(KMSP) - There's a solitude in farm fields that suits most farmers just fine. It's a proud, dawn until dusk way of life that values less talking, more doing. The work is grueling. There are no sick days, no excuses and these days no cash flow.
“For many of us in the dairy industry, we go everyday knowing that we're not making a profit," said Paul Wright, who runs a small dairy farm near Hutchinson, Minnesota.
Wright says even when they're doing everything right, farmers are still at the mercy of the weather, family dynamics, the markets and loan officers. Depression is common and so is denial.
“Taking time to think about how much of a toll this is having on myself is definitely gonna be at the bottom of my list,” Wright said.
That toll has gone from a problem to an epidemic. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2016 farming saw the most suicides of any profession. As startling as that sounds, experts say it's actually worse.
“For every suicide that happens there are 25 attempts,” said Ted Matthews.
Matthews hasn't farmed a day in his life, but few people know more about desperation on the farm. Matthews is a psychologist—the only one in the country whose job is to travel the state, providing free counseling to farmers.
“Truthfully as high as the rate is, it's even higher than the statistics that they show because some farm accidents are actually suicides,” Matthews said. “Now, how many? Obviously, we could never prove that because they're accidents. But all farmers know that that happens.”
Over the years, Matthews has had these tough conversations with hundreds of farmers.
“The reason this program works is because other people say, ‘well I trust Ted [Matthews]’ and ‘let's talk to Ted he'll know more about this than I do,’" he said.
Those other people are farm management instructors. There are about 70 of them across the state. They are on the front lines in these communities, helping farmers navigate everything from loans to family conflicts.
Jim Molenaar has worked with farmers his entire career.
“If we realize that I'm getting in over my head as their advisor and instructor, I've got some place to turn,” said Molenaar, who met Matthews about 20 years ago.
Matthews was concerned because he never once saw a farmer in his practice.
“The discussion kind of went… 'well, I have the best luck when we don't call me a counselor,'” Molenaar recalled. “It's just another person to meet with you at the kitchen table to talk over an issue you're having at the farm.”
Soon, their vision turned into a state-funded, full-time therapist position. Now all they needed were clients.
“I have never talked to anyone in my life that said a farmer picked up a phone and said ‘I need to call a psychologist.’ Never heard of it,” Matthews said.
In fact, it would take years before Ted made inroads with farmers. He had to prove that there was no catch.
“Remember I can do a lot more than most therapists can do because I'm freed up with. I don't have the paperwork others have. I can get a five minute, 10 minute, 15 minute phone call from people. I don't have to have them come into an office. I don't have to give them a diagnosis,” Matthews said.
When asked if Matthews has saved lives, Molenaar said, “I'm sure he has. I know personally when he's had two suicides someone's threatened or is in crisis at the same time and they could be hundreds of miles apart.”
“This is a public health issue, this is not an agricultural issue,” said Dave Fredrickson, Minnesota's Agriculture Commissioner.
Fredrickson is also a fourth generation farmer. When asked if he ever stopped to think about his mental health when he was on the farm, he said, “No because I'm a guy. Tough guy you know, you just kind of blow your nose and wipe your sleeve with your hanky and keep going.”
Until one day, he went to the doctor with a pain in his stomach. It was an ulcer.
“I remember at that moment all of a sudden just not being able to hold it together and I just broke down, tears. And he said, 'we can also help with that, too,'” Fredrickson said.
“The value of it is always after the fact,” Matthews said. “When it comes to mental health in general, how do people know they're being helped? Well, they know it after.”
There are resources out there for farmers—24/7 hotlines and even trained sheriff's deputies who are ready to respond in every county. But for real change to happen, Matthews believes farmers need to put more stock in their mental health and apply their unwavering work ethic to their well-being.
"I appreciate all the clients I have,” Matthews said. “They're salt of the earth people and it makes me proud to work with them and the fact that they trust me makes my responsibility much higher.”
Matthews works with farmers across the entire state. To learn more about his services click here or call 320-266-2390.
There are also free confidential services available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Farm and Rural Helpline. Farmers and rural Minnesotans can call the helpline at 1-800-600-2670.