This is a Post About Drought. And Farmer Suicide.

I traveled to Pierre on Saturday from my home in Northeastern South Dakota–a tiny little nook of the state that is green, lush, and lucky with moisture. We had edged into abnormally dry status in the last drought monitor update dated 7/25, but the nearest weather station update records nearly an inch of rain that day–and I’m fairly certain that in our little corner we absorbed twice that or more late that afternoon and into the evening.


The afternoon of the storm, I was trudging around a Nature Conservancy prairie preserve in Deuel County, and as I was leaving lightning was flashing in the distance and dark clouds edging in from the north and west. As my companion drove us back into Clear Lake, there was a solid gray wall bisecting upper Main Street from lower–a wall of absolute deluge. Despite being parked directly next to the driver’s side door of my vehicle, I had to wait about five minutes before the downward-facing firehose let up.

It’s a different story elsewhere in the state.

I travel to Pierre once or twice a month, so I knew already the stricken landscape that is central South Dakota. When I was there ten days ago, the bindweed (whose roots can extend thirty feet deep in the soil) was the last green thing remaining in the un-irrigated hillside lawns in town. Now it too has browned out.

This time, I was in the area for a tour of B&G Produce farm near Canning and meeting of the Greater Oahe Action League (GOAL) Chapter of Dakota Rural Action. Because of Matt and Lindy’s stewardship of water resources through drip irrigation, the beds of produce there were green and lush–but in between the rows, the soil was powder-dry.

Matt Geraets, who led the tour, told us one of his challenges this summer is pocket gophers–not their tunnels or depredations of the crops themselves so much as that they are chewing holes in the irrigation lines because there is no water to be found anywhere else. Powerful dust devils are also an issue–one whipped off a fifty-foot length of row cover, sucked it up in the air, and deposited it…well, they don’t even know where it ended up.

In attendance on the tour were a number of town folks and a farm couple who raise mostly small grains north of Pierre. I won’t mention their names, but I’ll say that I fell into conversation with them as we walked to the far fields of tomatoes, peppers, and squash. He said that he’d just plowed under his sunflower crop, and I naively asked if there might be any allelopathic effects of the plowed-down crop on a subsequent one.

[For the uninitiated, allelopathy refers to the positive or negative effects of one crop on another–sunflowers are known to have a negative effect on some other crops.]

He chuckled and said, “well, I doubt it, since I only had a 10% stand.” Meaning, only about 10% of his crop even had enough moisture to survive. Yeah. It’s bad out there. And, considering the conditions, there isn’t really the ability to plant a late crop–even a cover crop to protect the barren soil. When weeds with roots a dozen feet down can’t survive, there probably isn’t anything else that can, either. Except the farmers themselves.

Which brings me to the next point. And that is this: it’s too late to save the crops. It’s too late for the grass to come back or to have enough to feed all the cows through the winter. But it is NOT too late to save the farmers and ranchers, and we’d better start talking about that. Right. Damn. Now.

That point came to me later in the morning, after I’d traveled a much larger swathe of the Crow Creek Reservation than ever before. I was heading down to Chamberlain to see a friend who’s a mentor to me, and whom I’d not seen for a couple of months. It was early in the morning, and I saw a detour I thought I was supposed to take–though looking back I kind of wonder if it was a necessary turn. Whatever. I had time.

Crow Creek storm
Too little too late–storm clouds north of Crow Creek.

The sign said, “Detour BIA 3,” but as far as I know, I was on SD 50. There was also a “ROAD CLOSED TO THROUGH TRAFFIC” sign (I think–but maybe I just remember that wrong because I saw a lot of other signs like that before I got to where I was going). I had a half tank of gas, so, why not? I took the dirt road out through the pastures.

It ended up taking an extra hour to get to my friend’s place. I saw a lot of miles with a lot of cattle on a lot of dried-out grass. And then I finally found a crossroads with actual multi-directional signs and stopped to pull my gazetteer out of the backseat.

[Pro tip: rural travelers do not depend on navigation apps.]

I was east of my target destination, and apparently I was smack dab in the middle of the town of Shelby. Let me relieve you of the notion that there is an actual town there–there is a ranch there, but a town there isn’t. Still, I now knew exactly where I was and how to get where I was going.

After I related the previous night’s conversation, my friend told me she’d attended a recent meeting in that area on the topic of the drought. There were dozens of local farmers and ranchers there, and although folks sat with other folks they knew, there wasn’t the usual jovial atmosphere of previous gatherings she’d seen. The discussion focused on belt-tightening–the corn cut for hay (not wet enough for silage), the recommendation to return newly purchased and rented equipment. How many cows to sell off.

And then one of the professional presenters who’d started her presentation on drought effects abruptly stopped, removed her glasses, pulled up a slide, and started to cry.

The slide was the suicide hotline.

This is where we are at, folks. It is better that we start talking about it now. Now, before we lose anyone–though in saying that, I realize that I don’t actually know that. Maybe we’ve lost people already. Maybe we’ve lost people and there’s nothing in the obit column that makes it clear this is why. We’d better start talking about it. Right. Now.

I’m a child of the 70’s, and I grew up in the 1980’s. I grew up in the Champlain Valley of Vermont, which is a region that was, at that time, rich in dairy farms. And then came the farm crisis and the whole herd buyout. My school was a mix of kids whose parents worked for the ultra-spendy liberal arts college, kids whose parents worked white and blue collar jobs or no jobs at all, and farm kids–mostly dairy. Some kids whose parents sold out their herds and moved to town. I was young enough and sheltered enough then that if the worst happened, I would never have heard the reasons behind it–though farmers in the Northeast had a much lower rate of suicide than those in the West and Midwest.

Now that I’m older, and I’ve worked for a couple of organizations that formed during the farm crisis of the 80’s, I’ve learned the history of what happened, and I see many of the same factors playing out today. Commodity prices have crashed. We have an administration threatening to gut USDA Rural Development funding. And, here in South Dakota (as well as North Dakota and Montana), drought is hitting hard.

According to a University of Iowa study, over a thousand farmers took their lives during the 80’s crisis. And the rate of suicide among farmers and farm workers has remained higher than in other professions.

As in the 1980s, financial issues continue to cause some suicides, especially during economic crises or periods of extreme weather, Peek-Asa says. But farmers face an array of other stresses that put them at high risk for suicide: physical isolation from a social network, leading to loneliness; physical pain from the arduous work of farming; and lack of available health care resources in rural areas, especially mental health care.   Snee, Tom. “Long after 80’s farm crisis, farm workers still take own lives at high rate.” Iowa Now. 6/12/2017.

Right now, we are seeing the double-whammies of economic crisis and extreme weather in some states–the very factors that can cause a spike in suicides.  We’re seeing our rural communities hollowed out by federal farm policies still operating on the, “get big or get out” model that we known damn well is killing us–in some cases literally. It is bad out there, and it is getting worse.

But, one thing we do have that we didn’t at the start of the eighties is a host of organizations and support networks formed during that time of crisis. Many of them are still here, still doing good work to challenge the policies that are failing people in farm country, and still fighting for family farmers and ranchers.  And many of them also help connect farmers and ranchers to support networks and communities of neighbors that can alleviate the isolation and feelings of despair.

I’m not a counselor. I’m a rural organizer. I care about farmers and ranchers and our rural communities, and I’m worried for our people. My friend in Chamberlain has been trying to get local bankers and business owners to talk about the drought for months now and has gotten virtually no acknowledgement that it exists. I’m worried that we won’t really admit how bad things are until it’s too late. I’m worried we’ll lose people.

So, let’s start talking about it. Right. Damn. Now.

Here is the South Dakota Helpline Center link.

Their suicide hotline number is 1-800-273-8255. 

Here’s a link to the Farm Aid Crisis Support page. Farm Aid was formed in 1985 to “raise awareness about the loss of family farms and to raise funds to keep farm families on the land.” They also fund the work of organizations like Dakota Rural Action, where I’m employed.

Don’t be a stranger. Visit your neighbors. Take care of yourself.

And don’t wait to ask for help.