In the Midst of Natural and Economic Turmoil, Farmers Battle Internal Storms
Chris Dykshorn made the most of running his family farm. But the economic and physical stress of the work took their toll. Now Dykshorn’s wife, Amber, is telling her story to raise awareness of the mental-health needs of farmers and their families during uncertain times.
A cold, blizzard-filled winter, wet spring, stormy summer and uncertain fall have compounded farmers’ market instability stress in the Midwest, raising concern for their mental health.
Chris Dykshorn was among the farmers feeling the crunch in South Dakota this year. The 35-year-old from the southeastern part of the state began his farming venture just five years ago, as his dad moved into retirement. His wife, Amber Dykshorn, admitted recently that the transition made her nervous, but farming brought her husband joy.
“It was really hard for me, not knowing what our income was going to be. Up until that point, the whole time we were married, we worked ‘day jobs’ with W-2s. You worked your hours and you got paid and you got holidays. It was a big change,” she said.
The couple entered farming a few years after the record-breaking crop prices of 2012. “We’ve never heard of $7 corn. When we started out, it was $3 corn. We never got the highs like that. … Other people have some reserve to go on, whereas we don’t have that.”
Though Chris came into farming in tough times, he made the most of it. In April, the couple met with their banker to review their 2018 finances, and Chris was proud to report the farm had had a good year. Soon after, however, as the rain continued to fall over the prairies that had been riddled with frequent, longer, colder, snowier blizzards than usual, things began to change.
April 18, Chris was milking a cow that struggled to feed her calf. She kicked him in the face, throwing him across the barn. He hit his head on the wall, sustained a large bruise on his face and broke out his front teeth. After the accident, Amber said Chris struggled more than usual with the stresses of farming.
Suicide Prevention Resources
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 (24 hours)
Crisis Text Line: 741-741 (24 hours)
Farm Aid farmer hotline: 1-800-327-6243 (Monday through Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Eastern)
Avera Farmer Stress Hotline (South Dakota residents): 1-800-691-4336 (24 hours)
National Farmers Union Farm Crisis Center
Suicide warning signs: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
“You could just see him progressively go downhill. I’ll bet he lost 25 pounds” in three weeks, Amber said. “It was very fast. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Chris struggled with sleep. June 6, his 35th birthday, Chris sat up in bed at 2 a.m., crying out to God in anger, according to his wife.
“He knew that he needed sleep to feel better,” she said.
The following day, as Amber left for an appointment with two of their children, Chris reiterated his wish to die. She made sure Chris’ dad would be with him at the farm that day and awoke their son before she left. As she drove, she called the local clinic, a part of the Avera network. They activated the Farmer Stress Hotline, and the sheriff transported Chris to the local hospital. A friend later transported him 100 miles west of Platte to Avera Behavioral Health in Sioux Falls. When he was released three days later, Amber said Chris was anxious about returning home, but his doctor assured him those feelings were normal.
“I’ve been at Avera Behavioral Health twice myself,” said Amber, who has struggled with depression since her teen years. “I knew it was normal to be nervous, because (you’re going back to) everything that caused you to feel down.”
That evening, the family enjoyed some time together, but the next day, Chris returned to his spiral. He texted Amber throughout the day about equipment troubles at the farm. When she returned from work that evening, Chris told Amber he could no longer deal with the stress. They talked for a bit before he disked the field adjacent to their driveway and she mowed the grass.
“It felt so good to see him in that field,” Amber said. “It made me happy.”
But as rain clouds rolled in again, so did Chris’ anxiety.
“He came around to the back of the house and dropped to his knees,” insisting the stress was too much, Amber recalled.
She finished mowing just as the rain began, then prepared a quick supper for her family. Chris was quiet as he ate. Afterward, the couple split chore duties as they normally did, finishing in the sheep barn. Noticing her husband was withdrawn, Amber asked what was on his mind.
“Everything,” he told her.
They discussed ideas for saving their livelihood, including selling some of their assets and Chris going to work for another farmer until things turned around. They decided to watch a movie together, then continue the conversation the following day, but Chris was in bed when Amber got into the house. That night, like those before it, Chris was restless. He left the bedroom early in the morning. Amber thought he was dressing for chores in the porch. Soon, she found out he was instead rifling through the gun safe.
“My pastor pointed out that he was up early, and the sunrise was so beautiful that morning, and he still couldn’t see the light,” Amber said, adding that Chris often photographed sunrises and sunsets to share with friends and family, saying they were his favorite part of farm life.
Amber believes her husband’s battle with depression was short-lived, and possibly induced by an undiagnosed head injury from the accident. After Chris returned home from the hospital just days before his death, he’d promised he would keep himself safe, and Amber found papers, including scripture verses, that he’d clung to during his hospitalization and afterward, looking for a way out of the stress.
“He was a very truthful man, so it had to be a last-minute decision. I know it wasn’t planned until the morning it happened,” she said. “When I opened up his phone … the last search he did was to the Farmers Stress Hotline” before taking his own life June 13, Amber, said. “He knew what to think about to get through it, but he just couldn’t get out of the darkness.”
Now navigating single parenthood with three children, ages 12, 10 and 5, Amber seeks to raise awareness about farmer depression and suicide to help other families avoid facing the same fate.
“What’s hardest for me is that there isn’t going to be active farming that my son can be a part of,” she said.
A few weeks before her husband’s death, the couple’s son wrote a paper at school about wanting to be a farmer like his dad.
But her advice to her husband just over a month ago is what she tells her kids in the hard moments: “Things will get better. We will get through this.”
Hotline Offers Help, Hope
South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem echoed Amber Dykshorn’s comment that “together, we will get through this” in a promotional video for the Avera Farmer Stress Hotline.
“What we’re seeing now are historically tough times. Flood damage, wet fields, a difficult and unpredictable ag climate — it can all add up to a heavy burden of stress,” Noem, herself a lifelong farmer and rancher, said. “If you or someone you know just needs to talk, or you need help with stress or mental health resources, call this hotline. It’s free and confidential. … Together, we will get through this.”
Avera initiated its Farmer Stress Hotline (1-800-691-4336, 24 hours a day) in February, in response to declining commodity markets and economic uncertainty. Avera Behavioral Health has seen an uptick in its utilization as 2019 progresses, according to Amber Reints, a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner at the Sioux Falls, South Dakota, facility.
The National Farmers Union also has fielded more calls regarding farmer mental health. They directitheir callers to the Farm Aid crisis line (800-327-6243, Monday-Friday 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Eastern). Both programs employ the help of counselors who identify caller needs and refer them for further help.
“The farm economy continues to falter, with no immediate sign of improvement,” said Farm Aid’s Jennifer Fahy. “Calls to Farm Aid’s hotline continue at a blistering pace.”
Depressed farmers are at increased risk of suicide, according to Reints, due to the nature of their profession. Often, they are isolated from mental health providers. Many are unable to get away for traditional-style appointments. And some do not have the luxury of affordable group health insurance, so the cost of mental healthcare is prohibitive.
Plus, “a lot of their time is spent alone. Sometimes, when you have more time to reflect on the stressors that you’re going through, that can be a lot more difficult,” she said. “We wanted to really do what we could to decrease any barriers that would stop them from being able to get the mental health treatment that they needed.”
In South Dakota, the Avera hotline is available at no charge 24 hours a day to farmers, their families and South Dakotans in ag-related occupations. The hotline connects participants to service providers who listen to the farmers’ concerns, help identify their needs, and direct them to appropriate resources.
“We really want people to understand that they don’t have to go through it alone, and sometimes we have things that we can’t get through alone. We have to seek professional help and talk through this,” Reints said. “I think the message really needs to be that it can affect anybody.”
Often farmers assume their neighbors aren’t struggling because they don’t see the effects of the battle.
“We have to keep in mind that all of us are different, all of us are going through different stressors, (and) this is affecting all of us different ways,” Reints said.
Reints said callers to Avera’s hotline range from brand new farmers to those nearing retirement. Some are experiencing mental-health difficulties for the first time, while the symptoms of chronic depression for others have been exacerbated by the current farm economy.
Former South Dakota Secretary of Agriculture Walt Bones, a member of the Avera Foundation Board of Directors, helped the nonprofit healthcare provider develop the hotline and is helping them seek U.S. Department of Agriculture funding to expand the program.
USDA will award $2 million in additional funding to farmer mental-health programs this year as part of the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network grant program. (The deadline for applications is July 25, 2019. See related story.)
Forty-five years into his own farming career, Bones said this season can be overwhelming to younger farmers, who didn’t see the struggles of the older generations.
“My grandfather made it through the ’30s. My dad made it through the ’80s. We all-of-a-sudden think that maybe … our ability to deal with some of those challenges is insufficient. That can put a lot of pressure on folks,” he said, but it’s important that farmers take the opportunity to seek help in overcoming challenges that are beyond their control. “It’s not necessarily bad management, nor a bad job of farming, but if the weather is a challenge, sometimes the timing is just wrong. You can’t foresee that.”
Bones said he empathizes with younger farmers.
“The cost of entry was high, they probably leveraged to the hilt, and then they hit this low crop cycle and the weather and all these different challenges,” he said, adding that it’s reminiscent of what he saw in the 1980s. “People were flying pretty high, so they got in because the young people saw opportunity, kind of like they did five to 10 years ago. Things were rolling along pretty good, with a lot of opportunity” before the commodity markets dropped out.
But the difference between the 1980s and now is that land values and interest rates have remained stable. Interest rates in the 1980s were 15-18 percent, and land values dipped 50 percent within three years, putting asset-to-liability ratios at a dangerous level.
“We haven’t seen that yet, and I’m not sure that we will,” Bones said. “There’s still a pretty good demand for land. The land values are staying pretty constant, and the interest rates are still staying pretty low.”
Passing Down Legacy, Lessons
In South Dakota, where 97 percent of farms are still family-owned, the desire to hand the legacy down to the next generation can be overwhelming.
“This is their life. Many of them live on … their father’s farm or their grandfather’s farm, where they’re trying to hold on for their son to be able to farm,” Reints said. “Some of the farmers who have been at it a little longer are at the point that they’re wanting to retire and have something to pass on,” but they can’t imagine passing the struggle on to the next generation.
Bones, who operates a fifth-generation farm and ranch with his brothers and nephews outside Parker, South Dakota, said he understands that sentiment.
“We’ve still got assets, but … if you’re a farmer my age … how long do you want to bleed before you say, ‘Enough is enough?’” he said. “If you’ve got kids that are already farming with you or would like to … that’s a whole other dynamic that gets piled on top of it.”
But the older generation may not realize that, in the struggle, they are giving their offspring a gift that will help them in their own careers.
“When you’ve got to make some tough choices, you do learn. In some respects, I’m glad my nephews have to go through this,” Bones said. “I still remember my dad pounding his fist on the table” when the bank suggested he sell land in the 1980s, “saying, ‘I will not sell the factory. How are we going to work our way out of this if we sell the factory?’”
The Bones ranch operates more conservatively now, and they are trying to teach their heirs to do the same.
“You’ve got to live within your means,” Bones said. “It’s hard to give up living expenses when the neighbor has a new house and a new boat and a new four-wheel-drive pickup, but … living expenses are a huge part of the financial stability of the farm.”
Continued Struggle Predicted
Experts in the Midwest predict the struggles will persist for the foreseeable future.
“Unfortunately, I think this fall … has an opportunity to be pretty brutal,” as farmers start to feel the effects of months of lost commodities and ranchers face the burden of entering a breeding season with depleted feed stores and, for some, cows that aren’t in condition to breed.
“When the animal’s always wet” like they were in South Dakota all winter and spring, “they’re requiring a lot more energy to keep themselves warm, let alone take care of a calf, let alone try to get into condition again to re-breed,” Bones said.
His ranch fed cattle twice as many grains last season than is normal.
“This spring was brutal for the cow/calf guys in particular,” he said. “Our cows are full, but they couldn’t eat enough, so we went to distillers grains. … That’s expensive.”
A recent USDA change should help some, however. Bones was among lobbyists asking the agency to change across-the-board foraging harvest and grazing dates from Nov. 1 to Sept. 1 in order to better meet the needs of all livestock producers.
“There would probably be an opportunity to harvest some good, quality forage if you lived in Texas, but up here in the North Country, we’re lucky if we’re not covered up with snow by the first of November, let alone trying to harvest any feed that would have any value,” he said. The change “gave us a new breath of fresh air, so now we can go out and try to plant some of these cover crops and harvest them.”
For crop-only farmers, it could mean a much-needed new revenue stream this season, if they can get seed in the ground soon, in order to allow 60 days of germination before the first frost. Bones said his team is “still optimistic” that the 600 acres of unplanted ground can be used this year, and he hopes others don’t lose hope, either.
“It’s tough, but I don’t think all hope is lost,” said Bones. “Tough times will pass.”
And ag workers should take solace, he said, that the practice of farming involves diverse skill sets.
“We know the land, but we also know how to run equipment. We know how to fix things. We can weld. We can be an electrician if we need to. We can be a mechanic if we need to. But we also just love to farm,” he said. “We’re blessed with a good jobs market here, so maybe a guy could hold onto the land and rent it to somebody and try to get their feet established again and turn around and start the actual farming again. But there’s an extreme amount of pressure on folks who are trying to make it work.”
Reporter Bryce Oates contributed to this story.