The way a farmer is -- or is not -- raising crops or livestock is a good indicator of stress, said Monica Kramer-McConkey, a rural mental health specialist.

Farmers and ranchers who are under stress often neglect to take proper care of things, including land, livestock and farmsteads, she told farmers at an International Crop Expo session on mental health at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks. If someone who typically took good care of the farmland, animals and farmstead has stopped doing so, it is a good indicator that they are under stress, she said.

Kramer-McConkey’s session, “Emotional Stress on the Farm: Implementing Practical Strategies to Cope,” on Wednesday, Feb. 19, was one of several sessions during the two-day crop expo, which featured information about soybeans, potatoes and small grains production.

North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota farmers who grow those crops have been under a great deal of stress during the past six months because of adverse harvest conditions. Many farmers were unable to harvest their crops in 2019 because of heavy rains and early snows. Meanwhile, potatoes and sugar beets were damaged by freezing temperatures.

McConkey, who was raised on a farm and works with farmers and farm families in her job as Minnesota Department of Agriculture rural mental health specialist, has seen first-hand the effects that stress has on farmers. One was the scene that greeted her eyes when she drove into a once-neatly kept farmyard with a flourishing dairy cow herd, she said.

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“As soon as I drove on to the farmstead, I knew things weren’t going well,” she said, noting that only was the farmstead unkempt, but the farmer’s once topnotch dairy herd also had declined in production.

“He used to have one of the best herds in the country,” Kramer-McConkey said.

Besides a decline in in animals’ appearance and utilitarian functions, their personalities also can be a good indicator of their owners' mental state, she said.

“Veterinarians see it when people bring in their pets. They can tell how the owner is functioning through the behavior of the animal,” Kramer-McConkey said. For example, if a gentle dog becomes aggressive, that can indicate to the veterinarian that something is amiss with the owner.

Other ways that stress manifests itself includes isolation, mood changes and lack of motivation.

“It would be a departure from how they are typically functioning,” Kramer-McConkey said.

Talking to a trusted person about feelings of stress, practicing relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, guided imagery and meditation and prayer are some of the ways to reduce stress, she said.

Another way to reduce stress is to make connections between thoughts/feelings and actions.

“Our thinking directly affects how we feel,” she noted. It’s helpful to peel away the layers of the thought to get to its root, then determine whether what's at the root of the stress can be changed. If it can be, make a plan to change it, and if it can’t be, accept that, Kramer-McConkey suggested.

The simplest thing that someone who is concerned about whether another person is considering suicide can do is to bluntly ask them that very question.

“Ask them directly: “Are you thinking of killing yourself?” Kramer-McConkey said.

Farmers might be hesitant to ask someone if they are having suicidal thoughts because they are concerned they will offend the person if their hunch is wrong, Kramer-McConkey noted. However, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask because it’s similar to asking a person who is sitting along the side of the road after a car accident if they are OK, she said.

If the person answers “yes,” to the suicide question, they should be connected to someone who can help them.

“Don’t leave them alone,” Kramer-McConkey said.

The International Crop Expo resumes at 9 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 20, at the Alerus Center.