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Do farmers and ranchers take stock of mental health? Or is it ‘men don’t cry’?

Drought, disease and economic pressure take a toll on La Plata County agriculturalists
Charly Minkler, owner of Stone Peak Ranch in Ignacio and a Colorado Farm Bureau director representing Southwest Colorado, looks over his dry hay fields Tuesday as he prepares his irrigation lines for the growing season. A longtime rancher, Minkler said the environmental and economic concerns of farmers and ranchers can take a toll on their mental health. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Amy Reid deals with a number of stressors as she raises her chickens, turkeys and ducks at Jake’s Farm in Hesperus.

There’s the economics of feeding her animals as feed costs have increased 30% this year. Then there’s the unpredictable weather – when the winds whip up dust as they’ve done this spring, her birds sluggishly lay eggs.

The arrival of the highly pathogenic avian influenza, a fatal disease that kills between 90% and 100% of flocks within 24 to 48 hours, in mid-April has only added to the daily challenges and anxieties of raising poultry.

Mental health is a little discussed subject among farmers and ranchers in La Plata County. But the environmental and economic strains of raising animals and plants in Southwest Colorado can impact the mental health of those who raise them. As local and statewide groups begin to offer more mental health services directly to agricultural communities, farmers and ranchers in La Plata County are beginning to reckon with stigma and a culture that has often prevented those in agriculture from seeking help.

“I don’t think it’s really talked about in our community much,” Reid said. “People just kind of keep it to themselves.”

“It’s the whole ‘men don't cry’ stigma of it,” she said.

Daily stressors

Highly pathogenic avian influenza can be tracked and spread by equipment, vehicles and even shoes.

After years of managing her flock to meet her farms’ needs, the idea of potentially exposing her 1,000 to 1,200 birds to the disease can be anxiety inducing for Reid.

“I am a farmer who hatches my own egg layers. I hatch my own turkeys and I have my own ducks,” she said. “This is a four-year project of me getting my flock where I want them to be with hatching and the right size that I need to meet my market needs. If I lost my whole entire flock, it would be a four- or five-year step back.”

For Reid and other farmers and ranchers in La Plata County, diseases simply compound the other challenges that they face on a day-to-day basis.

Charly Minkler, owner of Stone Peak Ranch in southeast Ignacio, releases water from his irrigation pipes Tuesday amid severe drought. Research by scientists with the University of Minnesota and University Nebraska has shown that drought increases stress in farmers, while another study by researchers in Australia found a link between drought and increased farmer suicide. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Those who work in agriculture are often at the mercy of the environment and economics, neither of which they can control.

Both make farming and ranching more difficult in Southwest Colorado.

As of Thursday afternoon, almost all of La Plata County was in a severe drought. With early runoff and the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center projecting below-average water supply again this year, agricultural producers are already preparing for another summer of drought.

Charly Minkler, a rancher in Ignacio who grows hay, pauses his irrigation work Tuesday to talk about the mental health challenges of ranching. According to CDPHE’s most recent report on suicide in Colorado, those in the agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting industry die by suicide at the second highest rate in the state behind construction. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The irrigation ditch Charly Minkler relies on to grow his hay is running at 80% of capacity to extend water supply later into the growing season.

“Depending on where you’re ranching or farming you may be suffering quite a bit just being able to grow your crop or hay to feed your livestock,” said Minkler, owner of Stone Peak Ranch in Ignacio and a Colorado Farm Bureau director representing District 8, which includes La Plata County and Southwest Colorado. “... I’ve experienced that myself. I got water at my ranch about 10 days ago and it’s taken me about twice as long to get the water to go the same place it would usually do in half the time.”

At the same time, farmers and ranchers in La Plata County are feeling the economic consequences of inflation and the war in Ukraine. Reid’s growing feed costs reflect a broad increase in production costs for farmers.

The American Farm Bureau Federation estimated that production expenses for farmers will increase 6% in 2022 after increasing 12% in 2020.

“The cost of fertilizers has at least doubled from a year ago,” Minkler said. “So here we are in a situation where we don’t have enough water, our crops (and) our livestock are stressed, everything costs more and then we’re trying to turn a profit on top of all that.

“It can really wear on a person and a family,” he said.

Sarah Gleason, owner of Gleason Bison in Hesperus, compared the current environmental and economic climate for farmers and ranchers to a shrinking box.

“It kind of feels like getting squeezed from all sides. You’ve got the environment squeezing you on one side, economics squeezing you on the other side and then the lack of control over so many components squeezing you on the other side,” she said. “If you’re not careful, it can be a slippery downhill for your mental and emotional well-being.”

Mental health in agriculture

In La Plata County, suicides in agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting tied for 11th by industry, according to data from 2004 to 2019 from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

<strong id="strong-809c16733207e754b05388ab4483e4a5">For help</strong>

Help for people having suicidal thoughts or for those who fear a person is considering suicide:

AXIS CARE HOTLINE:

24/7 local response to crisis and behavioral health needs: (970) 247-5245.

NATIONAL SUICIDE PREVENTION HOTLINE:

(800) 273-TALK (8255) or text “TALK” to 741741.

RED NACIONAL DE PREVENCIÓN DEL SUICIDIO:

(888) 628-9454.

FORT LEWIS COLLEGE COUNSELING CENTER:

247-7212.

BOYS TOWN HOTLINE:

(800) 448-3000.

SAFE2TELL COLORADO:

(877) 542-7233 or safe2tell.org.

COLORADO CRISIS SUPPORT LINE:

(844) 493-8255 or text “TALK” to 38255 or online at coloradocrisisservices.org to access a live chat available in 17 languages. The line has mental-health professionals available to talk to adults or youths 24 hours a day.

AMERICAN FOUNDATION FOR SUICIDE PREVENTION:

Colorado chapter information available at afsp.org/chapter/afsp-colorado.

FOR MEN:

A website for adult men contemplating suicide is available at mantherapy.org.

At five suicides, they rank well below construction workers, which recorded 23 deaths over that time.

But statewide data suggests that farmers and ranchers in La Plata County still face a substantial mental health burden.

More than 75% of the crisis line calls and texts that reach Colorado Crisis Services, a branch of the Colorado Department of Human Services’ Office of Behavioral Health, come from rural or frontier areas, according to data from DHS.

According to CDPHE’s most recent report about suicide in Colorado, those in rural areas died by suicide at rate 17.5% higher than those in urban areas from 2014 to 2018. That figure was 49% for Colorado’s frontier communities, which the Colorado Rural Health Center defines as a county that has a population density of six or fewer residents per square mile.

CDPHE’s Health Statistics Region 9, which includes Dolores, San Juan, Montezuma, La Plata and Archuleta counties, ranks sixth out of 21 regions in suicide rate.

And statewide those in the agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting industry die by suicide at the second highest rate behind construction.

Farmers and ranchers are uniquely vulnerable to mental health challenges for a number of reasons, said Chad Reznicek, a behavioral health specialist with the Colorado AgrAbility Project at Colorado State University.

Unlike many occupations, agricultural producers are entirely reliant on the environment, which is often unpredictable. Sustained drought like growers in Southwest Colorado are experiencing only exacerbates their anxiety.

Research by scientists with the University of Minnesota and University Nebraska has shown that drought increases stress in farmers, while another study by researchers in Australia found a link between drought and increased farmer suicide.

Reznicek, who works with farming and ranching communities across Colorado and throughout the Western U.S., said war was a good analogy for the stress of waiting for rain.

“It’s almost like if you’re in a war zone and you’ve been invaded and there’s shelling,” he said. “You’re always on red alert. You’re always hypervigilant for that next threat.”

Many farmers and ranchers also have familial legacies that extend back decades. With homes tied to their farms and ranches and generations of investment in their land, simply finding another job is often not an option for those in agriculture.

Charly Minkler, owner of Stone Peak Ranch in Ignacio and a Colorado Farm Bureau director representing Southwest Colorado, looks at the dry cracks in his hay field on Tuesday. Chad Reznicek, a behavioral health specialist with the Colorado AgrAbility Project at Colorado State University, compared farmers’ and ranchers’ experience with drought to that of war. “You're always on red alert. You’re always hypervigilant for that next threat,” he said. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“It's just a different level at stake,” Reznicek said. “The constant exposure to those unique stressors over time, they basically create something that’s pretty similar to PTSD.”

While farmers and ranchers face unique stressors, they often lack mental health resources. Twenty-two of Colorado’s rural counties do not have a licensed psychologists and 24 do not have a licensed addiction counselor, according to Colorado Rural Health Center’s 2022 “Snapshot of Rural Health in Colorado.”

The five-county region of Southwest Colorado has just three community mental health centers and one acute mental health treatment unit.

Compounding limited access to mental health services is the culture of agriculture, which has historically stigmatized mental health. Reid, Minkler and Gleason all acknowledged that stigmas toward both mental health and seeking help exist in agriculture, and that they can create a barrier for farmers and ranchers who need mental health support.

“(Agricultural culture) is about picking yourself up by your bootstraps; you work until the job is done. You’re quick to help other people, but you don’t want to burden anyone yourself,” Reznicek said. “All those things are really resilient and positive qualities, but the downside is it makes it really hard to ask for help.”

Charly Minkler, owner of Stone Peak Ranch in southeast Ignacio, puts together an irrigation pipe to apply water to his dry hay field on Tuesday. Farmers and ranchers often lack mental health resources in the rural and frontier areas of Colorado. Compounding limited access to mental health services is the culture of agriculture, which has historically stigmatized mental health. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Filling in the gaps

To help farmers and ranchers struggling with mental health, local and statewide groups are beginning to create resources designed for those in agriculture.

Reznicek and CSU’s Colorado AgrAbility Project, which aims to improve the health and well-being of those in agriculture with disabilities, illnesses or other conditions, are building a model called LandLogic, which providers can then use to better reach and treat agricultural producers.

“These (therapy techniques) are evidence-based (and) pretty standard in practice for treating things like anxiety, depression and substance abuse, but we’re adapting them to make them more relevant for agricultural populations and then training clinicians on how to use that,” Reznicek said.

In July 2021, the Colorado Department of Agriculture announced it had received a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to support rural mental health initiatives for Colorado’s farmworkers and agricultural producers.

The CDA administered those funds through Colorado AgrAbility and other groups, including the La Plata Family Centers Coalition.

Under the umbrella of its Together We Grow initiative, which aims to identify and find solutions to health concerns and inequalities in La Plata and Archuleta counties, the Durango nonprofit has held mental health trainings, produced bilingual educational materials and facilitated referrals to mental health providers for those in agriculture.

Charly Minkler’s hay field cracks because of the ongoing drought in La Plata County. Colorado State University’s Colorado AgrAbility Project, the La Plata Family Centers Coalition, the Colorado Farm Bureau and the Colorado Department of Agriculture have all been working to create agriculture specific mental health services. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

La Plata Family Centers Coalition has specifically targeted immigrant agricultural workers with its efforts.

“We wanted to build on our current health education offering to develop culturally appropriate training activities and materials about mental health for immigrants, migrant agricultural workers and others whose primary language was not English,” said Mariel Balbuena, executive director of the La Plata Family Centers Coalition.

Mental health and wellness training

La Plata Family Centers Coalition will host a mental health and wellness training on May 21 at Pond Farm on County Road 215. For more information, call 385-4747.

Balbuena and Olga Robak, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Agriculture, said the initiative has emphasized education so that it can provide sustained mental health support for Colorado’s agricultural communities.

“We’re hoping that this one-time investment actually has an ongoing benefit because many of these sub-grantees are developing training programs and curricula that they can then continue using once the funding to put these curriculums and programs together runs out,” Robak said.

Perhaps the most significant mental health advancement for farmers and ranchers in La Plata County and across the state has been the creation of the Colorado Agricultural Addiction and Mental Health Program.

A partnership between the Colorado Farm Bureau, Colorado Department of Agriculture, Colorado AgrAbility and other groups, CAAMHP offers those in agriculture vouchers for six free sessions with a licensed behavioral health professionals.

Farmers and ranchers can typically see one of CAAMHP’s 12 counselors within a week. The sessions are remote to allow easier access and preserve anonymity for those in small communities, and each of the counselors has undergone agricultural humility training.

In conversations with farmers and ranchers across the state, Rebecca Edlund, director of technology and membership for the Colorado Farm Bureau, said they identified counselors’ lack of agricultural competency as one of the most significant barriers to seeking mental health help.

“If you’ve never grown up around agriculture, there’s terms that come up a lot that seem insignificant but are massively important for rural or agrarian lifestyles,” she said. “An example that we use is: If a farmer or rancher says, ‘I can’t feed my cows.’ The answer is not ‘Let them eat grass,’ which was actually an answer that someone was given.”

Reznicek said greater agricultural competency for mental health providers will encourage more farmers to pursue and maintain their mental health support.

Charly Minkler, owner of Stone Peak Ranch in southeast Ignacio, releases water on his hay field from his irrigation pipes on Tuesday. Awareness of mental health services still lags, but farmers and ranchers in La Plata County hope that more farmworkers and agricultural producers will begin to use the services available to them. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“For any population that a provider is working with it’s in their interest to gain as much cultural competency and responsiveness as they possibly can to best serve that population,” he said. “I think we’re just beginning to understand how much that’s important for agriculture, too.”

Though new mental health resources are becoming available for farmers and ranchers in La Plata County, awareness has yet to spread.

Gleason said she was unaware of CAAMHP and Reid identified San Juan Basin Public Health as a destination for mental health assistance instead of CAAMHP or La Plata Family Centers Coalition.

Still, Gleason, Reid and Minkler each identified the need for more mental health resources and greater awareness around mental health among La Plata County’s farmers and ranchers.

“Historically, there’s been a lot of expectation around doing it by yourself,” Gleason said. “I do think we have a lot of potential to design ranching to be more supportive both in our mental health resources and (in) what we expect of each other.”

ahannon@durangoherald.com

An earlier version of this story erred in saying La Plata County had the only community health center in the five-county region of Southwest Colorado. Montezuma and Archuleta counties also have community health centers.

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