“I’m a seed dealer who is looking for someone who could put on a presentation about mental health during crises. Severe storms that hit our area and current crop prices have put some guys on the edge or over the edge. I scouted the damage and it’s awfully grim.”

Although I changed a few details of this recent email to preserve confidentiality, it is essentially accurate. Later that same morning last week I received two phone calls and another email asking what community leaders, including farmers, can do to help local agricultural producers through tough times, such as forced sales of dairy cows and low grain prices.

There is a lot of stress currently among many farmers, whether they produce grain, livestock, dairy or other agricultural goods. Communities with mostly agricultural producers in their neighborhoods are feeling repercussions in their towns too.

An economic rule of thumb is that when farmers spend their income, it circulates three to six times through local businesses, such as farm implement and auto dealerships, suppliers, builders, lenders, restaurants and other business establishments. All the community prospers when farmers prosper, or the opposite occurs.

It goes without saying that less farm income also translates into less tax collections, which impacts schools, local infrastructure like roads, and many community institutions. Communities heavily dependent on farming enterprises may lose participation and leadership in their churches, organizations, and experience changes to their social structure if farm families are forced out of business.

Community workshops can be a useful resource for farmers and their compatriots in local towns. This is the first of two articles about community workshops as a response to current farming challenges.

Today’s article draws partially on learnings from a program during the 1980s’ Farm Crisis which Southwest Iowa Mental Health Center carried out. Federal monies which I sought were awarded by Iowa officials after reviewing competing applications. The grant made a range of services possible that included counseling for distressed farm families, support groups and community workshops for affected farmers and townspeople.

Sometimes these gatherings jump-started innovative solution-seeking such as the establishment of economic development efforts. In other instances the community workshops were an outgrowth of ongoing efforts by local citizens concerned about their communities.

The community gatherings began on a Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning after church services. They were held mostly in schools, churches, and community halls.

The events began with a prayer, followed by a structured interview which the meeting moderator conducted with a farm couple from another community who were program clients. They willingly shared their farming circumstances and behavioral well-being, whether positive or negative.

That they were from another community usually didn’t make it easier for them to describe their situations, but the courage they demonstrated explaining their stressful circumstances resonated with everyone. Many in the audience shed tears as they perceived similarities to their own situations.

Other presenters provided their insights during the events, such as legal and farm business advisors, lenders, sometimes a physician, and always a behavioral healthcare professional who had experience with agriculture.

As the event drew toward a close, the participants were given a slip of paper on which they could identify something they possessed that could not be taken from them. Their written responses were touching: “my family’s love, my honesty, my hope,” etc.

While listening to recorded or live music furnished locally, the participants pinned their slips of paper one-by-one on a bulletin board. The meetings ended with a prayer led by a local pastor.

A potluck dinner usually followed the couple’s presentation, unless it was Saturday. Then the meal followed the other presentations. The brave farm couple hung around to visit with people who wanted to talk; workshop participants always sought them out.

At the time we didn’t know if community workshops helped agricultural producers and their communities through tough times. We learned more during the past two decades as the non-profit AgriWellness, Inc. consortium of seven Upper Midwestern states evaluated farm crisis services that included telephone hotlines, counseling, community events such as workshops, farmer retreats and provider education about agricultural behavioral health.

We replicated interventions that were tried and suggested as beneficial during the Farm Crisis of the 1980s in various places around the U.S. A short book by Joyce Barrett entitled Mending a Broken Heartland: Community Response to the Farm Crisis preserved some of the knowledge that AgriWellness affiliates drew on in the 2000s.

We already know that community workshops must have buy-in among local citizens, but do they make a positive difference?
Distressed farmers and local leaders are conducting workshops across the U.S. to help farmers look for ways to deal with unpredictable weather events and low commodity prices, and to help dairy producers figure out what is next on their horizons.

Next week’s article will report on evaluations of the effectiveness of community workshops.

Was the popular proclamation, “It takes a community,” right? Stay tuned for next week’s follow-up.