Ag stress focus of new program
Wildfires. Drought. Rising grain prices. High fuel costs.
Any one of those — let alone all of them combined — can decimate a farm or ranch and leave it’s stewards despondent.
A new Kansas Department of Agriculture program is geared toward providing resources for farmers and ranchers struggling with depression, anxiety, and other mental wellness challenges.
The Ag Stress program connects farmers and ranchers with counselors who have a connection to agriculture. It also provides free gun locks that the department says can be a deterrent for people who are suicidal.
Thirty-one locks had been distributed to Marion County residents through October, according to Heather Lansdowne, communications director for the department. Statewide, the program had handled 2,010 orders and distributed 5,524 locks. Households may order up to three. Marion County residents placed 12 orders.
Marion County doesn’t have local providers in the mental health program but Newton, Council Grove, Emporia, Salina, and Abilene do, Landsdowne said.
Drought this summer challenged farmers and ranchers. All of the county was abnormally dry, and 68% was in a moderate drought. Signs of a moderate drought are stressed wheat and grasses; increased hay demand; fire danger; and low pond levels. Conditions are worse in 21% of the county, which is in severe drought, damaging crops and resulting in burn bans.
The National Integrated Drought Information System reports that 8,652 county residents are affected by drought, down about 27% since the previous month.
Impacted by drought are:
- 75,243 acres of soybeans.
- 61,065 acres of wheat.
- 39,829 acres of corn.
- 16,199 cattle.
- 8,422 hogs.
Kansas Cattlemen’s Association brought in a counselor a couple years ago to talk to ranchers about ag-related stress and depression, administrative coordinator Jodie McNutt said.
“We ran a hotline in our newsletter,” McNutt said.
She recalled when devastating wildfires swept central Kansas. Members reached out for help, and “you could hear their voices crack.”
Since then, she said, “every year when fires start, you think, ‘Oh, gosh, is this going to happen again?’
“So many things are just stacked up against them,” McNutt said.
It’s always difficult when someone calls to cancel membership because he or she has closed all operation, she said.
Ranching often is multi-generational, she said, with operations passed from generation to generation.
“It’s a lot of pressure, those legacy ranches,” she said. “They don’t want to be the one who loses it.”
Marion County had 10.8 deaths due to suicide per 100,000 people from 2018 to 2020, according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. That was lower than the state rate @ 18.5 per 100,000 —
Ranching is daunting, according to Mike Beneke, who operates Double B Cattle.
“We were much better off two years ago,” he said. “At this point, it’s pretty stressful as to what avenue to proceed for the next year.”
Beneke started this year with 2,700 cattle. Last year, he started with 4,200.
“I only have so many dollars to buy the cattle and operate the cattle,” he said. “With additional feed costs, it just wasn’t going to work to have as many.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty about what would be the right path going into next year, we’re not as confident that whatever we proceed with will be profitable.”