Dirt therapy — Farming in Minnesota

Farming Minnesota soil can be so rewarding. You feel such a great accomplishment when you disc the black soil to perfection, place tiny seeds into the ground and, in a short time, see them grow into thriving green seedlings, standing row after row. You then nurture your growing plants and rejoice when your lush acres make a bountiful harvest that, in return, feeds your hungry family. Dirt therapy welcomes amazing grace.

Farming is a proud business. Each farmer trusts this harvest will be bigger and better than the last — whodoesn’t want a positive return on investment? This year’s forecast was incredibly challenging, however, even for the thick-skinned farmer. And it followed the University of Minnesota’s conclusion that 2015, 2016 and 2017 were the worst three years for farm earnings out of the last 21.

By Barb Ryan

Dirt therapy is respected and required when you hear the odds are against you. A strong work ethic means endless hours are spent in the fields in solitude. From sunrise to sunset — and some days even longer. A farmer working in the field is usually admired by friends who punch a timeclock and answer to a boss. Farmers have enduring faith as they care for the earth, grow food for thousands to eat and know they have God on their side: “He causes the grass to grow for the cattle, and vegetation for the labor of man, so that he may bring forth food from the earth” (Psalm 104:14).

The long spring of 2019 brought some humble farmers to their knees. Not only did Jerry (not his real name) endure a lengthy spring with merciless weather reports, he was fighting a real illness. He was diagnosed with a silent disease years ago that makes it hard to look at the bright side of life, day after rainy day. Depression is not as obvious as a broken leg. It’s a mental illness, a disease that many of us may live with or know someone being treated for. He talked with a doctor and was taking medication; however, he was ill. Four weeks of delayed tractor time, constant forecasts of rain and snow and a glum outlook on cash flow were enough for this farmer.

Farmers who spend many hours alone with uncertainties like weather and markets can feel overwhelmed.

When you hear that a fellow farmer has died, you don’t question your own faith, wellness or foundling crops. You spring into action. You immediately want to help him and his family. You want to fight the loss and emptiness he felt.

The farming family rallies together for their own dirt therapy. The very next morning, you make a plan to disc, plant and sit in the tractor for 18 hours a day until you have sown Jerry’s 700 acres. You farm as a tag team to establish another 1,000 acres across 17 different fields. You watch the rows turn over and pray your efforts will matter in some way. You wonder if you have other farming friends who may be feeling overwhelmed while hiding behind the tired smile. You may talk for a minute about mental illness, but mainly, you work. You know farmers don’t get to claim sick days and don’t like to talk about their own well-being. When the crops are in, you all move forward on some level, mostly feeling numb.

The farming business supports the cycle of life: You sow,you reap, rinse, repeat. Now, 2019 has to be the season of change and a time of awareness. This cycle of ignorance regarding mental health is one that needs to be broken. Farmers want to know how they can work harder to get out of the current situation. They don’t want handouts. It won’t be an easy task to offer support but we need to start. Now.

Jerry’s farming life was so much more than the words of his obituary — “[Jerry] passed away on Tuesday, as this wet spring just got to be too much for our farmer.” These final words will live on to define a strong man, a silent disease and the need for more awareness and positive, progressive action.

How can you continue fostering awareness and the obvious change we need for our farmers? They are a strong breed that needs your help. You need to be the one to ask

how they are planning their next day on the farm. You need to ask if losing a friend makes them more aware of a mental illness. I challenge my fellow rural residents to be aware, open-minded and know that your neighbors may be struggling, most likely without a sound or a telltale sign.



  • Minnesota Farm and Rural Helpline, 1-833-600-2670. The helpline is free, confidential and available 24/7. Trained staff and volunteers in Minnesota can help manage stress, anxiety, depression or suicidal thoughts.
  • Mental Health and Family Services Line, 1-800-FARMAID. Farm Aid works with farm advocates, counselors and hotline operators who can provide support.
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK-(8255).
  • Crisis Text Line, text “MN” to 741741

Barb Ryan works as Rural Life Coordinator with the social concerns department at Catholic Charities. She enjoys rural living and caring for 17 cattle who all have names and live a spoiled life.

Author: The Central Minnesota Catholic

The Central Minnesota Catholic is the magazine for the Diocese of St. Cloud.

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