over to the Division of Extension.
Shutske and Kirkpatrick worked together on a variety of programs from 2016 to 2018 but realized quickly they needed to expand their efforts. They devised a plan to get more Extension personnel up to speed on available programming so they could spread the message beyond the agricultural realm.
“We were pleasantly surprised by how people were really willing to jump on the bandwagon — and not just those involved with agriculture,” Shutske says.
He has also taken the message to large groups, such as online and in-person training sessions he helped conduct for about 500 federal Farm Service Agency professionals over a period of about six months.
“Bankers, loan officers, front office people, and farm consultants all need to have communication skills for dealing with farmers,” Shutske says. “How do you ask a person if they are contemplating suicide? That’s a really important question if you sense somebody is on that edge. We aren’t trying to make these people mental health professionals, but we want them to be able to think through what that next level of referral might be, who the resources in their community are.”
Some people might surmise that stress would be low on farms in recent days given commodity prices are at relatively high levels. But many of the stressors have not gone away.
“Even in really good times, things can be super stressful,” Shutske says. “Things are good now, so should we expand? Where will we find help? What is going to happen with fertilizer and fuel costs? What happens if commodity prices go down again? All of that uncertainty leads to anxiety.”
A five-year Community Impact Grant, awarded as part of the Wisconsin Partnership Program in conjunction with the UW– Madison School of Medicine and Public Health, is helping Shutske and Kirkpatrick collaborate with colleagues at the Southwestern Wisconsin Community Action Program (CAP) to build farmer wellness coalitions within a five-county area. A team from Southwest CAP, CALS, the Division of Extension, and the Center for Community and Nonprofit Studies at the UW School of Human Ecology will work with farmers, community leaders, health professionals, and others to develop a range of activities and resources for building resilience and knowledge in rural communities.
The goal is to form small groups of farm families in the region who can take up the mantle of farm stress, mental health, and suicide prevention. Shutske says answers to some of the concerns, barriers, and challenges in Wisconsin’s farming com- munities are already embedded in those communities.
Some of the training programs Shutske and Kirkpatrick develop are as simple as helping farmers and those who work with them recognize the symptoms of someone who is facing a mental health crisis.
“Let’s do some of the same things we would do if your neighbor had a broken bone or if there was a death in the family,” Kirkpatrick says. “We can’t quickly or easily address the gap in support services, but let’s be our own resource and learn how to be better listeners and talk about mental health challenges the same way you would if someone had cancer or was in a car accident.”
Farmers more than likely already have the skills to determine if a neighbor might have a problem, she says. For example, they have the intuition to notice if a calf is sick, if pests have invaded, or if their crops are struggling.
“If they can take that instinct and turn it to the neighbors, they may realize that maybe the neighbors aren’t coming to church or the kids’ 4-H programs like they used to and not just write it off that they’re busy,” she says. “Instead, they might reach out with a visit or phone call to see what’s going on.”
Shutske believes he and Kirkpatrick have a knack for critical conversations, an ability to listen, and the tools to help others learn some needed skills. He says the younger generation’s willingness to talk about mental health is a positive thing that could help break the stigma that the older generation often feels.
“I think we’re good at sitting around the table and having conversations with farmers and farm families,” he says. “I think that’s a big part of it.”
And others are glad to be having those conversations along- side them. Coorough says it has been gratifying to work with Shutske and Kirkpatrick to deal with the farm stress issue in Sauk County and across southern Wisconsin.
“Being able to work with specialists like John and Joy is amazing,” she says. “They are such a great talent, and when they invite educators like me to work with them, it is really rewarding.”
Brenda Statz, who is now running the family beef farm with her two sons, Tom and Ethan, says groups such as the Farmer Angel Network and farm stress programs offered statewide are all signs that people are recognizing the seriousness of the issue.
“A lot of people with depression are trying to farm out there,” she says. “Farming is a wonderful way of life, but the challenges can be overwhelming when we feel we are alone. The stress level is just tremendous. Our pastor told me that Leon lost his joy in what he did, and it became more of a burden. If people can get help, hopefully they can get back to enjoying what they do.”This article was posted in Features, Health and Wellness, Spring 2023 and tagged biological systems engineering, Center for Community and Nonprofit Studies, Farm Technology Days, Farmer Angel Network, farmer mental health, John Shutske, Joy Kirkpatrick, suicide prevention, UW Center for Dairy Profitability, UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health, UW–Madison Division of Extension, WeCOPE, Wisconsin Farm Center, Wisconsin Partnership Program.