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Erin Brown / Grand Vale Creative

The suicide of a farmer is one too many

If you're involved in Upper Midwest agriculture — or even if you're not — you may have heard about a surge in farmer suicides. Sometimes statistics are tricky to interpret, but it seems fairly clear that more farmers are taking their own lives.

That's alarming, or should be, to all of us involved in ag. The suicide of even one farmer is one too many.

In a separate news story in this issue of Agweek, Sean Brotherson, North Dakota State University extension service family science specialist, gives his insights into what's happening and how to combat it. Brotherson is highly knowledgeable about rural life and mental health; I've been getting valuable information from him for many years. I encourage you to read the story.

Every suicide is unique, of course. Farmers are individual human beings, with differing personalities, hopes and fears, satisfactions and frustrations. What drives one farmer to take his or her life is never quite the same as what motivates another farmer to do so.

But the struggling U.S. ag economy surely is a major factor overall. Substitute "ailing" or "sluggish" or another word if you prefer; whatever term you use, poor crop prices and low farm profitability definitely are hurting the finances and mental health of many farm operators.

Drought in parts of the Upper Midwest is a component, too. It adds to the "powerlessness" and "hopelessness" that Brotherson and others say lead farmers and ranchers to consider suicide.

Poor economic conditions and drought, especially in combination, are insidious and corrosive. Hour after hour, day after day, they gnaw at you — financially, physically, mentally and emotionally. They demoralize; they depress; they twist your thinking. They can cause you to consider taking your own life and can even push you to do it.

It's tempting for the rest to us to ignore the problem or simply hope that drought will end and crop prices will rebound. Whether we're preoccupied with our own challenges or concerned that offering help may be interpreted as meddling, we don't get involved.

But the lives of our fellow agriculturalists are precious. We have an obligation to them, and ourselves, to do the right thing.

And that's "being a good neighbor," as Brotherson puts it. Watch whether friends, neighbors and family members show signs of stress or depression. If they do, talk with them. Encourage them to seek help, or, in extreme cases, get help for them. One example of many: All 50 states use the 2-1-1 telephone code to offer programs that deal with suicidal thoughts and mental health issues.

Story I want to write

English poet John Donne came up with a magnificent line centuries ago. The gender-specific terminology may annoy the politically correct, but his message holds true. He wrote, "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind."

To those of us in Upper Midwest ag, I humbly offer this adaptation: "Any farmer's suicide diminishes me, because I am involved in agriculture."

My hope is that in a year or so I can write a story that begins, "What had been a surge in farmer suicides seems to have subsided."

I'm sure it's a story you'd like to read. But to make it happen, we need to be good neighbors.