ST. PAUL — Bevan Beck set down his mug of coffee Saturday morning and listed out to Minnesota's agriculture commissioner the setbacks that had befallen his crops this year.
The wet spring delayed planting. For the first time in the Ogilvie, Minn., farmer's life, he tried to go back and replant, to no avail. Bugs crept into the wheat crop. And only half his corn had been harvested less than a week before Thanksgiving.
"We've had everything go wrong that can go wrong," Beck told Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen. "Hardest year ever."
Beck and his wife Cheryl sat down with Petersen for an egg bake and pancake breakfast at the Minnesota Farmers Union annual convention in Minneapolis on Nov. 23. And between questions about Petersen's sons, they and half a dozen other farmers shared their experiences navigating a particularly tough year for Minnesota farmers.
The conversation was one of the dozens that Petersen fielded Saturday as he popped back and forth between the annual conventions for the Farmers Union and Minnesota Farm Bureau. At each, farmers would shake Petersen's hand and quietly share the obstacles they'd conquered getting their crops out, the work they had left to do or the loss they expected to take on crops stuck in mud or frozen fields.
Typically the conventions mark the end of harvest and offer farmers a chance to relax and to celebrate. But this year, many had to skip the events to keep working ahead of another round of snow expected this week.
Damp weather this spring slowed or prevented planting in much of the state. And heavy rain along with early snow this fall has made fields muddy and potentially perilous for key equipment needed to harvest crops.
On top of the inclement weather, farmers have faced another year of low commodity prices, low yields and decreased demand due to ongoing trade wars. Regional farm bankruptcy filings swelled in response and more could lie ahead as farm debt is expected to reach a record high.
"I think it's worse than people think and I'm concerned about that," Petersen said outside a public policy discussion at the Farm Bureau convention in Bloomington.
The commissioner who raises horses on a farm in Pine City spoke to dozens of farmers at each of the events on Saturday and he said he takes several calls each day from farmers struggling to make ends meet. One-by-one, they'd shake his hand and ask about state support for farmers in crisis, programs around suicide prevention, legislation they wanted to bring next year or where they might be able to buy a couple of bales of hay.
The conversations weighed on him as a farmer who'd spent years getting to know hundreds of his peers around the state, Petersen said.
"I think I have kind of a big heart and I want to help everybody," Petersen said. "It's hard for me to hear. I just feel like I can't always help people."
Petersen's department has fielded dozens of calls this year from farmers in need of financial, mental health and food assistance. And a pair of state-contracted rural mental health counselors said they've heard from hundreds of farmers, family members, friends and others calling to learn more about resources for stress and anxiety.
The state has made an effort to better promote the resources and after hundreds of barns collapsed under the weight of heavy snow this spring, lawmakers approved disaster loans to repair them and additional funds to hire a second rural mental health counselor.
One farmer shared his theory that each year that ended in nine proved to be a tough one for farmers: 1979, 2009, now 2019. Others said they expected, or at least hoped, that next year would be better.
"Hopefully it's an anomaly," John Appel, an Aitkin County farmer, told Petersen, after talking about the tough year. "It can't get any worse."
And more tough conversations lie ahead for farmers, Petersen said. Over the next two months, they'll have to decide whether they can plant next year, if they'll have to rent out fields or get creative another way to stay afloat financially.
As he spoke to dozens of Farm Bureau members in Bloomington late Saturday morning, Petersen took stock of the challenges farmers had faced this year. And he shared the motto that he said he uses around his office.
"It's an amazingly challenging year," Petersen said. "We're going to have those challenges, but we have to find those opportunities."
Resources for farmers
Mental health and stress management support
Minnesota Farm and Rural Helpline — (833) 600-2670 x 1
Mental Health and Family Services Line — 1-800-FARM-AID
Ted Matthews, rural mental health counselor — 320-266-2390
Monica McConkey, rural mental health counselor — 218-280-7785
Mental Health Minnesota — text "MN" to 741741
If you or a farmer you know is experiencing financial stress, contact the Farm Information Line at 1-800-232-9077 to set up a financial counseling session.
Minnesota Farm Advocates, "Farmers Helping Farmers" — 1-800-967-2474