Farm Horizons, June 2018

Emmer’s STRESS Act aims to aid farmers

By Gabe Licht
Delano Herald Journal Editor

“When you’re responsible for feeding the world, you feel the weight of the world on your shoulders,” said US Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Delano.

He hoped to pass the Stemming the Tide of Rural Economic Stress and Suicide, or STRESS, as part of the Agriculture and Nutrition Act, known as the farm bill, to help farmers cope with the challenges they face and combat the high number of farmers who take their own lives.

Despite the farm bill not being passed on the first try, Emmer plans to be proactive in passing legislation that he believes helps farmers in Minnesota and beyond, including the STRESS Act, which would reauthorize the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network, or FRSAN.

“Today’s vote on the farm bill is not the end of the line,” Emmer said May 18. “Our farmers in Minnesota and across the country still need the reforms included in this bill: improvements for dairy risk management, protection of the crop insurance program, important investments to counteract livestock epidemics, and my legislation to combat farmer suicide, the STRESS Act. As such, all of these efforts will continue to move forward.”

He believes his STRESS Act is especially important, and statistics support that belief.

“Farm families experience suicide five times the rest of the population,” Emmer said, citing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics. “This is a crisis right in front of us that nobody talks about.”

One of Emmer’s constituents – Frank Schiefelbein, of Kimball – experienced the crisis firsthand when his son, Bill, committed suicide about 30 years ago.

“When they were closing the casket, I said I’d do everything in my power to make sure it wouldn’t happen to someone else’s family,” Schiefelbein said.

He started out by serving about 10 years on the Minnesota Board of Behavioral Health and Therapy, with accomplishments including securing funding for children’s mental health needs.

But, Schiefelbein does not believe anything has changed in how mental health conditions are treated.

“Something has to change,” he said. “It’s getting worse. The suicide rate is as high as it’s ever been.”

The uncertainties farmers face make things worse for them.

“Their living depends on weather they can’t control, prices they can’t control, and government they can’t control,” Schiefelbein said. “Everything they do has a hindrance to it. It’s too much stress on an average guy.”

How would Emmer’s legislation address those stressors if it were to be authorized and funds be appropriated for it, which never happened for the FRSAN legislation former Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, of Iowa, authored?

“It would create a pool of money for grants given to state efforts, extensions, 501c3s, commodity organizations, and funds could be used to roll out mental health assistance efforts specifically to farmers,” Emmer said.

He believes Minnesota could put such funds to good use, especially considering the Minnesota Department of Agriculture has just one mental health counselor on staff for the entire state.

Agricultural organizations throughout the state and nation are lining up in support of the legislation.

“For those in rural areas seeking mental health services, they face two giant obstacles: availability and accessibility,” according to a statement from the National Rural Health Association. “In 55 percent of all American counties, most of which are rural, there is not a single psychologist, psychiatrist, or social worker. The FRSAN could help support agricultural workers and their families in rural communities by providing easily obtainable resources for mental health services.”

A statement from the Minnesota Farmers Union thanks Emmer for his efforts, and states the organization will continue working with him to get the legislation passed.

“It’s no secret that the farm economy is struggling,” added Matthew Fitzgerald, a farmer and co-leader of Central Minnesota Young Farmers Coalition. “What’s harder to talk about is the stress that it puts on farmers . . . Farms are the cornerstone of our communities, and this legislation demonstrates that the community understands, values, and supports its farmers.”

Despite hitting the initial roadblock with the farm bill, Emmer believes bipartisan support for the STRESS Act, which has seven Democratic cosponsors and six Republican cosponsors – will prevail.

“I think it means we’re doing the right thing,” Emmer said of the support that came simply after he introduced the legislation, without soliciting cosponsors. “You don’t find too many issues where people get around quickly and together.”

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