Twenty miles from the Canadian border, just outside Hallock, Minnesota, you’ll find the bean fields that surround the Gillie home. Theresia and her husband farmed the land together for 30 years. These days she is alone on the farm; Keith took his own life two and half years ago. Just as the couple refinanced and bought more land, soybean prices took a dive, then there were a couple years of bad weather. Many farmers find it difficult adjusting to a new economic reality beyond their control. They might even convince themselves they’re doing their family a favor by dying.
“He’d be up at night and I’d say come to bed. He’d be looking something up on the internet or sitting in the dark, and that was a pretty big sign,” Gillie said. “Hindsight’s a lot easier 20/20 than when you’re living it.”
Gillie was bringing in extra income as a Kittson County Commissioner and president of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association, but the farm debt weighed on Keith. But he took his own life and she was left with questions.
Ted Matthews, a mental health counselor with the Department of Agriculture works with farmers across Minnesota at no cost. “Almost always they’re shocked that I answer my phone. I talk to them, sometimes it’s a few minutes, sometimes it’s a couple of hours,” he said.
Matthews was the only one doing this kind of work in Minnesota for years. However, the Minnesota Legislature recently approved funding a second counselor to help farmers. She began her duties October 1.
“You get into this negative thinking. ‘I have life insurance, then they can pay off the farm.’ One of the things I stress all the time is: how would you feel if your wife committed suicide, is that what you would say, oh good,” Matthews said.
There is a timeless question the counselor will ask that reframes most problems. “You say to people, ‘what’s the most important thing in your life?’ People say ‘family’ and I say, ‘what have you done to strengthen your family?’ They look at me like, ‘what are you talking about,’” he said.
It is challenging to track suicides by farmers and producers. But calls to the Farm Aid hotline, the national group that helps farmers with a variety of issues, have increased 109 percent in 2018 versus 2017. The group told FOX 9 the pace of calls this year is similar to 2018. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture works on educating farmers, their families and others to identify and manage stress on the farm.
The Minnesota Farm and Rural Helpline is a 24-7 phone line farmers can call to get mental health support and get directed to financial and legal assistance. The number is 1-833-600-2670. MDA also has other helpful information on its website at www. minnesotafarmstress.com