More Than 200 Attend First Statewide Farm Stress Conference

Published online: Nov 23, 2022 Feature Sean Ellis, Idaho Farm Bureau Federation
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Boise – More than 200 people attended Idaho’s first-ever statewide conference dedicated to farm stress.

The inaugural Idaho Farm and Ranch Conference was held Oct. 24-25 in Boise and included a host of discussions and presentations centered around farm stress and financial management.

The first day included panel discussions and presentations on topics such as improving farm management strategies, taxes on the farm, marketing, accrual accounting, and farm transition and estate planning.

The second day was dedicated to discussing farm stress, mental health and the high suicide rate among agricultural producers.

Idaho State Department of Agriculture Director Celia Gould, a rancher and farmer, told participants that national studies show farmers die by suicide at a rate several times the national average.

One of the keys to reducing that rate is openly discussing the issue and the factors that lead to it, Gould said.

“So here we are trying to begin important conversations about tough topics,” she said at the beginning of the conference.

Gould said ag producers have typically felt a stigma around seeking help but according to American Farm Bureau Federation research, there has been a 22 percent increase over the last three years in the percentage of farmers and farm workers who would be comfortable talking to friends and family about their mental health.

“That’s why we are doing this,” she said. “First and foremost, we want to reduce the stigma around mental health care in agriculture.”

The conference – “Cultivating a Brighter Tomorrow – included farmers, ranchers, leaders of state farm and ranch organizations, and experts in the area of farm management and transition planning, as well as mental health experts and leaders in the financial and insurance sectors.

“This is the first-ever statewide conference of this size on farm stress and mental health in agriculture,” said ISDA Deputy Director Chanel Tewalt.

She said the ag department plans to make the conference an annual event.

“This conference was awesome,” said Idaho Farm Bureau Federation President Bryan Searle, who attended along with about 10 other Farm Bureau volunteer leaders and professional staff.

Tools and advice that help ag producers deal with financial issues and farm-related stress is something that is needed by all farmers and ranchers, big or small, he said. 

“It’s about helping people get through the challenging times like what we’re facing today,” Searle said. “We look forward to next year’s conference.”

The conference was free to attend and financed through a $500,000 grant ISDA received as part of a COVID-relief package.

It was hosted by ISDA’s Idaho Farm and Ranch Center, which was created in 2021 to provide Idahoans with the financial tools and other resources they need to remain on the farm or ranch or get into agriculture.

The IFRC website – farm.idaho.gov – features resources such as financial management trainings, guidebooks and videos on succession planning, tools and tips for managing a family business, and a calendar of events.

The recent conference is an extension of what ISDA is trying to accomplish with the Idaho Farm and Ranch Center, Tewalt said.  

A big focus of the conference was speaking openly about farm stress and suicide in order to help remove the stigma about the issue, she said.

“Really, you are reducing the stigma by talking about it in a forum like this,” Tewalt said. “You heard a lot of courageous stories (during the conference), people talking candidly about their farm operations, talking about things that work well, transitions that didn’t work well, things that they struggle with and how they deal with it.”

One of the featured speakers, Lesley Kelly, a Canadian farmer, spoke frankly about her family’s battles with mental health issues and how addressing them openly helped them deal with it.

She said that “creating an open and honest and gentle culture within our farm has brought … our family closer together because of it.”

She stressed that one conversation can break barriers and possibly save a life.

“Our biggest resource is each other,” Kelly said. “Breaking barriers is having one conversation. One conversation at a time can save or change a life.”

She said the key to her family addressing its mental health challenges “is that we brought the love.”

She added, “Sometimes it’s a text, sometimes it’s a phone call, sometimes it’s a, ‘Hey, how are you doing? Can I ride in the tractor with you, go for a walk or be in that pickup truck with you? Or give you a big hug?’”