Farming and ranching have always been considered risky. But more extreme weather events, low prices and uncertainty have led to higher rates of bankruptcy and suicide across the U.S. Recently 700 women ag producers gathered in locations across six western states to learn about ways to reduce stress on farms and ranches.
Some of the attendees in Great Falls said the event focused too much on mindfulness and less on actually tackling what they consider to be their biggest concerns.
A dozen women and a baby are at Northwest Farm Credit Services in Great Falls Saturday morning. They grab a cup of coffee from a table in the back or sip from Starbucks cups they picked up on their drive into town.
Most of them traveled several hours for the annual Women in Agriculture Conference, which is led by Washington State University Extension.
Keynote speakers, like Shauna Reitmeier, CEO of Northwestern Mental Health Center in Minnesota, are live-streamed to over 30 locations across the Pacific Northwest, Alaska and Hawaii.
“A healthy you is going to mean a healthy farm. So today we want to talk about the role that stress plays in your life as a farmer. The mindfulness practices that you can do can also help mitigate stress,” Reitmeier says.
Most of the sessions focus on understanding how stress affects a person’s brain and why reaching out to a friend during a tough time, expressing gratitude and deep breathing have all been shown to help counter that.
But by the end of the conference, many of the attendees say the information isn’t exactly new to them and that they were expecting something more.
Kris Descheemaeker is part of a multi-family operation near Lewistown that grows small grains and raises cattle.
“The information presented today is useful in everyday life, for sure, but I thought there would be a little more pertaining specifically to farming and ranching because our industry is so different from the general public, and the stress can be a lot higher," she says.
Cyndi Johnson grows small grains and pulse crops with her husband east of Conrad. She says she often worries about rising suicide rates in central Montana.
“We all have concerns about our neighbors and we all kind of keep an eye out for one another,” Johnson says.
She says farming and ranching are “gambling lifestyles,” which means there’s a lot of added stress and uncertainty.
“You don’t know what your product’s going to look like. You don’t know what kind of value it will have. You know that you have some major input costs in order to grow it or produce it," she explains. "You know that you’re really at the mercy of the market that’s being controlled by someone else.”
Many of the women in Great Falls Saturday say they’re concerned about the rising cost of equipment: A combine can be $500,000 to $800,000. Others talk about unpredictable weather that can kill their cattle and pigs.
But the topic that keeps coming up is succession planning, figuring out how to prepare for the day when the main person running the farm or ranch retires or dies. Having those discussions and making business decisions with people who are also part of the family can be a really delicate issue to navigate.
Maureen Wicks, a Liberty County Commissioner, says she and her son started farming together near the town of Ledger when her husband passed away 14 years ago. She says it was rough for the first couple of years, but with some help from friends and neighbors, good communication and an openness to try new things, like getting into the organic industry, they were able to make it through the transition.
“It was a learning experience," Wicks says. "We definitely had to try a lot of new things to get them to work.”
Wicks says going to Montana’s Next Generation Conference, an event hosted by farm services around Shelby, was also really helpful.
“I think their financial workshops are good for young people just getting started," Wicks notes. "They’re also good for the older generation to have a chance to talk and to hear about the different models that are out there for transferring your farm and get a firm financial background on how you want to do that.”
The annual conference will take place this Friday and Saturday. Northwest Farm Credit Services also hosts succession planning workshops in the late fall and winter.
Cyndi Johnson, the farmer from Conrad, says regular meet-ups like these often offer more than what’s listed on the agenda.
“It’s important to talk to one another, to communicate, and that is going to be the biggest key for all of us to be successful and find less stress in order to be able to cope.”