Iowa farming community to benefit from expanding grants for mental health programs

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The phone number for the Iowa Concern Hotline, a hotline dedicated to providing mental health support to farmers, is 800-447-1985 – the last four digits symbolize a year during one of the most great agricultural crises in Iowa.

The hotline, among other similar organizations across the state, will receive part of a $ 500,000 grant from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship in partnership with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. The hotline is managed by the UIS Extension and Outreach Office.

UIS vice president for extension and outreach John Lawrence said the hotline was born in the 1980s when there was an increase in stress and suicide among farmers.

In 1985, the United States suffered an economic crisis, drastically raising interest rates and particularly affecting farmers in the Midwest. According to Iowa PBS, the country’s farm debt in 1984 was double what it was in 1978, and net farm income rose from $ 19 billion in 1950 to $ 5.4 billion in 1984.

“Having one place, one place that people could call, especially the farming community, was important,” Lawrence said. “We have had this service for a long time.

He said the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, the Iowa Agricultural Bureau and Corn Growers, among other organizations, would point to the hotline over the years as a source for farmers facing financial, legal or emotional stress.

According to the ministry’s press release, the grant establishes the farm-to-table working group to develop strategies to improve the table-top supply chain and facilitate market access and product sales.

Lawerence said the grant will allow the university to train people across the state who are involved in the hotline program. He said staff members will network on a weekly basis, whether through ISU extension offices or other venues like the Rotary Club banquet or pork producers.

Steve Swenka poses for a portrait in front of a tractor at Double G Angus Farms in Tiffin on Tuesday, October 12, 2021. (Jerod Ringwald)

“The farming community and the farmers in particular are a kind of Stoic, independent [type], often working alone, and they will just work harder until things get better, ”he said. “But mental health, just like other health issues, if you ignore it, it probably won’t improve.”

ISU outreach and outreach specialist David Brown said the grant will help pay eight different counterparts across the state to raise awareness in the farming community, such as co-ops, churches and clinics. The Extension and Outreach division offers six different programs across the state that farm families can participate in at no cost, he said.

Brown added that one of his goals is to recruit people involved in agriculture themselves to teach the program’s new training courses.

RELATED: College of Public Health examines farmers’ mental health issues

Hotline reaches farmers in need

Brown said a moment that remained to him was when Lawrence told him about a conversation with a farmer considering suicide who called the Iowa Concern hotline at 2 a.m. and who didn’t didn’t want to contact his friends or family for fear of waking them up.

“He actually found an Iowa Concern magnet on his refrigerator,” Brown said. “So he called at 2:00 am and was able to talk to someone and get some resources. He chose not to attempt suicide solely through certain resources provided by Extension and Outreach. “

Tammy Jacobs, ISU Outreach and Outreach Hotline coordinator, said those working on the hotline are paid employees and the team currently has 10 members.

She said when people call the hotline, they are asked for their zip code to collect demographic data on who is calling from which county and to determine what resources are available in those areas.

“We don’t have a script,” Jacobs said. “After that [getting their zip code], it just goes with the flow of what the caller wants to visit.

Jacobs said the hotline receives about 600 to 800 calls per month from all states across the country, not just Iowa. Over the past year, the hotline has received 50 calls from Johnson County farmers and their families, she said.

“Usually, calls at this time of year go down a bit. Several reasons are that the farmers are in the fields to harvest, so they are busy, ”she said. “… In the spring, when it comes to sowing and getting ready to sow, then we see that call volume drop again. So it’s kind of a roller coaster.

In an interview with The Iowan Daily, Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig said farmers are at a higher risk of mental health and stress given the fluctuating nature of agricultural markets.

“Uncertainty in markets and weather conditions in agriculture can also be an isolating activity,” Naig said. “You often work alone. So we just think that this justifies or is a good reason to step up efforts to reach out to these people and provide them with even more resources. “

Brown said that over the past five to ten years there have been multiple economic concerns related to export controls around the world.

“Prices dropped dramatically a few years ago when it comes to grain, corn, soybean prices, especially in Iowa,” Brown said. “Farmers have had a tough few years… now the grain chunks have increased over the past year which is good. Sadly, with COVID we are currently facing higher input prices… it seems our farmers can’t get a break. “

Jacobs said the goal of the hotline staff is to provide advice and tools, rather than to provide professional help.

“We’re not the solvers and we’re not going to make everything better, you know,” she said. “But depending on the situation, as it unfolds, and they’re stressed out, we’re going to talk, we’re going to listen, we’re going to give them tools to help them get through that. Stress.”

She added that one of the things the team is constantly working on is finding quality counseling options in the areas of greatest demand, making sure those providing support are familiar with the farming community.

Steve Swenka is feeding his yearling Angus bulls at Double G Angus Farms in Tiffin on Tuesday, October 12, 2021. Swenka said he grows his own corn to feed the bulls. (Jérôme Ringwald)

The most common group of farmers affected by mental health issues are those with children aged 10 to 14, Brown said, and those who rent their land rather than own it, putting them in debt.

“We found that this program was a significant factor in the potential opportunities for drug use by the adolescents who participated in the program,” said Brown. “Very broadly, [ISU’s] research [program] is probably the best prevention program, certainly in the country, if not in the world. “

Naig said the grant will help train past and current staff to recognize when someone is in crisis and develop tools or information for those providing advice to farmers.

“It’s to improve, really, it’s not to create something terribly new,” Naig said. “We’ve had the Iowa Concern Hotline for many years, going back to the 1980s… it’s about promoting, expanding and improving what has once been a good base of support for people. “

Naig added that the grant will help develop the state’s agricultural training program and a new online program that will have a consistent list of all the resources available to farmers.

“For me it has to be a combination of one, making sure the farmers themselves have better access or more knowledge of the resources available,” Naig said. “So, of course, that’s important, but also then train the trainer. Make sure those who work with farmers are equipped and understand some of the unique characteristics of a farmer or farm operation.

The profession of farmer like no other

Steve Swenka, a Johnson County farmer who lives in Tiffin, Iowa, said working as a farmer is different from other jobs, which makes it a challenge. He specializes primarily in purebred cattle and spends his days doing housework and harvesting corn and other grains.

“It’s definitely not a 9:00 am to 5:00 pm job, or a five-day-a-week job,” Swenka said. “It’s kind of a 24/7 job… you can definitely see where there could be a lot of stress and things like that could develop. “

He said that in the middle of the harvest season – which takes place mainly in October – and in the spring, 18-hour work days are quite common, and there is no day off.

Swenka described the agricultural economy as a “roller coaster ride”.

“You will have good years, you will have bad years. On a positive note… right now we’re more on the climax of the roller coaster, ”he said. “The grain prices are very, very attractive right now, maybe some of the best prices we’ve seen in some time. “

He said he had not been aware of the hotline before the Agriculture Department announced the grant and its media exposure. He said media covering the expansion subsidy program raised awareness not only himself, but other farmers as well.

“There is naturally a need, you know, especially a job like farming and as stressful as it can be, especially at certain times of the year,” Swenka said. “When the grant was awarded and it increased awareness among the population, I think more than anything, it kind of helped remove some of the stigma that was associated with mental health-type resources. “


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