Drought pressures lead farmers to seek counseling

Monday, February 17, 2003

GRAND ISLAND, Neb. -- As the damaging effects of the Midwest's drought pile up on its farms, so do the stresses.

There are the withering crops. The looming bank loans. And, sometimes, the ensuing depression.

But more and more, farmers are reaching out for help, often finding it through farm crisis hot lines that connect them with legal aid, financial assistance and mental-health counseling.

It's a new way of thinking for farmers, who are usually a fiercely independent lot.

"People don't really want to talk about these things but they bother them just the same," said Rodney Dannehl, a clinical social worker in Dickinson, N.D. "At some time or other everyone needs help, and you're not a weakling for seeking it."

The past few years have been especially trying, thanks to the drought.

Ranchers from the Dakotas to Kansas are selling their cattle because they can't feed them. Some grain farmers could do nothing but watch as the drought dried up their crops.

Nebraska has seen its driest period since the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s, and the state's economy lost an estimated $600 million on crops, hay, pastures and ranges last year. Some farmers and ranchers are facing their third or fourth year of drought.

There are other problems, too, including trying to understand the complicated new farm bill, low commodity prices and increased competition from large corporate farms.

Set a record

The impact is driving the increase in hot line use.

The Iowa Concern phone service set a record in November with 951 calls, up about 200 from the previous high of November 1985 during the height of that decade's farm crisis.

Farmers and ranchers made 425 calls in January to the Nebraska Rural Response Hotline, easily surpassing the number of calls made the same time a year ago, coordinator Michelle Soll said.

"A large portion are related to the drought, to the low yields or no yields," said Soll. "There is quite a bit of despair and grief."

Dave Mussmann, who farms about a thousand acres in Nuckolls County, said counseling helped him realize he was not alone.

"I say by holding this in, it's a poison and it screws up your mind," he said.

Had he not sought counseling and mediation, he would have quit farming. Instead, Mussmann was able to extend his loan repayment schedule and keep his farm.

Many times, farmers need a push from home to seek help, said Blenda Keylon, who works with the Crossroads Counseling Services in Grand Island.

The spouses seek help, too, upset that the farm comes before them and their children.

"They're angry, maybe even more so than their husbands," Keylon said.

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