Jared Estes' remarkable story of surviving a fiery car crash caused by a drunken driver is not the typical programming offered at farm meetings, but it's an example of how the farm community is wrestling with the need to be more open about personal hardship and its toll on mental health.
Lance Feikert, a board member and former president of the No Till on the Plains organization who resigned to deal with a series of health-related challenges in his own family, introduced Estes' presentation to kick-off the group's annual winter meeting in Wichita, Kansas, in late January.
Even just four or five years ago such a presentation wouldn't have been considered appropriate, but attitudes are changing, Feikert said after the session ended.
Farmers who are used to keeping their problems to themselves and handling everything on their own are learning the value of sharing their struggles and relying on supportive friends to help them get through, he said.
That's especially true of the no-till group, which tends to push the envelope on new farming practices and often feels kidded or even ridiculed by those who congregate at local gathering spots.
"This meeting is like going to the coffee shop for us," Feikert said of the like-minded camaraderie.
Feikert and his younger brother are close friends with Estes, who grew up in the same community of Bucklin, Kansas. The Estes name is prominent in agricultural circles because Jared's dad and uncles are owner-operators of six John Deere dealerships spread across the western third of the state.
His story of survival and perseverance, however, is all his own.
Estes was working in the sports management field and heading home from a hockey game in Wichita the night he, his wife and two of their friends were rear-ended by a car speeding down Kellogg Avenue at well over 100 miles an hour. Both cars burst into flames upon impact.
By the time Estes stumbled from the wreckage, he had been severely burned over 50 percent of his body. Most of those burns were third degree and would require extensive skin grafts.
His childhood sweetheart and new wife Paige, who also grew up in Bucklin, was at the wheel that night and died in the accident.
Estes detailed how he endured 50 excruciating surgeries over three years, all while struggling to come to terms with the loss of his wife. For many months, his determination to visit her grave was the one thing that kept him going.
But when that day finally came, it was disappointing. He still had splints on both of his hands, and his mobility was still so limited that he couldn't pitch a fit the way he had envisioned it.
What ultimately gave Estes the will to go on was realizing all the loved ones around him who were also feeling her loss and investing so much hope and care in his own prolonged recovery.
Estes related his experience in riveting detail, throwing in a few lighter moments, including a few jokes about his removable prosthetic ear. But he concluded with a list of serious takeaway lessons useful to anyone encountering any kind of hardship.
"This isn't just my story," he said. "It's a version of all of our stories."
"Life is going to be a fight for all of us at some point," he added. "But pity is a noose we can hang ourselves with."
One piece of advice he had was to keep things in perspective, something made easier for every member of the audience just by listening to him describe his own ordeal.
"Too often we dwell on things that don't really matter," he said.
His other tools for firing back against life's setbacks included grace, gratitude, teamwork, goals, and letting go of who you used to be when circumstances change.
Estes now travels the world as a full-time public speaker. Booking details are available at JaredEstes.com.
Karen Eifert-Jones, who drove up from her farm near Waukomis, Oklahoma, to attend her first No Till on the Plains conference, applauded the group's willingness to address the sensitive topic of enduring and overcoming personal hardship.
She worked as a farm lender during the 1980s farm crisis, a somber experience that haunts her still, and sees many parallels to the brutal economic realities facing today's farmers.
Without talking openly about traumatic experiences and the impact they have mental health, adults and students alike won't understand what to look for or how to help when someone in their family or community is in trouble, she said. Shrouding mental health challenges in silence tends to create a stigma around the issue that isn't helpful for anyone, she added.
But she also believes attitudes are changing. She cited a worldwide Twitter campaign, #ItsOkToNotBeOk, as one example of positive awareness-raising.
"We just need to be willing to talk about this more," she said.