Former Colorado Ag Commissioner Don Brown and Crisis Line featured at 3R Symposium
April 12, 2019
Don Brown, an ag producer and former Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture said the stress rooted in the agriculture financial crisis is real. Producers, he said, are used to blizzards, drought, and hail, so much so the events are a part of their business model. Brown spoke at the Range Rights and Resource Symposium on April 11 in Windsor, Colo.
Low commodity prices, too, he said, are commonplace, declining upwards of 63 percent for some commodities in the past five years.
"I was looking at some records my wife and I have kept since we started farming," he said. "I looked at the corn price in 1982, we were feeding fat cattle at the time, I looked at that corn price and her and I were paying $3.20 a bushel for it in 1982. Here it is almost 40 years later and we're barely getting the same thing we got in 1982. You talk about a financial crisis."
At the heart of the stress, though, he said, is the connection that farmers and ranchers have to the land. Brown said the emotional tie to the land is akin to that of a child they nurture and care for. Oftentimes, the sentiment is, "All I know is the farm, that's all I know. If I lose my grandparents' farm, I've lost everything."
"Some people choose a permanent solution to a temporary problem," he said. "That's when the desperation takes a hold."
Brown said in this case, the funeral is the simple part and what's left is the mess. When suicide is the decision of a farmer or rancher, there is damage to communities and families.
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Last year, the Kiowa County Independent reported that in Kiowa County, Colorado, which is home to 1,400 people, there were four male suicides in as many weeks.
"These people blame themselves," he said. "They might be five generations on the farm and it was me (who lost the farm) but maybe it didn't rain. You can't make it rain. Maybe the wheat that China quit buying, the grain sorghum and your banker said 'sell the grain, I want the balance and the operating note cleaned up.' You can't control that."
Brown said the Dodd Brown Act in 2008 changed farming, making the values and beliefs of ag producers less important than the numbers on a piece of paper, adding up profit.
Brown said he and his wife, Peggy, began farming full-time in 1978 at a time when he said nearly all decisions resulted in profit. It was a time, he said, when you could do no wrong.
"By the mid-80s, you couldn't do anything right," he said. "We were reusing the woven wire my grandfather had used in the 1920s, hoping we would make it through the 80s."
Brown, during his time with the Department of Agriculture, said he knew a crisis program had to be put into place when Peggy received a call from a neighbor hoping to sell their land to the Browns quietly to avoid foreclosure. He said he didn't want farmers and ranchers to walk through financial crisis without help.
Brown said the challenge when addressing the agriculture community about mental health is overcoming the attitude that farmers and ranchers ought to "pull themselves up by their bootstraps" and keep going.
MENTAL HEALTH HELP
He said bootstraps break.
Brown said Chad Vorthmann, the executive director of Colorado Farm Bureau, organized a call with members to discuss mental health. Brown said the conversation slowly opened and producers were honest about the struggles of the business and the effect on families. As the conversation began to take shape, he said one producer on the call said people in agriculture "pull ourselves up by our bootstraps" and like that, the conversation ended.
Brown said he knew being proactive was the only solution so he and the Department of Agriculture developed Colorado Crisis Services. A business card was distributed that reads, "The agricultural crisis is real. The resulting stress is real. Let's TALK about it."
"We didn't reinvent the wheel," he said. "We don't have a call center at the Department of Ag."
The effort is a partnership between the department, Colorado Farm Bureau, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension, and the Colorado Agricultural Mediation Program.
The calls received at Colorado Crisis Services are handled by crisis professionals who have been specially trained. Brown said an operator unfamiliar with agriculture might think a rancher claiming he can't feed his cows is the same as a dog owner unable to feed his dog while the truth is much more complex.
To help crisis center staff better understand agriculture, the department and its partners made a series of videos to help staff speak the language of agriculture.
Vorthmann; Larri Tappy, CoBank's senior relationship manager; Joe Harper, a fifth generation farmer; Terry Fankhauser, Colorado Cattlemen's Association executive vice president; and Ann Hanna, a rancher, all contributed to videos about financial pressure, loss of heritage, producer desperation and the loss of family members. Tappy, Brown said, experienced the loss of a family farm in the 1980s and became a banker, making him uniquely able to understand financial pressure from both sides. Hanna, who made the video about the loss of a family member, lost her husband to suicide. Brown said all staff members at the center are trained with the video series and he said it is impactful, leaving staff members in tears nearly every time.
Banners and signs with the information are displayed in sale barns, the Colorado State Fair, and other places to reach producers. The Colorado Crisis Service reports an increase in calls from farm and ranch families.
Brown said while he can only lead a horse to water, not make him drink, he always ensures there is water available when horses are thirsty.
The Crisis Service line number is 844-493-TALK (8255) or text TALK to 38255. ❖
— Gabel is an assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (970) 392-4410.