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Farming in Tough Times program deals with stress, promotes resiliency

Farm stress. Mental well-being. Building resilience. These are tough subjects to discuss. We may not know what to say about them, or how to bring them up in a respectful and constructive way. However, even having those conversations is a critical step in the right direction.

It is no secret that things can be tough for farmers right now, and ignoring the issues only makes them worse. Talking about the uncomfortable stuff—like mental health—helps make it more comfortable. That was the purpose of the “Farming in Tough Times” Extension program I hosted in Sauk Centre on December 7. Over 80 producers, agricultural professionals and community members attended. The meeting was focused on farm stress, mental well-being and building resilience.

Positive psychology

I started the day by talking about positive psychology, which is the study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive. Positive psychology focuses on intentional well-being and leading a meaningful and fulfilling life.

I was recently told, “It’s hard to pour from an empty cup,” meaning it is difficult for us to take care of others when we are not our best selves. We need to make sure our own well-being is taken care of first, before we can truly help others. Positive psychology is a way to do that. By focusing on positive emotions, engagement, positive relationships, meaning, and accomplishment (known as the PERMA model), we are able to really thrive.


Using the concepts of positive psychology, we are able to help build resilience, another major topic of the December 7 event. Dennis Hoiberg with Lessons Learnt Consulting presented on “Resilience in the Face of Change.”

Resilience was defined as our ability to bounce forward and thrive through change and challenge. Dennis emphasized that poor mental well-being and physical health can negatively impact our ability to maintain resilience. We need to make a choice at well-being: will we accept our emotions and feelings in order to grow emotionally and build resilience, or will we underplay what has happened, which could lead to poor emotional well-being and even depression?

The HOPE model

Dennis introduced his HOPE model: Habits, Optimism, Plan, Enact. By focusing on HOPE, we are able to build better resilience and set ourselves up for success.

  • Habits are all about the things we do every day that align with our values and goals. The way we fuel ourselves (food, water, and sleep), our health, our environment, and our connectivity are all habits we should hone in a positive manner.
  • Optimism, in the HOPE model, focuses on purposeful optimism rather than just positive thinking. Purposeful optimists maintain a realistic view of situations and are able to keep things in perspective.
  • Plans help us see our goals through to fruition. Without a plan in place, our goals are simply thoughts or wishes.
  • Enact in the HOPE model is what pushes us to action. We cannot just want something, we need to work towards it with action.

Having HOPE (Habits, Optimism, Plan, Enact) will help us build resilience and be able to cope with the many changes and challenges of life.

Recognizing stress

Even the most resilient people can, at times, succumb to circumstances outside of their control. The number of factors farmers face every day is staggering, and sometimes it can be too much. Farming in Tough Times wanted to discuss these issues head-on, starting with a conversation about recognizing stress.

There are many behavioral and physical signs of stress. Some of the behavior signs include a loss of interest in life, irritability, poor concentration, feeling sad, feeling anxious, relationship problems, and increased smoking and/or drinking. Physical signs of stress include poor sleep, weight loss or gain, chest pain, and poor hygiene. If you notice these symptoms in yourself or someone else, it can be hard to know what to do.

Talk to someone and find help

If you are worried about your own stress or mental well-being, know that you are not alone. Talking to someone about how you have been feeling is a great first step in finding help and getting better. You can reach out to a loved one, friend, clergy member, or your medical provider. You can also contact a mental health counselor.

If you are concerned about someone else, it can be hard to bring it up to them. However, bringing it up will let them know you care about them and are concerned, and can be a step towards them getting the help they need.

If you are not sure what to say, here are three simple statements and questions from mentalhealth.gov that can help you start the conversation:

  • I've been worried about you. Can we talk about what you are experiencing? If not, who are you comfortable talking to?
  • I am someone who cares and wants to listen. What do you want me to know about how you are feeling?
  • It seems like you are going through a difficult time. How can I help you to find help?

Our mental health and well-being can be uncomfortable to discuss, but by sharing honestly and openly about it and our concerns, we are able to foster comfortable conversations.

It's okay to not be okay

The meeting on December 7 concluded with a powerful producer panel. Mark Koehn, Brenda Miller, Meg Moynihan, and Brenda Rudolph shared stories of loss, fear, and failure. Their stories also included faith, hope, love and recovery.

The overarching theme of the panel, and the day as a whole, was that it is okay to not be okay. It is okay to have a bad day, to feel anxious, to be depressed. What is not okay is to get stuck in that cycle and allow yourself to become consumed by hopelessness. Every single one of the panelists discussed the ways they have found help: whether that was through a conversation with their clergy member, seeking counseling, or taking medication.

The panelists were asked what one piece of advice they would share with someone going through a similar situation. All four responded with the same answer: talk to someone. Tell someone you trust how you are feeling. You do not need to go through this alone. There are so many people in our lives that care about us and are more than willing to listen to us.

If you are not comfortable talking to someone you know, you can always call the Farm and Rural Helpline, 24 hours a day at 833-600-2670.

If you are interested in additional resources on this topic or would like to talk, you can contact me at 320-255-6169, ext. 3 or krek0033@umn.edu. You can also visit minnesotafarmstress.com for more information.

I would like to thank Minnesota Dairy Initiative-Central Region for their support of this program.

Emily Wilmes is an Extension educator in Agricultural Production Systems, specializing in livestock. She works in Stearns County.

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