BISMARCK — Brandon Delvo learned what hard work looked like from a young age. As a kid, he spent summers by his grandfather's side on a small grain farm in Bonetraill, N.D.

If there was a fence to fix or hay to bale, Delvo and his grandfather would do it without hesitation. Farmers are born with this proactive mentality, he said, but an unusually wet summer and a devastating early blizzard have caused severe flooding and left many growers unable to harvest their crops and prepare for next season.

"Farmers are very naturally problem-solving, driven people," Delvo said. "It's a helpless feeling that many of them have right now."

Delvo, now working in operations for the North Dakota Farmers Union, is one of many advocates who worry that the difficult 2019 season has created stress, anxiety and despair for the state's farmers and ranchers.

State officials have also noted an observed uptick in farm-related stress. Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring and Gov. Doug Burgum began pushing mental health resources for North Dakotans dealing with flooding after fielding calls from anxious farmers and visiting last week with hard-hit communities in the eastern part of the state.

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"The economic impacts and stress from this unprecedented fall flooding situation are serious and real," Burgum said in a news release. "North Dakotans historically have come together to help each other in times of crisis, and we encourage individuals to accept help if they’re struggling with stress or reach out to others if they see them struggling emotionally."

Burgum signed an order declaring a statewide flood emergency Monday, Oct. 21, which clears the path for a request to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for federal assistance. A total of 22 counties and six cities, including West Fargo, Jamestown and Grand Forks, have independently declared flooding emergencies, according to Burgum spokesman Mike Nowatzki.

'Perfect storm' puts farmers on edge

Unlike many other jobs, farming requires a long-term perspective due to the boom-or-bust nature of each season. As North Dakota Farm Bureau CEO Jeffrey Missling describes it, a farmer may only have 40 or 50 opportunities to "get it right" over the length of a career.

Each year a farmer experiences unforeseen challenges, it threatens one of his or her limited chances to realize a fruitful harvest, Missling said. The 2019 season, or as Missling calls it, "the year of mud," could jeopardize two of those rare chances.

Carie Moore, the president of North Dakota Agri-Women, operates a grain and soybean farm southeast of Rocklake. The 42-year-old mother of four is now the only full-time worker on the 650-acre farm, and she said the wet weather has painted a troubling picture.

Moore and her husband, who works most of the time as a trucker, are far behind schedule and have not even touched the wheat crop in the field — they are counting on crop insurance to take care of some of the anticipated losses. Moore also wanted to fertilize the fields for next season, but those hopes have been dashed.

Many farmers will likely have a slow start next spring if they are unable to get this year's crop out of the field before winter hits, she said.

"Instead of going in and doing your normal spring fieldwork, you still have last fall's work to do," Moore said.

Goehring, who operates a 2,600-acre farm near Menoken with his son, described the wet conditions as "relentless" and "unprecedented." The uncooperative weather combined with an ongoing trade war, low crop prices and crop insurance shortcomings has created an overwhelming situation for many North Dakota farmers and ranchers, he said.

"There's something interesting about this profession: you don't control anything in it. We've all resigned ourselves to this," Goehring said. "But this just seems to be the perfect storm... There are so many things impacting them, sometimes it's just like, 'Man, can anything good happen?'"

Opening a dialogue

Through the tough times, Moore has adopted a mantra: "It is what it is." She said this mindset has kept her from getting too upset with the situation on the farm, but not everyone in the business has found the same clarity.

Moore said nobody she knows personally has outwardly struggled with severe mental health issues due to the difficult season, but she has heard from fellow farmers of "guys who might not make it."

Still, a pervasive stigma against talking about mental health exists in the farming community, she said. In previous years, Moore said she too was reluctant to speak about her difficulties with friends and family.

"You want to look like you're resilient and you can deal with anything," Moore said. "There are times that I've broken down — crying in the shower or when I'm doing laundry I'd hide out downstairs to cry when things were really bad... You don't want anyone to think you're weak."

Goehring said the trouble comes when farmers take their bad luck personally and begin to feel like they've failed.

"In many cases, farmers don't want to burden their family because they already feel like they're letting them down, and they're supposed to be the provider," Goehring said. "I've been there, and you just try to find someone who can relate to you."

North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring. Jenny Schlecht / Forum News Service
North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring. Jenny Schlecht / Forum News Service

Goehring's inclination to seek out a trusted friend or family member aligns with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's guidelines for coping with stress. The agency also notes those struggling with stress and anxiety should avoid drugs and alcohol, maintain good physical health and recognize when to seek professional help.

Those dealing with mental health issues can also call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or FirstLink at 2-1-1, which lays out references to local health services. Lutheran Social Services' Abound Counseling provides support to those seeking behavioral health services throughout North Dakota. The group is also partnering with other faith-based organizations to create a coalition to address mental health in rural areas.

Moore acknowledged there should be more dialogue about mental health in the farming community, but she said she has heard more about the topic in the last 12 months than the previous 12 years. Talk among farmers and agriculture-oriented publications have expanded awareness of the issue to the point where "you'd have to be living under a rock" to not hear about it, she said.

Delvo, the farm union coordinator, said he has fought his own battles with mental health after serving two tours with the U.S. Army in Iraq. In his time of need, Delvo said he sought out fellow veterans and mental health professionals. Now, he said he's trying to return the favor to farmers dealing with stress and anxiety.

"When I felt like I needed (help), the VA was there," Delvo said. "It's only right that we do the same thing when there might be stress on the farm."