Commissioner of Agriculture Kate Greenberg this week joined other state officials to kick off May as Mental Health Month, with the signing of a special proclamation at the State Capitol.
Mental health advocates used the occasion to draw attention to the shortage of mental health and substance abuse treatment services, which is particularly pronounced in rural areas.
Among Colorado ag leaders, there's already a big push underway to increase awareness of the psychological impacts of the current farm financial crisis and provide support for individuals and families who are hurting. The campaign has won respect and admiration from other states, many of which are now looking at starting similar projects.
When Greenberg was named ag commissioner, she announced that rural mental health would be one of her key priority areas. But the agency's effort to bring more awareness to the issue began even earlier, under former commissioner Don Brown, a corn, wheat and cattle farmer from Yuma.
As Brown describes it, farmers can only pull themselves up by their bootstraps for so long before those bootstraps wear out.
"That message needs to come from an older white male like me who is supposed to have big bootstraps," he said while speaking at the Range Rights Symposium in Loveland in late March.
Ups and downs in agricultural profitability are nothing new, he conceded.
"We're usually pretty darn good at coping with this sort of thing. It's just part of our business model," he said.
He recalled that when he and his wife began farming in 1978, times were good. "
Back then you couldn't do anything wrong. Everything made money," he said. "But by the mid-1980s, you couldn't do anything right."
It's starting to feel that way again.
Though corn prices are roughly the same as they were 40 years ago, operating expenses have more than doubled, Brown said, numbers that just don't add up. cascade of circumstances over which farmers have no control include drought, floods and hail, Chinese trade disputes and other trade disruptions, even the Frank-Dodd Act, which imposed tighter restrictions on banking institutions following the mortgage crisis.
"There's a new set of rules now. It's not who you are but how the numbers add up," Brown said of the current lending environment.
The crisis hit home for him when a neighbor quietly reached out to his wife about the need to sell their farm. He knew right then things were serious, and it was time to act.
"I think we need to learn from the past," he said, referring to the devastation wrought by the last big farm crisis of the 1980s.
When multiple suicides occurred in Kiowa County last summer, it captured local, statewide and even national attention, which also helped to spur action, Brown added.
"Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem," he said. "We have to convince people that if you can just get through the moment, you can get to the future. The funeral's the simple part, what's left is the mess."
Last year ,Brown sprang into action to beef up the state's crisis response. He didn't want to re-create the wheel. But he wanted to make sure Colorado Crisis Services was prepared to talk knowledgeably with farmers and that farm families knew it was available as a resource.
Brown and his team rallied together leaders of prominent agricultural organizations and also individuals like Ann Hanna, who ranches in the Hanover area and experienced first-hand the loss of her husband Kirk to isolation and despair.
Their voices and stories were used to create training videos for crisis specialists, not only to clarify the lingo of agriculture, but also to help provide a fuller picture of how farm financial stress profoundly affects people with strong emotional ties to their land and livelihood.
The department also printed up business cards that have been distributed to extension offices, auction barns, implement dealerships, banks and other gathering places promoting the toll-free crisis hotline.
The effort has received high marks from other states but also from rural leaders within the state.
After more than 40 years in the auction business, Chuck Miller, of Brush, publicly applauded the campaign.
"Most auctions are positive and the right thing," he explained. "When you don't have an operator left in the family, it's time to sell."
But too many sales are made under duress. Miller said he believes the growing malaise in farm country is a barometer for society as a whole, something akin to the proverbial canary in the coal mine.
"It's not just veterans; it's not just farmers," he said during the Range Rights Symposium. "More and more people are having trouble just coping with the stress of life in a lot of businesses. That's why we've got to come together to deal with it. When it's tough for the farmer, it's tough for the world."
Bruce Fickenscher is another local leader who has been speaking up about mental stress in agriculture, going back to eastern Colorado's interminable droughts of the early 2000s.
As southeast area director for CSU Extension, he travels a seven-county area that includes the lower Arkansas Valley. Succession planning and AgrAbility programs, which help farmers adjust to physical impairments, have always touched on mental health to some degree, he said, but now the topic is more pronounced.
He participates in a task force put together by Southeast Health Group, which has offices in La Junta, Lamar, Eads, Las Animas, Ordway, Rocky Ford and Springfield.
"A half a dozen of us get together once a month to talk about our concerns, specifically as it relates to producers," Fickenscher said recently. "We started working on this in November, just looking at what we could do."
They've done some community education that emphasizes one main point: having somebody show genuine interest can change the trajectory of a person's life.
Whether or not they recognize it, people who work in small-town businesses and at service agencies like the extension office often make up the first line of defense. Fickenscher believes that an expression of interest needs to come from someone other than a direct family member.
"Sometimes people just need somebody who is willing to sit and listen," he said. "When people come into our office just to talk, we need to pay attention to that."
The extension service has fact sheets and resources to help determine whether someone is in crisis and how to demonstrate interest and keep a dialogue flowing.
And there is also support available for family members, neighbors and friends.
"When we started our group, one of the first things I said is I don't know if we can prevent every suicide, probably not. But we need to be here for the people who are left. They are the ones who really need our help," he said.
Fickenscher doesn't expect the state's new campaign to change the fact that farmers are, as he describes it, "a pretty independent bunch and we hold a lot of stuff inside us."
But he does believe if more people are talking about the issue, it might make it easier to reach out for help.
"This is something we should always be concerned about," he said. "Maybe these are just the events and circumstances that have to happen to bring it to the top of everybody's mind again."
Colorado Crisis Services can be reached at 844-493-TALK (8255) or by texting TALK to 38255. Additional resources are posted online on the Colorado Department of Agriculture website.