ROCHESTER, Minn. — Farm advocates and rural mental health specialists with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture are still available to visit with farmers in crisis.

The Farm Advocate Program has been supported by the Minnesota Ag Department since 1984, and provides one-on-one assistance for the state's farmers in crisis. Farm advocates are trained and experienced in agricultural lending practices, mediation, lender negotiation, farm programs, crisis counseling and disaster programs.

Wayne Pike is a farm advocate based in Rochester, who's been in that role since July. Before that he was a farm business management instructor for more than 40 years.

Pike said there's been no uptick in cases with his clients related to the pandemic, but it's been discussed in almost all of his cases.

And the virus has complicated the work of farm advocates, as Pike said they are no longer meeting face-to-face with farmers.

"I think in general, farmers like to meet face-to-face," said Pike. "That was kind of a critical aspect, especially when we do mediations and things like that, and now we aren't going to do that."

Farmers can still contact farm advocates and setup meetings over the phone and via online conferencing.

On March 24, all the farm advocates had a conference call with the Minnesota Ag Commissioner Thom Petersen and his deputies, said Pike.

"There are people working hard at the state-level to really help us," said Pike. "That should be a positive thing for us to think about."

Monica Kramer McConkey became the second rural mental health specialist for the Minnesota Department of Ag this past fall. She said her caseload has already grown a lot since then.

"With farmers, there is a lot of trust to build when you're entering their world," said McConkey of her role. "But since I grew up on a farm and have a farming background, that's helped breakdown barriers pretty quickly."

McConkey and Ted Matthews are contracted to work with farmers throughout Minnesota at no cost and with no paperwork. McConkey serves the area north of Highway 12 (which runs from Ortonville through Willmar to the Twin Cities), while Matthews serves the area south of Highway 12.

An average day for the MDA's rural mental health specialists includes taking calls from farmers and meeting with them in person, said McConkey.

Because McConkey is contracted, she said she doesn't necessarily have direct instructions on when she needs to cease person-to-person visits.

"Right now, as long as everybody that I'm seeing is feeling OK, I've been going out to farms and meeting with them," she said.

If a "shelter in place" order were to come down from the governor, that would change. She would then move to meeting with clients via online conferencing or phone.

"And if I'm not hearing from some folks at this time, I'm texting with them just to check in, and see how they're doing," she said. "It's just checking in on each other and keeping those lines of communication open as much as you can."

It's difficult for everyone living in a world with a pandemic, said McConkey, but especially for farmers with spring's work right around the corner and lots of corn still left to be harvested in Minnesota. She said it's important to still find those other things to keep your hands and your mind busy.

"So you're not spending that time worrying, or anticipating the worst," she said. "It's important to every day have your list of to-do's and check them off to see you're making progress."

McConkey said she hasn't noticed an uptick in pandemic-related calls, but has noticed an uptick in stress-related cases. She said in some cases, the two things are related.

McConkey said when a spouse who works off the farm has their job cut or loses a business, it's a significant source of income lost.

"The current trend in ag is that it's been that off-farm employment that's kept things going, and paid the household bills," said McConkey. "That is definitely a stressor for some of the folks I'm working with."

Stability for kids

The other stressor McConkey said she's noticed lately, which is directly related to the pandemic, has been the kids in farm families. She said there's been some anxiety with kids home from school and schedules up in the air.

"Things are not as stable as they were, as far as kids knowing what their day is gong to look like," she said. "And you have parents trying to run the farm, and depending on the age of the kids, they may or may not be able to be out there with them."

Her advice for dealing with kids home from school is to "keep things as stable as you can". That means creating a schedule and following it.

"Kids thrive on stability and knowing what they can expect in their day," she said.

McConkey said it's also a perfect time to build relationships with kids. She said this time can be viewed as either a curse or a gift.

"When else do we get uninterrupted time — literally weeks, with our kids," said McConkey. "It's an awesome time to build relationships, get to know your kids better and do activities together."

She said that farming goes on and that work never stops, so getting them involved with the operation (if they're old enough) might be a good idea.

"I talked to one dad yesterday who brings his kids one at time out on the semi with him, or if he's combining corn," she said. "So they have that one-on-one time."

Pike's advice for when to contact a farm advocate is to reach out before things get bad.

"We like to solve problems ourselves, and that's the way we are," said Pike. "But often the calls that I get come too late to have several solutions."

He said when a problem first presents itself, give them a call.

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