GOSHEN COUNTY – Linda and Brett Meyer remember the collapse of a tunnel along the Gering-Fort Laramie irrigation canal in July 2019. So does the rest of Goshen County.
The water disruption impacted approximately 52,000 acres in Wyoming and 55,000 in Nebraska, namely corn, sugar beets, dried beans and alfalfa, according to the University of Nebraska Extension. Both states declared a state of emergency.
Linda also remembers the meeting that followed at Eastern Wyoming College just days after. According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, Goshen County alone has 842 farms. Amid talks of temporary and more permanent solutions to the problem was a portion dedicated to suicide prevention, Linda recalled.
“An entire auditorium of farmers, and they bring up suicide prevention and the room just goes quiet,” she said. “Nobody wants to admit the reality of a depression or what’s going on, that was an interesting moment. It was good at the same time. How important. They were saying ‘take care of your neighbors.’”
The problems – both repercussions from canal break and farmers dying by suicide – persist today. Even the most successful and experienced farmers and ranchers cannot control factors of production such as rain, hail, market prices, etc. They work long days, often isolated from others, a situation exacerbated by the pandemic that’s led to cancellations of events and gatherings.
The pandemic has presented industry-related challenges as well, Brett Meyer said.
“We have the markets that have been bad and then of course with Covid, along came the closing of the Meatpacking plants. A lot of cattle got backed up,” he said. “It’s stressful when you raise something your entire year and then it’s time to go to market and the market has been taken away.”
These factors led the University of Nebraska Extension to host a suicide prevention training commonly known as QPR, or Question, Persuade, Refer via Zoom on Sept. 24. These trainings are offered throughout numerous industries, but this one focused on agriculture and its nuances, according to University of Nebraska Extension Educator Jessica Groskopf.
QPR training helps participants recognize someone at risk for suicide, intervene with those at risk and refer them to appropriate resources.
“It’s really important for folks to know what to listen for, and to truly listen,” she said. “I think that’s one of the biggest challenges, really thinking through what they’re saying and understanding what they mean.”
Roughly 10 people participated in the free training. The hesitance to participate and acknowledge training like this is consistent with what Brett Meyer called farmers’ greatest strength and greatest weakness: independence.
“No farmer is going to call me up and say ‘hey, I need some help, where do I get help from?’” he said. “That is not in the blood of our industry.”
Meyer has lived on a ranch his entire life and has lived and worked on his current farm in Goshen County for 26 years. He farms roughly 2,200 acres here, farms nearly every major crop, raises “a couple thousand” head of cattle, has a custom harvesting operation and is a Pioneer seed sales representative.
Given his presence in the ag business in Goshen County, he talks with a lot of farmers. Meyer answers every phone call, even when he doesn’t necessarily want to.
“We have relationships with them, so they’ll vent to me,” he said. “There’s a lot of problems out there, but no farmer rancher is going to call a mental health professional and say I need help.”
He said he’s had a lot of people tell him they don’t know what they’re going to do.
“That’s the number one thing you’ll hear, I just don’t know,” Meyer said. “I don’t know how I can manage this anymore. I don’t know how this is gonna work for us.”
The seemingly harmless phrase, “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” is something that might signal someone is contemplating suicide, according to the QPR training.
This year, Wyoming ranks second in the highest number of suicides according to the Centers for Disease Control. Additionally, white males accounted for 69.67% of suicides in 2018, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Males in agriculture die by suicide at a rate of more than 36 per 100,000 people, a higher rate than men in all industries, more than 27 per 100,000, according to the CDC.
Christin Covello, Ph.D., LPC, Peak Wellness Albany County clinic director, said these rates can be attributed to the stigma surrounding mental health, especially among men.
“If we talk about the Wyoming way and the cowboy ethics, it is very much traditional and it’s pulling yourself up by bootstraps and not recognizing it’s okay to reach out for that help,” Covello said. “There’s a lot of misperceptions that you’re weak if you go in to seek that help instead of seeing that you can be empowered and you’re actually stronger by seeking out that help.”
Farmers also incur a lot of debt in purchasing land and equipment. Overall, it’s a difficult business.
“You don’t just get out of it. You don’t just leave it,” Brett Meyer said. “Farmers will end up going deeper and deeper just waiting for that moment to come out because you don’t get out of it. Financially, it’s almost impossible, because we’re asset rich but cash poor.”
Meyer acknowledges that he has hard days, but he said he leans on his Christian faith and talks with his wife, Linda. However, if he did need professional help, he said he would not know where to go.
“(The July 2019 canal break meeting) was one time I had a packet in my hand, and it had the information about who to go to,” Linda Meyer said.
As difficult and unpredictable as the industry could be, Brett Meyer said he wouldn’t go back and choose something else. He’s his own boss. He never missed one of his kids’ sporting events. Now that they’re older, he and his kids work together. The family of five is pictured on the family’s newsletter sent out to neighbors and customers.
Chris Cook, another Goshen County farmer, agrees. He works with his dad and brother, and even worked with his grandfather into his nineties. He said various aspects of the industry throw “curveballs” everyday, including last year’s irrigation tunnel collapse. Despite the stresses presented by that situation, Cook said they had nearly 23 inches of rain last year, a gift from God.
“It’s fun. We don’t go into ag to make money, you go into it as a lifestyle,” Cook said. “You adapt and overcome.”
Cook, like Meyer, doesn’t think much about the mental health of farmers and ranchers. Cook said he is just blessed to live here.
His dad suffered a heart attack in summer 1998, Cook’s first summer out of college, at a time when the family farm was “crazy busy.” He and his brother, with the help of friendly and willing neighbors, got by.
“A lot of times you’re too proud to ask for help,” Cook said. “But people are willing to come help you, because they know that, too.”
A crucial aspect of QPR training is the referral. Groskopf said there are numerous mental health resources for those in the ag industry. Nebraska has a rural response hotline that can be reached at 1-800-464-0258. Peak Wellness in Torrington also has a sliding fee scale so those who are uninsured or under-insured can use their services, Covello said.
The Wyoming Department of Health also recently implemented the first Wyoming-based Suicide Prevention hotline that can be reached by calling 1-800-273-TALK or texting “WYO” to 741-741 for the Crisis Text Line.
The University of Nebraska Extension will hold an additional QPR training via Zoom on Oct. 22 at 10 a.m., free of charge.
“It is important that the entire community needs to be aware of what is going on in agriculture and then what we can do, and part of that is taking those trainings when they’re available,” Groskopf said.
If you or someone you know may be at risk of suicide, call the Wyoming Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK) or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255). Wyoming Lifeline Operators currently answer calls from 4 p.m. to 12 a.m. Sunday through Thursday, according to the WDH. Residents who call the Wyoming Lifeline outside of business hours will be directed to the national hotline.