Early on a June morning last year, South Dakota farmer Chris Dykshorn left his bed and put on the farm clothes he kept in a closet on the porch. He climbed into the old Chevy he used to get around the farm and started the engine. Amber, his wife of 14 years, could hear him drive away. A few minutes later, Chris was out of the car and standing in a grassy spot between some old metal grain bins and an assortment of forlorn-looking storage buildings. An old blue pickup, some rusting cars and farm equipment sat unused nearby. Across a field, he could almost see the house where his three children were still asleep. The 35-year-old soybean farmer pressed the end of a deer rifle against his chest and pulled the trigger.
Suicide is a leading cause of death in the U.S., especially among farmers and ranchers who are dying by their own hand at a much higher rate than the general population. The number of suicides in South Dakota is up significantly over the past decade, increasing by 40 percent. At the same time, hospitalizations and emergency room visits for self-inflicted wounds nearly doubled. With a reliance on heavy machinery and long hours, farming is already a dangerous occupation. Stressors unique to the job make it more so.
Falling commodity prices, bad weather, trade wars and isolation are just a few of the problems that farmers are facing today. Net farm income is down significantly over the last several years. Crops are planted, not knowing if they will be harvested at a profit. In the meantime, bills come due and loans must be repaid.
A Downward Spiral
A few years ago, Chris and Amber Dykshorn moved onto the farm and into a house that his parents own. They sold their own home and Chris gave up a steady-paying job in the nearby town of Platte, anxious to follow in his father’s farming footsteps. Amber was not convinced it was a good idea. But she went along anyway. “The first couple years of farming were very challenging,” she says. “We didn't really have a profit either year. We actually had some losses.” But by the spring of 2019, things were improving, and they began to turn a profit. “Chris was very upbeat.” And then it started to rain.
The rain seemed to never end, persisting through the spring, making it impossible to plant. In the meantime, there were animals to take care of. On a cool morning in April, Chris was trying to milk a cow when she kicked him in the face, throwing him across the barn. Amber took him to the doctor that afternoon to look at the swelling and fix some broken teeth. “But they didn't do any imaging or anything like that,” she says. “They thought he was okay.” She wonders now if Chris’ head injury had anything to do with his mental state. “But I'll never know.”
By the middle of May, Chris was showing signs of stress. He had hoped to have a crop in the ground before they left on a long-planned family vacation, a gift from Amber’s father. But continued rain and flooding made planting impossible.
In early June, Amber and her daughter spent the weekend two hours away at a basketball tournament in Sioux Falls. “I got a couple texts from Chris, saying that he couldn't sleep. He was really down, and he had been crying,” she says. “And I knew that things were… he was struggling.”
All the while, Chris was trying to decide whether or not to purchase crop insurance in an effort to cut his losses. At Amber’s suggestion, a visit from a neighbor and their pastor brought momentary relief. But the escalation of stress soon continued, seemingly unabated.
The Dykshorn children attend the nearby Christian School. “We still owed about $3,000 for that year's tuition and we needed to sell some grain,” Amber says. But they couldn’t sell the grain because a truck wouldn’t be able to haul it out over the wet and muddy roads. Bills were coming in and money was running out. The morning of June 6, Chris's 35th birthday, “He just dropped to his knees and said ‘I just wish I'd die.’”
The day before he shot himself, Chris did farm chores with his dad. He texted Amber. “My dad thinks he needs to hold my hand.” Amber texted back “You know, maybe that's okay. Maybe you do need that.” That morning he found a water leak. After that, something broke on the vehicle used to haul feed to the animals. It wouldn’t move. Sensing his mounting frustration, Amber left her part-time insurance job early that day to be with her husband. Chris’ dad thought they’d had a really good day. “We got a lot accomplished.” “But you know?” Amber says now. “Chris couldn't see the positives in it. He was just dwelling on the negatives.”
Farm and Rural Stress Hotline
Outfitted with a light blue mask and transparent face protector, Nichole Ringing Shield is on the phone in an office she shares with three other mental health counselors in suburban Sioux Falls. They work for Avera, a regional health-care system serving the Dakotas and neighboring states. The small, ground-level room is ringed with seven workstations, each one of them cluttered with personal effects and piles of paper. A row of windows along one wall offers a view of the parking lot.
The counselors take calls at the Avera Farm and Rural Stress Hotline, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Over the weekend, there might be just two or three of them present. After midnight, only one. Nichole has been manning the phones since the hotline started, almost two years ago. Typically, she will assess a caller’s situation and, if needed, will schedule an appointment at the Avera Behavioral Health Center in Sioux Falls or another facility — not necessarily run by Avera — closer to where the caller lives.
“Just realizing that there are mental health centers much closer, that is absolutely a breath of fresh air to them,” she says. “Because they realize they don't have to go to Sioux Falls or Rapid City. They don't have to travel as far.” Sometimes though, there isn’t time to wait. “If there's a crisis, I'll help him right away. You don’t want someone to be alone in that situation.”
The Value of Firsthand Experience
Walt Bones is a fourth-generation, 45-year farmer, 25 miles southwest of Sioux Falls. His great grandfather homesteaded here in 1879. In partnership with two brothers and a brother-in-law, he grows corn and soybeans and has a dairy herd of 1,600 cows. In addition to a flourishing seed business, the partners also manufacture and sell metal fencing and feeders as well as other farm products. Having served on a number of agriculture-related committees over the years, Bones was tapped to serve as South Dakota’s secretary of agriculture from 2011-2013.
In addition to his farming duties, Bones serves on the Avera Foundation board of directors, where he helped develop the Farm and Rural Stress Hotline. His efforts now are focused on raising funds to keep it going. “Sometimes the title ‘former Secretary of Ag’ means a lot more when you're trying to raise money,” he says. “And I get that.”
Walt Bones: “Farmers are very independent. Sometimes things get in our head and we don't know how to fix it. And that creates a whole other stress.”
Bones credits 17-year Avera physician assistant Karl Oehlke with the hotline idea. In addition to his full-time duties at the Behavioral Health Center, Oehlke is also a farmer, raising soybeans, corn and hay on land not far from his grandparents’ homestead. Besides occasional help from his 72-year-old father, he farms alone. “I wanted to farm my whole life,” he says.
Having experienced the ups and downs of farming firsthand, Oehlke wondered why he wasn’t seeing more farmers at his practice. “I know they're stressed out there. You look at depression, you look at suicide rates. They've increased over the years in agriculture,” he says. “Why aren't we seeing that percentage of folks in here?” The biggest barrier, he thinks, is stigma. “Farmers don't ask for help. If we can't fix it, then it's not broken.” Walt Bones has another theory. “We're not usually used to going in and talking about our issues with somebody.”
As a health professional who also farms, Karl Oehlke knows firsthand the ups and downs of farming. “You know, this is a hell of a lot of work for not a lot of income.”
When Nichole answers the hotline, many times a caller will want to know if she has any real understanding of the rigors of ranching and farming. “They ask, where do you live?” she says. “They'll definitely ask for your point of reference.” That hasn’t been a problem for Karl Oehkle who has taken calls with patients while he is out working at his own farm.
Not long ago, a farmer’s wife called, asking if Karl could speak with her husband. “He’s struggling,” she said. “But he can't talk till after 10 o'clock tonight, because he’s out planting.” Karl waited before placing the call from the cab of his massive green John Deere tractor. “That first phone call, you can always hear that trepidation and a kind of standoffishness through the phone,” he says. Within minutes, a warning buzzer went off inside the cab. “I said oh, I'm sorry. That's my planter monitor. I'm out planting. ‘You're actually a real farmer?’ And that, of course, set the stage and gained rapport almost instantaneously.” They have spoken many times since.
“I've had more than one individual say 'boy, it's nice just to talk to somebody,'” says Karl.
“Secrets of Ag” Project
Sometimes, a chance to be heard is all that’s needed. With her “Secrets of Ag” project, dairy farmer Jessica Peters solicits secrets from farmers that she then posts anonymously on Instagram and Facebook. The secrets often speak to the trials and tribulations of life on a farm. “Lost two cows and a calf this week AND got an extra 2” of unneeded rain. Getting hard to stay positive.” Many are filled with despair. “I cry at least once a day here on the farm, fearing that I will fail my family. I hide the anxiety by pushing myself to complete exhaustion and to keep our household floating financially. I will not let my kids see me, their mother, fail.”
With her brother as partner, Jessica runs a fifth-generation family farm in western Pennsylvania. Her dad helps out and they have just one hired hand which means she never gets any time off. Her 10-hour days start at 7 a.m. with milking, followed by farm chores and another round of milking in the evening. “I do that 24/7, 365 days a year,” she says. “Every Christmas, every Thanksgiving, every birthday. Through pneumonia, through cancer, through broken bones. We do that all the time, every single day. That alone is enough to drive you crazy.”
Jessica Peters: “Two percent of our population is feeding the other 98 percent. That should make us farmers a big deal. But it's not.”
Karl Oehkle from the Avera hotline agrees. “The hard part about the farm, you can never get away from it,” he says. “You live there. You see it every day, you walk out, and that stress is staring you in the face."
Jessica thinks people are more willing to share their secrets with her because they know she can relate. “The big problem is that most [farmers] don't want to talk to professionals because they don't understand agriculture.” Unable to offer professional help herself, providing an uncritical outlet might be all they need. “Just getting it off their chest makes it feel a lot less of a big deal,” she says. “And that was my point from the beginning.”
Besides giving them an outlet, Jessica will often offer empathy and understanding. “I’m a failure because I can’t save my family’s farm,” read a recent submission. Her response: “We’re doing more than ever; helping the environment, taking better care of our animals, and producing better products with fewer resources. Yet we’re struggling more than ever before. It doesn’t make sense.” What comfort Jessica can’t provide, commentators often will. “This is a safe space,” she says. “I'm just trying to find people support and love and encouragement.”
The Challenges of a Geographically Big State
As the director of the South Dakota Department of Social Services, Secretary Laurie Gill is all too aware of the problems farmers and ranchers face in her state. “We have dealt with the behavioral health needs of farmers for decades… going back to the 80s,” she says. “This is not a new problem.”
Gill’s department contracts with 11 regional community health centers spread across the vastness of South Dakota. “They're the backbone for mental health services in our state.” Even so, it can be difficult for people in remote areas to access one of them. “If they have to drive 350 miles to get to help, there's the potential they’re going to say forget it,” Gill says. “Our challenge in a geographically big state with few people is, how do we serve everybody? How do we get through that access issue?”
Isolation can contribute to mental health problems, especially in a state like South Dakota where distance and lack of broadband can be barriers to getting help.
Farmers often work in isolation which can exacerbate mental health problems. Being separated from others by great distances only compounds the problem. “My hope is that we will be able to use telehealth, virtual methods of reaching people more than we have been,” says Secretary Gill. “One of our governor's top initiatives is to get broadband everywhere in the state,” she says. But for now, “the issue we have is that not every place in the state has access to Internet. So we can talk about technology all day long, but it all depends on that.”
In the meantime, South Dakota recently received the first of three annual $400,000 payments from a federal grant to combat the state’s rising suicide rates. And last January the governor rolled out a five-year, comprehensive plan aimed at suicide prevention, increasing access to services and recovery help for survivors and families. “We are not giving up on this,” Gill says. “This is something that's now becoming institutionalized within the upper leadership of state government.”
Learning from Experience
This is Bob Worth’s 50th year of farming in Minnesota. Like a lot of farmers around here, he and his son Jon raise corn and soybeans, mostly for export. Worth always wanted to be a farmer, just like his father and two uncles. “I knew from day one, that’s what I wanted to be.” Unfortunately, he began his career in 1981, taking over his father’s farm just as interest rates began to climb, eventually hitting 21 percent. At the same time, land values plummeted. “The 80s were a very, very rough time,” he says now.
Without enough money for a down payment on the farm, Worth borrowed the whole amount, saddling him with a huge debt when he could least afford it. “I was getting to the point where I was almost going to lose the farm,” he says. “And that was eating at me because you know, I was going to be a failure. And that's happening with the young farmers today. It's a scary thing to go through.”
Having dealt with his own depression, Bob Worth takes every opportunity to talk about it. “There's nothing to be ashamed about having depression. It's more of a shame if you don't get help.”
“I’ve known a lot of people who’ve committed suicide,” Bob says. “One of them was a really good friend. He was a very quiet person. Kept everything to himself. The bank was coming out the next week to tell him they were going to have to sell everything out. He shot himself.”
It was Worth’s wife that took note of his change in personality. “She could just tell that I was slipping further and further into depression,” he says. “I did not resist her. I'm glad she found it in me. Otherwise, you don't know what would have happened. That's why I like telling my story. Because I want to help somebody else.”
Active in state and national soybean growers associations, Worth has published articles about his own depression and occasionally speaks on the subject in his regular local radio appearances. “A lot of people have actually contacted me and said, 'I'm glad you talked about it. I'm going to get help.'”
Even though Bob and his son have to work hard to make ends meet, their farm looks prosperous. More than 2,000 acres of corn and soybeans are nearing harvest in late August. Their collection of outsize machinery might not be brand new, but every piece appears bright, shiny, and well-maintained. A half mile down a dirt road, an abandoned farmhouse and barn suggest that not everyone made it this far unscathed.
The Farm Continues
It’s been over a year since Chris Dykshorn shot himself. Amber is taking a walk around their property on a hot late-summer day. Diesel, the family’s three-legged dog, follows along. Directly opposite her front door, a children’s playhouse is the only thing around that looks like it’s been used lately. Rusty old cars and trucks are scattered everywhere, nearly hidden in the tall grass. She passes a number of ramshackle sheds and outbuildings before reaching a low barbed-wire fence. From here, she can see the spot where her husband died.
A year ago, Amber was facing a debt of $300,000. “Right now, there's just under $13,000 left,” she says. “And the beans that I sell will take care of that.” She nods toward a storage bin full of soybeans that Chris harvested in 2018. His father will haul them away later today. Within a few weeks, Chris’ brother John will take over the farm with the help of his father. Amber and the kids are moving into a brand-new house a few miles away.
Years earlier, Chris had been supportive of Amber when she was suffering with her own anxieties. “I had struggled with depression for many years,” she says. “In fact, I had been hospitalized twice. Once in 2011 after my uncle committed suicide. And then again in 2015.
“Chris was my stronghold.”
Amber visits her husband’s grave, not far from their farm.
The number for the Avera Farm and Rural Stress Hotline mentioned in the story is 1-800-691-4336. In addition, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 for anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. The Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.