Colorado Divide: As pressures mount for Colorado farmers, state pushes crisis hotline into remote, sometimes skeptical communities

Joe Miller’s longtime friend and neighbor committed suicide in the early 1990s. Signs were there – a farmer struggling to make ends meet after consecutive years of downturn coupled with a divorce – but he didn’t reach out for help when Miller drove him home the same night that he killed himself.

“He didn’t say a word,” said Miller, who operates a family farm 15 miles east of Longmont.

Now, after several years of historically low commodity prices, farmers across Colorado are facing financial pressures reminiscent of the 1980s. What’s more, farmers are growing older, and fewer young people are entering the field. Selling the family farm is no longer unthinkable.

With these troubles and the isolated nature of farm work and life come mental health battles, not the least of which is depression, and Colorado has responded by extending a crisis hotline to rural areas in the state. The move aims to lend a hand to a group that historically has high suicide rates.

“I went through the 1980s right when the big crash hit,” said Colorado Department of Agriculture Commissioner Don Brown, who is also a farmer and rancher. “There were lots of foreclosures and people leaving their farms. I see a recurrence of that happening now. That really concerns me because we saw people in terrible distress emotionally, physically and who needed someone to talk to. … I lived it, and I understand the pain they feel in thinking that it’s their fault.”

This is part of an occasional series examining the issues, values and attitudes that can leave rural and urban residents feeling they live in two Colorados.

The hotline isn’t new — it was created in 2014 by Gov. John Hickenlooper as part of a statewide effort to address mental health, which Colorado has struggled to tackle with two high-profile mass shootings and the sixth-highest suicide rate in the nation as of 2012. But now, agricultural agencies — including the Colorado Farm Bureau, Colorado State University Extension and Rocky Mountain Farmers Union – are working on a collaborative effort to get the phone number out in isolated, sometimes apprehensive rural communities.

“If we’re not a relevant resource for that population in Colorado, then we’re not servicing Colorado,” said Bev Marquez, CEO of Rocky Mountain Crisis Partners, which runs the hotline in partnership with the statewide crisis system, Colorado Crisis Services.

The Department of Agriculture will provide training to counselors to understand the unique struggles of farmers and ranchers.

Counselors answer the phones and give confidential guidance and support for mental and emotional struggles such as relationship problems, suicidal thoughts, depression and financial crisis. They will stay on the phone with the person calling the hotline until help arrives, which can take up to two hours in remote areas.

Low crop prices

Since 2012, low crop prices have caused an unusually long and deep downturn for the agricultural economy, particularly in the west, according to analysts at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

More than 80 percent of bankers surveyed said farm income in the western part of the district (including all of Wyoming and Colorado, northern New Mexico, and western portions of Nebraska and Kansas) was lower this year than the last. Nonirrigated cropland values fell 24 percent in the same area from the first quarter of 2015 to 2017.

Due to prosperous growing conditions worldwide, commodity prices are depressed. In Colorado, according to Brown, the ground is suited for crops such as wheat and corn, two of the worst-off commodities.

In a state where agriculture contributes $41 billion to the $323 billion economy each year, a crisis for the industry is a concern. Colorado cannot risk agriculture – or the people behind it – being left behind.

“The risk we run is a shortage of farmers, and that has huge implications for food production,” said Kate Greenberg, the western program director for the National Young Farmers Coalition. “That has huge implications for rural economies. … It’s particularly noticeable in rural communities where they see young people leave.”

Miller said he has seen many properties change hands.

“Lots of people have sold their farms,” he said. “Everybody I was in high school with either sold their farm or rented it out. There were 30 or 40 kids I knew in my class who all came from farms, and there’s maybe one or two of us left.”

Joe Miller works loading produce at his farm on Sept. 1, 2017 in Platteville.

Rural communities can’t afford to see the younger generation leave. Baby-boomer farmers are aging out. Colorado farmers, in fact, are aging at a faster rate than their counterparts nationwide. The average age of the Colorado farmer is just under 59, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2012 Census of Agriculture, and the state’s oldest counties are in rural areas.

New challenges

While ag communities are dealing with an economic downturn, the Front Range is simultaneously exploding. Colorado has enjoyed record low unemployment and rising property values – two indications of a healthy economy, but that also presents new challenges to farmers and ranchers. Low unemployment means there are fewer employees to work the fields. Higher property values are making it more expensive for young farmers to get their operation off the ground.

Commodity prices are so low that some aren’t making any money or are below the price of production, according to Chad Vorthmann, executive vice president of the Colorado Farm Bureau. Today, farming doesn’t look like an enticing endeavor for millennials.

So for boomer farmers, there are no heirs to be found. This created a major psychological stressor, according to several members of the agricultural community and psychological experts.

“Farming isn’t just a job, it’s not just a career — it’s a way of life,” Vorthmann said. “There comes a lot of pressure with that. You don’t want to lose the farm on your watch. We were really concerned that people in that situation could take drastic steps.”

Colorado has a beginning farmer tax credit for landowners who lease land to budding farmers. Greenberg thinks it should be elevated to include the sale of land so that young farmers can have a pathway to ownership even if they are burdened with student debt. And Brown said part of the problem is that in farming today, it takes “millions” to get into the business.

Without heirs, elderly farmers and ranchers in rural Colorado work the fields, carry the weight of the state’s third-largest industry, bear the pressure not to lose land their family has maintained for generations and perform tough, physical labor long beyond retirement age.

“Physical health issues add a lot of psychological stress,” said Camille Harding, division director of Colorado’s community behavioral health division and a licensed professional counselor. “They don’t want to be a burden to other people.”

In Colorado, 37.6 percent of the 21 people who committed suicide in the agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting sector in 2012 had a physical health problem before their death, according to data collected by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study last year found that farming, fishing and forestry had the highest rate of suicide of all industry sectors, at nearly 85 per 100,000 population in 2012.

Harding said other demographics increase the risk of suicide in rural communities: Those affected by the economic downturn are mostly white and mostly male and are more likely to carry a firearm – all correlated with higher risk of suicide. Their location does not help either. Long mountain passes and vast open spaces make access to mental health services difficult, particularly in the winter.

“I think that isolation is always a factor in depression,” Harding said.

Reaching out

Funding for the expansion, which includes training costs, overtime and the potential hire of more counselors, comes from the state legislation signed in May that earmarked $7 million to expand the crisis system, said Marquez of Rocky Mountain Crisis Partners.

But Harding and others said the most difficult challenge is on farmers themselves: finding the strength to reach out.

“If you think about the population of folks who might be farmers and ranchers, they are pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps (people) and taking care of business,” Harding said. “It’s probably not the first thing that comes to their mind to say, ‘I need help.’ ”

Miller, too, worries farmers won’t call.

“They won’t tell anybody. I’ve seen it firsthand,” he said. “… You always think there’s going to be that one year (that will make up for the many tough ones). But I’m a forever optimist.”

To contact the crisis hotline, call 844-493-8255 or text TALK to 38255.

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