REFERENCES & RESOURCES MENTIONED:
Guests: Dr. Alison Brennan, Courtney Brown Kibblewhite, Lisa Williams
Host, creator, producer and co-editor: Megan Torgerson
Editing, mixing and music composition: Aaron Spieldenner and Sean Dwyer, Hazy Bay Music
Transcription by: Josh Moyar
EPISODE FUNDING PARTNERS:
SEASON 3 FUNDING PARTNERS:
Megan Torgerson (narrating): It’s easy to spot the stress of labor on a farmer’s body. A weathered face wears lines drawn on by the sun. Calloused hands know the grip of a shovel. Flesh burns then scars from the brush of a branding iron, and after years of hauling grain into town, a back remains in the bent L shape of a truck seat.
But not all stress and strain derived from the business of raising crops, is visible to the eye. Behind the often stoic smile of farmers and ranchers, lay scars unseen.
I’m Megan Torgerson and this is Reframing Rural. Today’s episode is dedicated to the mental wellbeing of the women and men who grow our food. In this episode, we’ll hear from three leaders in mental health and agriculture in Montana, including Dr. Alison Brennan, the dedicated Extension Mental Health Specialist at Montana State University.
Dr. Alison Brennan: When we think about trauma, and how it affects people, that inability to control a lot of these stressors is for me, when I think of farm and ranch stress, one of the hallmarks there, because we're talking about things like climate change, and weather events and market fluctuation, right commodity prices…
Torgerson (narrating): Courtney Brown Kibblewhite, the vice president of Northern Broadcasting System, shares Dr. Brennan’s mission to dissolve enduring stigmas surrounding mental health in agricultural communities. Through Beyond the Weather, a partnership between Northern Broadcasting System and the Montana Department of Agriculture, Courtney is helping producers have conversations that move beyond the topic of Montana’s weather patterns to how they’re faring mentally and physically.
Courtney Brown Kibblewhite: So that's really the goal of the campaign is just to normalize talking about mental health. We really probably shouldn't even be saying mental health because it's health in general. You know, your mind relates to your body and if you're having negativity - negativity in your mind - that can create physical issues too.
Torgerson (narrating): And from Lisa Williams, a Central Montana rancher and wellness coach, we’ll learn about tools for managing the challenges of working with family, succession planning and the responsibilities of raising children while rearing livestock.
Lisa Williams: I don't know any farmers and ranchers that do this, that couldn't easily do something else. You know, with less stress, make more money, have more time to themselves, but we're doing it because we love it. And so I want that to be an everyday feeling. And something that clearly comes through to their kids.
Torgerson (narrating): Today’s episode will span data on farm stress from the Western Regional Agricultural Stress Assistance Program, the impact of free counseling services for Montana producers from Frontier Psychiatry, and actionable tips for how farmers and their families can restore balance to their lives and enhance their overall wellbeing.
In this episode we’ll also discuss the topic of suicide. If you find material surrounding suicide distressing, I invite you to tune into your needs and care for yourself as you listen. Hit pause and take a breath, skip ahead to the second and third podcast guest, or tune in to our next episode. You’re also welcome to check out the resources available on our episode webpage.
While this episode doesn’t exclusively focus on farm suicide, I would like to add context to the topic. According to the Center for Disease Control, farmers and ranchers are twice as likely to die by suicide compared to people working in other occupations. The stats on this vary slightly. The National Rural Health Association reports “The rate of suicide among farmers as three and a half times higher than among the general population. [And] suicide rates in rural communities increased by 48 percent between 2000 and 2018, compared with 34 percent in urban areas.”
While America has felt increasingly divided over the last decade, we are in agreement on one thing. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 90% of U.S. adults believe America is facing a mental health crisis. When you look at America on the whole, the CDC reports “the rate of suicides in the United States increased 4 percent from 2020 to 2021, after two consecutive years of decline in 2019 and 2020.”
The National Library of Medicine cites the leading causes of suicide in rural America as social isolation, access to lethal weapons, stigma surrounding mental health issues and the inaccessibility of mental health services.
While this isn’t cited as a leading cause, I think the modern conditions of farming also contribute to the reported high stress and higher suicide rates among farmers. As Dr. Brennan mentioned, tight profit margins, unfavorable markets and the climate crisis, add to the physical and emotional toll of producing food in our country. While I believe there needs to be policy reform to address the underlying sources of stress impacting families navigating the current system of agriculture, in the meantime, we need to help farmers get the tools they need to achieve better overall health. And I believe it starts with conversations like this.
Without further ado, my interview with Dr. Alison Brennan.
Megan Torgerson: So before we get into the landscape of farm stress and your role as MSU Extension’s mental health specialist, I'd love to hear a bit about you and your pull toward agriculture. Can you share with me what your family's agricultural roots meant to you as a child growing up in North Dakota, and what led you to pursue a PhD in developmental science and research the intersections of mental health and rural and agricultural communities?
Dr. Alison Brennan: Yes, happy to talk about my background. So my mom grew up on the family farm just outside of Wishek, North Dakota. So that's southern North Dakota, practically South Dakota. And growing up, well she was the firstborn child, and so she spent a lot of time, many, many of her summers, doing work on the farm. And, you know, she, as the firstborn, a lot of responsibility fell to her. And by the time she was finishing up high school, she had sort of washed her hands of being involved in ag and she was ready to leave rural North Dakota. And she ended up going to Minot, which is where she met my dad. They both went to Minot State University. And so she really had no interest in continuing on with agriculture, but my dad was an avid gardener. He had a green thumb and he loved working in our home garden. And so he grew up in Garrison, North Dakota, which is another small town in North Dakota. And my grandma always had a big garden.
And so, you know, I grew up with all of that gardening happening, and being directly involved. Like there are family photos of us when we were young children holding these huge buckets of peas and beans and we would freeze a lot of them, but they often didn't last that long because they were so good that we just ate them all right away. And so I also, growing up in Minot, that is the location of the North Dakota State Fair.
Torgerson: Yeah! I grew up going to that!
Brennan: I went to the North Dakota State Fair almost religiously every summer, not just for the rides but because of all of the 4-H livestock and there was the bunny barn. And my favorite thing to do at the North Dakota State Fair was go to the bunny barn, which is where they displayed all of their various rabbits for 4-H shows and so I'd walk through there and again, dream about being in a place where I could have those. And I will say, my parents were very accommodating of my love of animals. I got to have things like numerous fish. I had salamanders. We had cats. We even had a rat, lots of hamsters, right? But really small animals. And I knew I really wanted to get into raising larger animals and raising them more as livestock than pets.
And that didn't really happen for me until I met my husband. And my husband grew up in rural Minnesota, central Minnesota. And he grew up on a hobby farm, and so they raised pigs and goats and they had chickens. And so he had that experience, the knowledge base there and the enthusiasm. And so in 2017 we were living in our first house in Moorhead, Minnesota, and that's when we got our first little cohort of rabbits. And we started with New Zealands because we knew that they were a great meat breed, because we were really trying to raise an animal that we could use as a meat source and backyard chickens were not allowed in Moorhead at that time, so we couldn't have chickens for eggs, which was frustrating. And that finally changed. But yeah, so we started with five rabbits in August of 2017. And as rabbits will do, that expanded rather quickly, and we had a nice, insulated garage, so keeping them over the winter wasn't a big deal. And then we were approached by a local owner of the Fiber Arts Center in downtown Moorhead. And she said, “Hey, I heard that you raise rabbits, and I was wondering if you would be willing to raise giant Angoras.”
Torgerson: Wow. For their fiber.
Brennan: For their fiber. And we did a ton of research because we wanted to make sure we knew what we were getting ourselves into and angora rabbits are quite a bit more work than a meat breed. Just a lot more upkeep with their coats, and also when it comes to breeding, a lot more involvement there as well. But we researched it. And we said okay. It's kind of hard to say no when the market literally comes to you. And they're adorable. So we got on board with that. We traveled to southern Minnesota and picked seven to start with, brought them back and yeah. It's been quite a journey. And now we actually raise far more Angoras than meat rabbits.
Torgerson: So it sounds like your childhood dream came true to have some animals.
Brennan: It did! And it was so funny because I thought, you know, mom wouldn't let me get rabbits as a kid. And now, “Nanner, nanner, nanner. We've got 30 rabbits!”
Torgerson: Oh, my gosh.
Brennan: And it's, you know, it's fun for her too, because then she can get updates on what's going on. And then she can come visit and get to appreciate that without having to be the one who does all of that work. So I think, through me and through the work that my husband and I have done, I think she has come back a little bit. I think her interest has been re-cultivated.
Torgerson: Wow, that's cool that you've kind of been part of her healing process of coming around to being excited about agriculture. And it's cool, because then you also can relate to the experience of the farmers and ranchers that you're helping. I know that a hobby farm is quite a bit different.
Brennan: Different, yeah. But our aim is to one day scale up, and we would love to raise some of those other fiber animals. So we've looked into Highland cattle and, of course, sheep. Angora goats would be wonderful, and then alpacas. So I've had lots of conversations with Jesse about what it takes to raise alpacas.
Torgerson: Oh my gosh, that'd be really cool. When you were going to school and starting to build out your career, did you know that you wanted to help producers in the realm of their mental health needs? Or did that kind of coalesce as also your interest in agriculture grew as a hobby farmer?
Brennan: Yeah, I did not go into grad school thinking I wanted to work on the topic of farm and ranch stress. And it's kind of interesting, because with the family farm, which is now owned and operated by my uncle and then my cousins growing up, of course, were highly involved, and one of my cousins actually now owns the adjacent property. And so they still continue to farm, and I would visit that frequently. So I've always been kind of ag adjacent, but never directly involved. And then I really went to grad school in the developmental science program, because I had initially thought I wanted to be a clinical psychologist and I wanted to work with adolescents. But then I spent some time actually working in the field of residential psychiatric treatment and I realized rather quickly that I really prefer to be on the prevention side than the treatment side. But I didn't get into the farm and ranch stress work until my postdoc. So my postdoc was with the North Central Regional Center for Rural Development, which at that time was Michigan State University. And so I did this postdoc, which was great because even though it was affiliated with Michigan State University, I was actually hosted at NDSU in Fargo, so I didn't have to move.
Torgerson: Oh, nice.
Brennan: Yeah. And so one of the main projects that I got involved with as part of that, around the same time that we started raising these rabbits, was the USDA Farm Service Agency Farm and Ranch Stress Training Curriculum. So it was a training program developed specifically for FSA agents on the topic of how do you talk to and provide resources to producers, farmers and ranchers who are experiencing stress. So all about identifying signs and symptoms and the impact of stress and communication tips, and how to refer them to resources. And so we did this really comprehensive program. And I was involved with the development of the program as well as the implementation and evaluation. And so that's really when I first entered the world of farm and ranch stress and it's just been building upon that foundation.
Torgerson: Yeah, you sent me the academic article about that mental health literacy program and I really enjoyed reading one quote from an FSA employee who received the training. And she said, “I’m glad that I'm taking this training because I was feeling hopeless at being able to help, but listening, showing empathy and letting the producer know that they're not alone and that people see the struggles and really feel that producers deserve better, helps them. This change in my focus was very useful to me. The resources and information about suicide is extremely helpful. I know two farmers who died by suicide and will always feel guilty for not seeing their despair. I know now that it's okay to talk about it. That talking about it is exactly what they need.”
Brennan: Yeah, we had a lot of positive results of that. And some follow up sessions were done in different areas of the country, because that first, that initial time that we rolled out the program, we did include an in-person component. And then they partnered with National Farm Bureau and a number of other organizations to bring it to other locations. And I can't remember the man's name, but he came to that training and then several months down the line he encountered a producer who was very clearly showing those signs and symptoms of depression and suicidal ideation. And he used the skills that he learned in that training to make a big difference in this person's life.
Torgerson: Wow. That's amazing. What does it feel like to you to be able to have developed a program that resulted in saving someone's life?
Brennan: I mean, I'll just say, I bawled. When I read the reflection, it was shared with me by one of my colleagues who helped develop the program, and just one person, just impacting the life of one person is enough for me. I mean, obviously, I've gone on to really build out programs and hopefully reach more, but that was the first time I think that I really felt like, “Wow, I did all of this work, and it did make a difference.” You know, you go into it believing that you're going to make a difference, but you don't often hear a report back about the impact that you had. And so hearing that story of very profound impact made me want to continue. Made me want to… really solidified my trajectory, my professional trajectory.
Torgerson: Yeah. I'd love to dig into the data you have, more on ag producers, stress and mental health literacy. But before that, I'd love for you to define just a few terms for us. So to start with, “trauma” is one word that has been used with greater frequency as of late, like you hear “intergenerational trauma” and “Big T” and “Little T” trauma, and like some public therapy figures speak to the experience of trauma as something that is more common than we might think.
Brennan: Yeah, so I think a lot of people, when they hear trauma, they tend to think about these really big events like natural disasters, or, you know, a house fire, and those are certainly examples of trauma. And people tend to think more about physical danger, but trauma actually refers to any event, and it could be a one-time event or it could be chronic, it could be occurring multiple times over time. So an event or a situation, a set of circumstances, that a person perceives as threatening, and not just threatening in a physical sense, but psychologically threatening. So something that you perceive as having the potential to cause harm or actually has caused harm. And that can be in relationships with other people as well. It doesn't have to be a physical experience. It can be something like the loss of a primary caregiver to death or incarceration, you know? Having a major disconnection in those really important relationships. We also know that childhood experiences of abuse or neglect, that's trauma, and the impact of that, you know, it's… People, I think, don’t always realize that it literally gets under the skin, and impacts the way that your genes are expressed. So there's this whole emerging field of epigenetics that studies changes in the epigenome, which is not the DNA itself. It is sort of this layer that sits above the genes of chemical on-and-off switches that really determine whether genes are silenced or expressed. And that epigenome can actually be transferred from one generation to the next. So when people reflect on things like slavery, or historical trauma among Indigenous groups, and I've heard people say things like, “Well, you know, that was 100 years ago. That's not relevant now.” It absolutely is, because that trauma has caused epigenetic changes that have been inherited by the next generation over time.
Torgerson: When you're talking about the experience of trauma, could you categorize the experience of financial stress or drought or a flooding event as trauma as well? Or like, and how would you define farm stress on the other side of that, too?
Brennan: Certainly financial events that happen and financial situations that occurred can be a source of trauma, right? Because we think about what does that mean for that individual? Well, if it means the potential loss of their livelihood. Yeah, that's trauma because their existence is being threatened. So farm and ranch stress I think of as really that unique set of pressures and changing conditions that make it uncertain what the future will hold.
Torgerson: Yeah. And just hearing you describe, like, trauma and farming just makes me think of the experience of potentially losing your farm during the ‘80s farm crisis. Like that would absolutely…
Brennan: Yeah, that's trauma. Absolutely, yeah. The loss of the farm. And it's not, oftentimes, it's not just about that individual's experience, but that family legacy, right? Because there's that added, you know, added stress and shame of, “Wow, I'm the one who lost this farm or this ranch that has been in my family for generations.” Nobody wants to be that person.
Torgerson: Which is why it's interesting to think about families who are going through succession planning also receiving some sort of like mental health or wellness supplementary support in that planning process, because there is absolutely that loaded feeling of legacy.
Brennan: Yeah, because there's been so much invested over so many years. Blood, sweat and tears, you know? Just the effort that has been expended to make that successful, and then to be thinking, “Well, what is going to happen to this enterprise that I I've been the steward of for so long?” and not knowing. “Are things going to go as I hope they'll go? What can I do?” And a lot of things are out of an individual's control. And I think that is also when we think about trauma, and how it affects people. That inability to control a lot of these stressors is, for me, when I think of farm and ranch stress, one of the hallmarks there, because we're talking about things like climate change and weather events and market fluctuation, right commodity prices, and cost of supplies and transportation. And I think that COVID really illuminated that we have a lot of gaps when it comes to our supply chains and, you know, hearing stories about across the United States producers who couldn't get their animals in for processing and had to kill, had to euthanize large numbers of the livestock that they had spent all of that time and money raising. That's trauma.
Torgerson: I'm hopeful that we're talking more about the impacts of mental health issues. And the White House, he has even kind of lik3 declared a national mental health crisis. And then you've seen even as far back as like 2018, and I'm sure even further back, there's the seminal Guardian article, “Why are farmers killing themselves?” And so it's been a major news headline. But do you see things changing as we're kind of in the post COVID climate of becoming more used to talking about these issues? Are you seeing a shift?
Brennan: Yeah, and I think, I think COVID did really give people permission to talk about the issues to express that. No, everything isn't okay. And it raised a lot of awareness about the topic of mental health, and a lot of awareness about what is a, you know, what's a mental disorder and how do I get help for that. And I've noticed a change just since I've been in Montana. So I got to Montana, MSU Extension, in August of 2019 is when I started. And the first couple of events that I did around the state focused on farm and ranch stress and promoting mental wellness among ag producers. It felt cold. I'll just be honest, I felt kind of stonewalled. Like not a lot of responsiveness from my audiences. Nobody openly hostile, but just kind of, “Why is she hear talking about this?” But then again, I did have a couple of much older producers who didn't comment during the sessions and they didn't seem all that interactive. But then later, after I was done presenting, they came up and said, “I am so glad that you are talking about this and bringing attention to this because I remember the farm crisis of the ‘80s and I know people who died by suicide.”
Torgerson: Yeah. Well, I'd love to dig into the farm stress data that you sent to me too. And could you just share some of the biggest kind of stressors in agriculture that you're seeing? Maybe in Montana communities or in the West?
Brennan: Yes. So just to give a bit of background, the survey itself is part of a much larger project called the Western Regional Agricultural Stress Assistance Program or RASAP. And that program is supported by a large federal grant from the USDA. It's the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network. And so when we went into this project, we really wanted to know, across our western region, what are those stressors and what is the level of stress? What kinds of resources or information do our ag workers and ag producers want and how do they want that delivered to them? We use a tool called the perceived stress scale, which is a validated measure that gets used quite a bit, and on the whole, most of the producers who responded to our survey were in the medium category, which is, you know, it's a place where, certainly if you're not taking measures to mitigate the stress or the effects of the stress, self-care practices and so forth, that, if it's chronic, can contribute to health problems. And then we did see here in Montana, the number of folks or the proportion of folks who fell into the high category, which is potentially crisis-level of stress, it was a bit higher in Montana than in the other states. The specific stressors, you know, we look at, there were a lot of financial kinds of stressors, money-related: commodity prices, cost of labor, cost of goods and services, right? So certainly a lot on the financial side. But then we also see a combination of other factors. Some examples would include, well, we didn't see as much about wildfires as we thought we would, but I think that was because of the time of year we were asking it was in the spring. And I think if we had asked more at the end of the summer that would have looked a lot different. But things like pests, damaging crops and certainly family relationships even came up. And we were a bit surprised to see how high up on the list those interpersonal relationships were as a stressor.
Torgerson: Yeah, I was surprised to see that too. I think it came up for Montana as 45% of people were feeling stress to work and family balance. Was there anything else that you've learned about stresses specific to women in agriculture?
Brennan: Yeah, in the interviews, we did some follow up telephone interviews with participants in the survey, we heard about women feeling like they didn't have the same level of respect in that occupation, that people just assumed because they were women they didn't know as much, or they'd go out to an event that was geared towards farmers and ranchers, and they'd go with their husband or their partner and people would assume that the man was the one in charge of the operation when in fact it was them. And so just kind of those assumptions that exist and perceptions of women and ag and people thinking things like, “Oh, you know, she doesn't understand how the machinery works,” or just those, yeah, I would say implicit biases that people have, and then also some discussion of the work-life balance issue and how, even when they are like equal partners in the operation, feeling like they saw the burden of child care and the home arena really fell to them so that they were kind of, you know, they were doing double duty.
Torgerson: Yeah, child care and elder care.
Brennan: Yah, the sandwich generation too. Yeah. So a lot of times, you know, women become the caretakers of both their children as well as parents. So they're in that sandwich. And I think that happens quite a bit in Montana as well.
Torgerson: Yeah, we spoke before just about the cultural competency of providers who are helping out farmers and ranchers and family, their families kind of navigating different farm stresses. Do you have anything to add just from your personal experience about the importance of knowing what farmer and rancher life is like?
Brennan: Well, I will say, I'm not a mental health practitioner, but I hear from my colleagues who are mental health practitioners that it's really important for people to understand that family history, and what that land and what that business means. It's not, it's not just a job, right? It's part of their identity. It's part of their culture, their way of life. And it's not something that people can easily step away from.
I think some of it is also understanding that when it comes to the issues of access of services, people, if you are operating a farm or ranch or working on a farmer or ranch, it's very difficult to take time to travel somewhere for services, to get away from that, because it's not a nine to five job, right? It's constant, around the clock. And calving season. I just listened to your previous episode, which highlighted calving season a little bit. You know, it's not predictable. You don't know when they're going to be born. You have to be ready at all hours. And so scheduling appointments and trying to make these appointments, especially if they're located 50, 60 miles away, it's not feasible. And so then, you know, there have been a lot of efforts, like Beyond the Weather and the Montana Department of Ag making telehealth accessible to folks. That has been really helpful. But then we get into the issue of, well, how comfortable the people feel doing telehealth. And also, do they have the infrastructure for that? Because we know that rural Internet access is not always reliable.
Torgerson: Yeah. So it seems like in some circumstances, alcohol can kind of be a go-to coping mechanism when you don't have a therapist who you can access via telehealth or in person. Or maybe you don't even have a gym that you can go to or different things that people are recommended to keep their mental hygiene up. And, of course, alcohol is something that is common across all societies as a coping mechanism, but I feel like it's particular in rural and agricultural communities, and so I was wondering what you could share with me about what you're seeing as far as alcohol misuse in rural Montana.
Brennan: Yeah, so there's definitely a culture of drinking here in Montana. And you know, I came from North Dakota and Minnesota, and it's very prevalent there as well. And so if somebody develops a problem, it can be really hard and isolating to get away from that, because if everything revolves around alcohol and you're trying to reduce or abstain, then you become socially isolated, and oftentimes for people who are experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression or PTSD, alcohol is readily available. It's a coping mechanism to help alleviate some of that, but it can also make those symptoms worse in the long run. So it's a short term solution. And, particularly when we think about suicidality and alcohol use, we know alcohol lowers inhibitions. It makes people act more impulsively. Well, it's a depressant, and so if they're already feeling hopeless and they're feeling despair, it can push them over the edge. It can be one of the big factors that leads to somebody's actually engaging in a suicide attempt.
Torgerson: And in Montana, we've been ranked in the top five in the nation for the last 30 years for the suicide rate. And so I'm wondering, just considering those statistics, which, of course, I want to also just acknowledge that behind that data comes with a mountain of grief that those families have experienced from those losses.
Brennan: Yes. So you're right, that Montana has been, you know, among the top in terms of its rate, as long as it's been measured. And, you know, there are a lot of reasons for that. I could probably spend an hour just talking about contributing factors. But certainly, I think, the geographic isolation from services, so not necessarily having access to services or a lot of stigma around help seeking. And so one of the programs that we are really working hard to implement throughout the state is QPR—Question, Persuade, Refer—which is a brief suicide prevention training that is intended to train basically everybody in a community. It's for adults. It's a training for adults primarily, although we have implemented it in high schools as well, and the goal is for people to recognize risk factors, signs, symptoms. Really, what are those red flags that might make you think someone is going through a tough time and could potentially be thinking about suicide, and empowering people to ask the question. To really, because it's a very uncomfortable question to ask, “Are you thinking about suicide?” It's, especially if it's a friend or family member, to ask someone that very direct question, but it's so important. And people worry about things like, well, “Am I putting an idea in their head?” but actually most of the time when somebody gets asked that question, they feel like, “Wow, somebody cares about me. They see me. They recognize that I am in pain.” And, you know, some people might be taken aback if they're not thinking about suicide, but it's better to ask the question and risk that potential backlash then for that person to no longer be with you because you didn't ask.
Torgerson: Yeah, and I know after someone takes their own life, the questions come up of like, “What could I have done?” or “What could I have said?” or “How could I have been there?”
Brennan: You're right that people often, you know, they say hindsight is 20/20. And it can be really hard, because a lot of times those signs are not always clear. They're not obvious, and they're kind of like coded language, or things that you wouldn't necessarily think about unless you've been trained to think about them. And sometimes a person who is experiencing suicidal thoughts, they will show kind of bits and pieces to one person and maybe something else to another person. And unless those folks in their inner circle in their networks are talking to one another, it's really hard to put two and two together to figure out that that's what was going on. And so I would say, you know, to anybody who has lost a friend, a family member, you know, a close relationship to suicide, that this is not one person's responsibility, that this is a community responsibility, that we all need to be aware of that. We all need to learn how to respond, so it is not on one person. And you know, you do the best you can and when you know better, you do better.
Torgerson: This makes me think about kind of the upstream effects of like, there's so much that is very difficult for farmers and ranchers, like we've talked about naming a couple of the different farm stresses that are out of their control, and it just makes me think of this book that I recently read called “The Myth of Normal” by Dr. Gabor Maté, and he talks just about how the circumstances are abnormal, and they then create results, like stress or suicide. And I don't know if you all are involved in any kind of advocacy work in the realm of farming or ranching to make it a better experience for farmers’, for producers’ mental health. But those are just some things that I've been thinking about, like, they do so much for us. How can we make this job better for them?
Brennan: Yeah, and we've gone around the state quite a bit doing presentations on stress management and promoting mental wellness and different strategies folks can use. We also in 2020, we launched our ag producers stress resource Clearinghouse. And so you can just Google “ag producer resources Montana” and it'll come up right at the top. And this is a website designed specifically for farmers and ranchers to help them understand how stress affects the mind, the body, relationships. They can even take that validated perceived stress scale if they want to go and see, “Well, how stressed am I?” and then based on their answers, it'll spit out the, “Well, your level of stress is such and such,” and based on their level of stress, here's some recommended information or steps that you can take. And this is a living document, right? It's not like we put the info up there and we're good to go. We're constantly updating the resources section, and so folks can go on and learn about podcasts they might want to listen to. They can learn about online trainings. They can find out, well, in their local community, what are the resources? If they do think, for themselves or a family member or a neighbor, that help, professional help, is warranted, here's where you can go to get that help. And we really heavily promote the partnership between Montana Department of Ag and Frontier Psychiatry that people can get mental health services at no cost. Anybody involved in ag can get those services, free of charge, and their telehealth so they don't have to travel anywhere. So that's a really great program. But on our Clearinghouse, we highlight many, many useful local resources.
Torgerson: And I'll be sure to link to that in the episode web page as well. Thank you. Yeah. Is there anything that people outside of the ag community can do to be more supportive of farmers’ and ranchers' well being?
Brennan: Yeah, I think that that is a big disconnect, too, is that those of us who live in more urban environments maybe don't understand what that occupation is. Like, we don't understand what's at stake for farmers and ranchers and ag workers. And so I think, growing awareness of how hard of a job that is. And one of the things that I've heard recently from producers themselves is that they feel like their occupation, their way of life, is not as respected or valued as it once was. And, I think, whenever I eat a meal, I try to consider the person behind the food that's on my plate, right? What went into those strawberries that I ate at lunch today? What went into the cottage cheese, right? Who is the person behind that, and what is their daily life like so that I can eat? Because approximately 2% of the population is involved in agriculture, to feed all of us. And so I think recognizing and actually looking into, “Well, where did this product come from?” and being more aware of that. And also, one of the efforts we're going to try to roll out this fall is called Pizza for Producers. And our goal is to put on these local events, to show our gratitude, to show our appreciation.
I love that bumper sticker that I've seen that says, “No farmers, no food,” because we all depend on them. And I don't think we recognize the value that they bring to our world as much as we should. And so these Pizza for Producers events is really about showing gratitude to our farmers and ranchers by making a meal for them. And we're going to try as much as possible to use local ingredients to make these delicious, woodfired pizzas. And the goal is to just bring back that third space, that place where people can gather, and they can have those relationships and social connection, eat some great food
and ensure… For us here in Montana, I have stipulated that if we're doing these events no alcohol will be involved because we want them to be family-friendly, and we certainly don't want to create a reason that's going to exclude people or that's going to create a situation that is difficult for someone who's in recovery.
Torgerson: Yeah, I love how inclusive you are and intentional in building that space so that all people can feel welcome and included and they don't have to question whether or not they can come, you know?
Brennan: Right. yep.
Torgerson: And then earlier, you also told me about a volunteer training?
Brennan: Oh, yes. How did I forget? We have a lot of exciting things going on this summer. We are also about to roll out our mental wellness conversations program, and the goal of this program is to train community volunteers, so people who are already embedded within rural communities, in how to host conversations around mental health topics. And so we actually created this wonderful, it's a standard deck of playing cards, and each suit corresponds to a different feature, like facts or tips and suggestions, helpful resources. So we have things like the importance of staying well-hydrated, the importance of nutrition, physical activity, different types of coping strategies people might use. It's really wonderful mental wellness promotion. And so we're going to be looking for volunteers across the state who want to be part of that. And they would get trained in both mental health first aid, as well as the mental wellness conversations curriculum so that they can take those decks of cards back to their communities, and host events, like barbecues or picnics or go to coffee and distribute these cards so people have that great information, and be on-hand to answer questions or to facilitate more discussion.
Torgerson: Well, I just appreciate you so much for coming on and your candor and the resources that you've shared. It's honestly been kind of hard for me to articulate sometimes some of these questions around mental health. I mean, I'm used to asking people questions, to interviewing people, and to thinking about some of these things in my own head, but not really like asking questions. So thank you so much for sharing and for your openness. And yeah, I’ll just open it up to any kind of hopes that you have for Montana producers’ health and well-being or any kind of final words of wisdom that you have.
Brennan: Well, I know you know that the production season is getting into full swing, and so I would just encourage everybody to go take a look at the different stress management strategies on the Clearinghouse. Just pick something and try it. You don't need to make these massive changes overnight. Change takes time and not every strategy is for every person. And so I think it's good to see different kinds of potential strategies and try them out. When you're feeling that intense stress during production season, try something. See how it goes. If it doesn't help you, try something else.
And then of course, if you're in a place where you are feeling, you know, extremely hopeless, or distressed or overwhelmed, and you're having trouble managing day to day life, utilize those free services from Frontier Psychiatry.
This episode was produced with support from the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, which believes that everyone has a meaningful and important role to play, and that by leading with courage and compassion, we can change the world one person, one family, one community at a time. To learn more visit blankfoundation.org
Now onto our next guest, the vice president of Northern Broadcasting System, Courtney Brown Kibblewhite.
Megan Torgerson: Well we're here today to talk about Beyond the Weather, an initiative to destigmatize mental health in Montana's ag communities. I want to start with you and your agricultural origins, because I love how your story tracks with the elements that make up Beyond the Weather: agriculture, radio and mental health. So considering that core element of agriculture, can you share with listeners a bit about your formative years growing up on a ranch in Huntly, Montana, and the impact of your ag origins and what that impact was on the trajectory of your life?
Courtney Brown Kibblewhite: Yeah, so actually you touched right there on a part of my identity that not everybody knows. And actually, I wasn't raised on a ranch in Huntley. We just had five acres and 4-H animals, but my dad was raised on a ranch in Sand Springs. And so we remained very, very present out there, going out there weekends and summers and helping with branding, or calving, whatever the season was. And so that was a formative part of my upbringing. And I think especially sometimes when you're on those hybrid lines of one foot in town and one foot in the country, it can really give you a unique sense of where do I belong?
Torgerson: Have you found yourself straddling those lines of like urban and rural? I mean, not to say that it was necessarily an urban place where you grew up, but kind of like straddling these two senses of place?
Kibblewhite: Yeah, and I think I've come into my own, just in the last few years really, and it's so amazing how God puts you where you should be instead of where you think you should be, you know? So I was one of those kids that, even growing up, wanted to be… wanted to see something else and try something different. So I actually went away at 16 and went to boarding school in Baltimore and ended up graduating from high school out there. I went to college in Chicago, grad school in California, and so I was out of Montana for about 12 years before coming back to Montana and joining our family business. And I think I was one of those people who just needed to see what else was out there to really appreciate what's here. And that's not to say I didn't love this place, but it was one of those, “Man, I really want to see what's out there.” And then, and then I choose to be here. And so I'm really grateful that God brought me back here. And even when I first came back, brought my husband back after a year of traveling and I met him abroad. He's Welsh. And of course, a small family, small business, we'd always helped out. And it was Christmas time, and they needed extra help and I needed the money, so I fell right into it. And what I noticed right away coming back after having worked in Chicago, and worked with a bunch of big oil companies, that, man, it's so different when you get to help people that help you, you know? You get to do business with people that do business with you. And people are also engaged in FFA and 4-H and the things that you're working on. And so then I just kind of totally fell in love with being, with being home. And of course, being near family. You can't can't beat that.
Torgerson: Yeah. And I feel like both you and I are very lucky in that we've been able to, like, shape our careers into something that's very meaningful to us and that combines our background and aspects of our identity. From growing up on a ranch to studying organizational behavior and psychology at UC Berkeley, to then becoming the VP of Northern Broadcasting System, you've really come full circle. And I'm wondering, like, was this a plan you had for your career from the beginning? Or were you surprised when these things fell into place?
Kibblewhite: No, I never really thought that I'd come back. I always wanted to do my own thing and be my own person. I was very independent. But I guess there's one thing about place that I don't want to leave out, and I oftentimes do because I don't want to offend anyone from where we're from, but, you know, people hear “Oh, you went to boarding school?” and there's always an assumption of like, “What does that mean?” and I'll be really honest, I felt eaten up by the small town culture that I was in and I felt like, “Well, who am I if I'm not going to be there? If I'm not the straight A student? If I'm not, you know, making this community proud of who I am?” and that, honestly, is what really started me down a mental health journey. I mean, I think I was officially diagnosed with depression when I was 15. And so part of ending up going to boarding school was a result of, you know, I'm sorry to be graphic, but some of the other kids noticed in PE that I had cuts on my legs, and one parent called my parent and, you know? Depression isn't something that my family knew anything about, but I was hurting inside and ended up self-harming as a result, you know? And then that set a start these chain of events that took me to a different place for a time. And I don't think it's that specific community. I love that community. But I do think that that's a really challenging time in life, and we can make it hard on our young people by perpetuating comparison and talking about each other and gossip and things like that. That can really tear community apart. So, I do want to mention that, because I know that can still happen in other communities and we have to just be so, so careful about how we're speaking about other people and to other people, and what our little people are hearing based on how we behave. So that's probably an important part to add of the trajectory of my story. So then ending up being back now in a place where, you know, I want so much to help the people from communities like Sand Springs, and like currently that we may, we have wonderful people and have a wonderful way of life and are so proud of our history of agriculture and resilience and working hard. And, that's a lot of who we are. But some of the outcomes from that culture can also be… Well, we're too tough to need healthcare, and we can just keep working harder. If we just work harder then we wouldn't have to deal with the pain that has arose, and those types of myths really are not productive thinking. It's easy to think that way, but it's not necessarily productive. So in a way, I feel like I'm doing what God wanted me to do. So that's a wonderful feeling, when you feel like, you know, “I'm right where I need to be.”
Torgerson: Well, I just want to thank you so much for your vulnerability and sharing that experience that you had growing up. And I think that there's so much strength in vulnerability. And when you share a tough time that you had, then it maybe makes someone else feel less alone or like they could also share with someone what they're going through, and then maybe we can kind of transform that culture in small towns where it can be really hard to feel like you're compared to maybe your sister, your father, all these people who people have preconceived notions about who you are based on years and years of family being in a small town. And I just want to read one thing that you wrote. When Northern Broadcasting System launched Beyond the Weather, you bravely wrote, “I'll tell you, from my personal experience, that some days my mind fights negativity that's a whole lot darker than a bout of laziness. My inner dialog will start chirping, ‘I'm no good. They are better off without me. I shouldn't be here anymore.’” And then you continue on, and you say, “For those of us born with the stuff of homesteaders and pioneers, we are born with grit in our blood. Imagine the grit it took to trail those cattle thousands of miles north on horseback. Imagine the grit it took to head west in a rail car through untamed country. You don't have to imagine the grit it took to stay in this country. You can feel it.” And so I love how you called out both the challenges and the points of strength and resilience that are inherent with these rural places, and how you've just led by example and sharing your story so bravely to so many people. I really value that.
Kibblewhite: Well thank you so much for saying that. I think it is so hard to do, but I do think that's where we learn the most. We don't learn from hearing, like, oh how awesome other people are or how great they are. But how did somebody else deal with the challenge? And you know, honestly, I think that's why I love reading so much. because you can unpack what's going on in someone else's mind and then realize, “Oh my gosh, I'm not the only person in the world that's had this feeling,” and that's why I wrote that, is in hope that somebody else could see it and say, “Okay, I've had that thought, and I know that that's not normal. That's not correct that, you know, I shouldn't be here anymore. But somebody else is having that thought too, and acknowledging that ‘Nope, that's not right.’ If I can't change that thought pattern on my own, then I need to go ask for help, because people can help me do that.”
Torgerson: One thing I've kind of liked as a result of COVID is that, and this is a key part of Beyond the Weather, is like getting beyond, “How are you doing?” And you're like, “Oh, I'm good,” you know? I feel like in the last years, people are asking that question and they're giving more honest answers. Yeah, that makes me so hopeful. And I think there's so many people who are struggling and who feel not okay, all the time, so like, let's be honest about that and not just push things under the rug and concern ourselves so heavily with appearances and presenting like we're okay all the time.
Kibblewhite: I just totally agree with you. I think it can be so easy to just focus on the appearances. And in small towns, too, you feel like you should wear makeup to the grocery store. You're gonna see somebody you know everywhere. And so it can be easy to just like, “Well, let me put on what people think should be,” versus like, “Here's what's happening, and here's what really is there.” Because probably, there's somebody else out there. That's feeling the same thing that, like you say, it gives them permission to be themselves when you act like yourself.
Torgerson: Yeah, and I think you and I both have this experience of living in places where there's more anonymity. When you're in a big city, sure, you can go to the grocery store in your sweatpants and nobody's going to know you, so you don't have to think about that all the time. But, yeah, so I think it's good to, like, have those comparisons and to also know that while both you and I have had experiences in small towns, and then have gone away like that, you went back and that, you know, next month I'm moving back. And so there is something that's really beautiful about these rural communities too. And that's why it's important to get resources into the hands of farmers and to do initiatives like Beyond the Weather, because these rural and agricultural communities are worth fighting for.
Kibblewhite: Absolutely, and I think the root of any of our success or our impact that we can have on this world is how we think about this world and how we think about and relate to other people, and that all starts with your internal dialogue. And so that's really the goal of the campaign, is just to normalize talking about mental health. We really probably shouldn't even be saying mental health because it's health in general, you know? Your minds relate to your body, and if you're having negativity in your mind, that can create physical issues too. It's our health overall, but the mental health is something that can't be seen, whereas more often sometimes the physical part we can see, and so it's easier to point a finger at, “Oh, look, I broke my leg like here. I'm on crutches.” You can see that, versus how do you tell people, “No, there's something… there's something wrong in my mind.” And you know, I maybe even hope that people can use that phrase as a bridge, “Beyond the weather,” just to say like, “Hey, I gotta talk to you beyond the weather here,” and maybe signal to each other that, “Look, I… Ugh… I don't know what to say, but I know it's something and here's where I'm headed.” And I saw a friend who's a veteran and a farmer, Greg Gable, posted on his Facebook page some token that he said maybe we could share that instead of having to use the words like, “I need to talk to you,” or “Something's wrong.” Something as a symbol just to say, “Hey, you know, here's, here's where we're going.” And I think of Beyond the Weather like that a little bit. Maybe it's a bridge to a deeper conversation that can open things up.
Torgerson: And I think that there's so many conditions that farmers and ranchers are working within that end up resulting in feelings of stress or anxiety or depression. And so to think that it's not that you're abnormal, it's that the conditions that you're working in are very stressful. Like, I love how you pointed out, your mental health is impacting your physical health. All these things are intertwined. And then also you think of your psychosocial health, and how the health of ourselves impacts the health of our society and our culture and our communities. And so it's important to address these things and to kind of look at the landscape that farmers are and ranchers are working within and all of the many contributing factors to stress. In preparing for these interviews that I'm having around mental health and agriculture, I found one statistic that said, this was from a 2019 study from American Farm Bureau Federation, that 87% of agricultural workers agreed that cost, embarrassment and lack of awareness posed obstacles to accessing mental health care. And so I feel like Beyond the Weather is touching on, like, kind of all of those pieces, right? You're addressing the cultural stigma around mental health. So addressing the embarrassment piece, you're building awareness and then providing free mental health services. So could you just tell me maybe just a little bit about how the program got started?
Kibblewhite: I guess it was back two years ago, when Eric Arzubi first came into our office. He's the CEO of Frontier Psychiatry, and I can't even remember what the show was, the talk show for voices in Montana was on with Tom Schultz, somehow related to mental health. And between that and talking to Christy Clark and the Montana Department of Agriculture, and letting them know that we wanted to work on an initiative to help with mental health and not knowing what that would be. And we started that conversation really not knowing that the Department of Agriculture and their entire team had been given money through the American Rescue Plan Act to work on farm stress. I can't say the exact decision process that went into how they decided to allocate the funding, but part of that was to give funding to farm and ranch groups that would have a mental health speaker. Another part was a bucket of money going towards free counseling. I want to say it was about $500,000. And that's the bucket that they've had to work with, so quite a bit of seed money. And then working on stigma reduction as well. So we found that out, we applied for that grant and it gave, as you say, kind of an answer or one of the answers to the movement. I think our goal in general is just what I said, to normalize talking about mental health and normalize these internal conversations and, you know, we can't necessarily with what we do. Having a radio network, we don't have the ability to change the system 100%. We can work on, and as a network, we do try our best to connect different people to different resources and we cover health issues and we cover rural hospitals and we cover the challenges that rural places have for health care. But our main tool that we have is the amazing power of reaching people—in their pickup trucks, sitting there, while they're jogging, while they're, you know, feeding calves or seeding right now. Whatever it is, we can be kind of riding shotgun with them. And it's a media that's really passive, like you just have the radio on and these messages come out. So I think that's why I thought it would be a good media for this campaign, is because you may not be seeking out to be educated on mental health or you may not be interested. You may think it's silly, and we've had calls that people think it's silly, but you're getting this information regardless, and maybe it's making you think twice. Maybe it makes you think about yourself, or maybe it makes you think about a neighbor that, “Hey, you know, when I go over to their house, everything's usually in tip-top shape, and the last few times I've been there things are run down. The fences aren't fixed, like there's something's going on.” So hopefully it plants some seeds that are beneficial to individuals and the whole community.
Torgerson: And I've heard you say in other interviews too, when people are receiving some of these services, they're like virtual or on the phone, and so people aren't seeing that their pickup is parked in front of the therapist's office. And so I think that's a benefit of the ads as well. And Beyond the Weather’s presence on Northern Ag Network is people can learn about these resources, but not be parked in front of this visible place where people might know that they're inquiring about different services. And I think that anonymity is really helpful there as well. So you mentioned that part of Beyond the Weather has been to bring mental health speakers to ag conventions. Have there been any moments that have stuck out to you from those conferences, or maybe some feedback from a listener who kind of attended one of those conferences and was like, “Wow, I didn't know this”? Are there any standout moments from that?
Kibblewhite: I think it's awesome to bring up the dialogue, and there's been a couple of times where there's kind of been some off-colored folks talking about suicide at a farm bureau convention and, you're like having lunch and seeing your friends and it's hard to see mental health on the agenda and not feel like a little bit of a downer almost. So the things that strike me are the conversations that come up afterwards, where you're able to, maybe humor is your way into, like, “Oh, I can't believe that the guy did that.” But to have conversations with other people, I do think the most impactful voices have been, and maybe that again just goes to our community of we trust our own, but the people who've been willing to speak up within our own communities. I know, there was a speaker who did some videos with Trent Cook from Grain Growers, and Lochiel Edwards. The amazing thing to me about Tryg was that there wasn't a, like so often with mental health we can go straight to the suicide conversation, and that is so dark and awful and we've all probably been through it within some capacity, and it's just heartbreaking. But the truth of the matter is, that's a small percentage of people who are struggling with mental health. I pray to God that those that struggle don't reach that end. But what I liked about Tryg is it was just like, “Hey, you know, I've struggled and I got help and you know, moving forward and life can be hard.” And he was just like one of our peers, and I think that's what is the most powerful, is the realizing, like, “Oh yeah, well, he's a successful farmer. Okay, if it can happen to him, it can happen to me,” you know?
I'm grateful in a lot of ways now because kids, from what I've seen in some of the surveys and the conversations and talking with young people entering into the mental health conversation. It has gotten a lot easier for kids in college and high school, and I'm sure that's related to the different programming that folks have done in the past, but I really worry the most about people who are, you know, my age and older who, it didn't come to them through school or through church or through, you know, a family member. I mean, it wasn't even that long ago that we had, you know, like, more institutionalizing of mental health issues. And I mean, that's still in the media. And so I really hope that we can reach just a wide range of people in both the education side and the potential free counseling.
And you did mention the telehealth component, and I'd say that's one thing that is specific to this campaign is all of its telehealth. Frontier Psychiatry, their entire company operates as telepsychiatry, which is pretty cool, because I believe Eric started it in 2019, before the pandemic, and then, of course, the world changed. But, you know, I think that that's another reason why getting better broadband across our state will be important for people really to be able to access that, and not to have it be another trip to town to access services. A lot of small towns, you talk about a truck out front, but I know in Sand Springs we just have a post office and the school and the church. So there's not even a… there's really no services. So there's a lot of communities like that where, gosh, if you're going to receive any sort of health care, you've got to drive. So yeah, I do think that the telehealth component… I wonder sometimes if, for more senior folks, it makes it scarier or if they're not comfortable with computer use, and I know there's been some programs that have entered into helping people with that. But yeah, the goal is more access.
Torgerson: I mean, I like how you've also talked about changing the stoic culture a little bit, so that, I don't know, we don't always have to have this appearance of pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps and, “Oh, we’re so tough,” to kind of dissolve that a little bit.
Kibblewhite: So one of the psychologists that I really respect and have enjoyed some of his books, Martin Seligman, wrote this book on learned optimism, which as someone who's prone to more of a depressive mindset, I thought, “Oh, this is fascinating that I can actually teach myself to be more optimistic about things and not have this kind of dread and doom and gloom mindset.” So he talks about three, called the three P's, so like “P” as in “parents.” But the first one being pervasiveness. So the example I used in my talk was the drought over the last two years has been so devastating, and it's so foreboding, and you don't know when it's going to end and it can just eat you up, because you see the outcomes that it influences. So if you think about that, in terms of these three P's, like pervasiveness, does this drought mean that everything is bad? That life's over? That just everything in the world is bad? And it doesn't. It might mean that this one element is challenging, your business is challenging right now, but it doesn't mean that you've got nothing. You've got a family, you've got a home, you've got other things. So, pervasiveness. Permanence, is it going to last forever? Because it's easy to be, when something's hard, to think that it is, and especially drought, when it's, I mean that's weather. You can't predict that. And so it's easy to think about that. Is it actually going to last forever? Well, no. The seasons are going to change. It's not permanent. And then finally, personalization. When you're thinking in a dark spot, it can be easy to convince yourself that somehow it's you. The way you're dealing with the drought is wrong or, you know, it's because, and we can make up ridiculous stories, like because I didn't get the tractor fixed when I should have, I caused this, you know? And then people can actually think that. And when you really take a second and, you know, say that aloud to someone you realize, like, no. No, it wasn't you. Like your presence or your absence is not going to affect this drought. So, that's just crazy talk. But those are those three P's. The pervasiveness, permanence, and personalization are things that I think we can use to test our own thoughts or somebody else, you know? If somebody else comes to you with that, that can be a way to open the conversation of like, well, maybe things aren't quite as bad as you’re thinking. And they may not be ready to hear it and they may react negatively, but at the same time that's our job, is to be there for each other and challenge each other's thinking. So definitely, there's, I mean, psychologies all around us. And it's a lot of what I do, and marketing with Northern Ag Network, trying to say things in a way that are going to reach people and make them think differently. So there's probably an infinite number of concepts I could apply that I thought I was gonna apply as a professor and then, you know, actually ended up going in different directions.
Torgerson: That's cool that you're able to apply it now in a way that directly impacts producers and the messaging that you're sharing. And I think when you were saying those three P's, it kind of reminded me of, like, the concept that my therapist has shared with me of, like, cognitive dissonance. And so you're kind of looking at things through a way that is distorted when you might be feeling, I don't know, anxious, or stressed, especially given that farming and ranching, there's so much that we, that you cannot control. And I think even though farmers and ranchers often roll with the punches, but that still, I think, has a toll even if they don't communicate it.
Kibblewhite: Right. Well, I think it can be so isolating, and we love that too. We love the freedom of being where other people can't see you, you know? But it can be that you don't end up talking through your… You probably don't have a huge staff. Certainly not a huge staff of decision makers on the farm. So who do you talk through these challenges with, and how you're going to make it work?
Torgerson: So have you seen in the last year some of these stigmas starting to dissolve around mental health?
Kibblewhite: We do a study called Ag Media Research where we hire a study done to test farm and ranch attitudes about media. And we put a question in that this year that will be asked, and I know the American Farm Bureau has put some because I would like to be able to test that myself. So I can say anecdotally, I was at a healthcare conference and I heard one of the rural health care people talk about how they did a focus group and somebody mentioned they thought the stigma was going down, which I thought was great. They didn't know I was in the room or what, you know, my objectives were, but so I thought that was kind of cool. Just the fact that people are willing to call for counseling, or have shown up, I think, is a good sign. Also, having people talk at conventions and opening the door there, as well as bringing people through what has happened in our schools and through education in our schools, bringing parents and grandparents in as much as we can to this information, even through younger generations, I think is an important component.
But that said, you know, it's also highlighted to me how much of a stigma still exists, and the fact that this is going to be multigenerational work, I think. You know, we had a guy call and said, well he called my dad and asked, “Why are you getting involved in this woke movement? Just tell people to buck up.” And, you know, that's what my mom would have said, and you know, that's one call. But that represents a lot of ways that we were taught to think about it, like, just pull up your bootstraps, and get it done. We can also really, what's that word like, “othering”? We can also say, like, well, other people struggle with this, I don't,” and, “My family, this would never happen to my family.” I think we need to think hard about how we might be perpetuating this stigma. If we don't, if your kids never see you go for, I'm not talking about mental health, just any regular health care. That's not something to be proud of, that you haven't had a well-checkup in 10 years. It's not. And really to be productive on your operation, you've got to be healthy 100%. Not just your body. It has to be your mind, too. And so I would challenge people to think about, in the speech that I've given I talked about what are the ways that we can even tell our family stories in a way that doesn't force us into, “Here's how we have to be. We have to be so tough. We have to be so resourceful,” and we can be those things, but that doesn't mean we're limited to that way of thinking.
Torgerson: Well, I'm wondering if you have any kind of final thoughts. Any ripple effects that you hope that Beyond the Weather has, or any words of wisdom that you would like to leave listeners with?
Kibblewhite: Well, one other thing, I guess I was gonna share with you that quote, but I think it goes to that essence of, like, toughness that we like to think about related to the cowboy. And being in advertising, I work with the people who want to talk to the farmers and ranchers, and, you know, it occurred to me that the most successful advertising campaign in U.S. history, it was the Marlboro Man, which ran for over 50 years. And in doing some research, I realized that started that they were going to focus on women, and they were going to call it Mild as May, and it was going to be this, you know, sweet product, then they realize, well, they're going to make more money if they focus on men, and they thought we'll do a tough mystique, so they did like firemen and construction workers and they had a cowboy and they realized when the cowboy was being promoted, more money came in from the cigarette so then they stayed in that direction. And I know there are many Marlboro men over the years from Montana, and now I think about how the film industry has boomed here and we have “Yellowstone” and all this new interest in cowboy or Western culture, if you will, and how it's perpetuating again this myth of the, like, tough cowboy.
Torgerson: Macho, yeah.
Kibblewhite: Yes, yes. And I don't know if you've read the book by Gretel Ehrlich, “The Solace of Open Spaces.”
Torgerson: Yeah, I have read that book.
Kibblewhite: Yeah, she writes in Wyoming and she has this great chapter on cowboys and she says that in something, like, in trying to define the mystique of the cowboy, we have, ironically, disesteemed his entire character. Ranchers are midwives, hunters, nurturers, providers and conservationists all at once. What we've interpreted as toughness, weathered skin, calloused hands, a squint in the eye and a growl in their voice only masks the tenderness inside. And I think that's just so true of all the cowboys that I know anyways. They're not, they have to do some hard and tough things, but it's not because they're hard and tough people. It's because that's what the job requires.
And now we’ll hear from Lisa Williams, a rancher, mother and the owner of A to E Wellness.
Megan Torgerson: Well, I like to start these interviews by looking back to a person's formative years and exploring what impact the culture of a place, connection to land or the experience of growing up on a family farm or ranch has had on the trajectory of a person's life. And so just to start with your story, can you share with me a little bit about your agricultural roots, your connection to place and where you grew up and what it means to you to be a fourth generation Montana producer?
Lisa Williams: I grew up on a ranch southeast of Lewistown and we were in the foothills of the Snowy Mountains, so I definitely have a connection to mountains in general, but the Snowies are definitely home. Just kind of growing up with that atmosphere, and the harshness of that, can happen for any producer. But I mean, the mountains are different than prairie and everything else. It just kind of sets you up for a different level of, not level, but just a different kind of tenacity, I think. And as far as what it means to be fourth generation, I mean, there's just so much heart and soul and guts and determination and legacy that goes into a place that was homesteaded and has made it into the fourth generation. So I think that's just a lot of it, for me, is to be just a good steward. So it continues that legacy, and can go on to the next generation. So I feel like I'm just kind of a holder, and a caretaker for the time being.
Torgerson: That's really beautiful. I was working on an episode in Winnett recently, and just thinking about the different pressures that go along with being a multi-generational ranch and a new rancher. And I think there's a lot of pressures, like to continue on and to not lose something that's been in your family for so long and that's really like part of the family. Have you felt that way at all as you kind of stepped into your role on the ranch currently?
Williams: There's always that. Yeah. I mean, you definitely don't want to be the one that does that. Let it go. I know that that has been a huge thing. I mean, my prayers have gone out to a lot of farmers and ranchers in the last 10 years, with these hard times that we've had and economic downturns and just different struggles that have come. Because it has been a huge mental health battle for producers who have had to make that hard decision and say, “We can't keep it. It just is not feasible.” And it's heartbreaking. And to watch those people go through auctions, and having to, you know, set everything up for auctions. I mean, it's heartbreaking and my heart breaks for them. Luckily, knock on wood, so far we haven't really entertained that idea. So, thankfully.
Torgerson: And can you just tell me a little bit of how your ranch works? Like, are you ranching alongside your parents and your husband? Or are your parents still active and really involved in it and kind of the lead ranchers or?
Williams: Oh, absolutely, yep. Yeah, they are the owners, operators. My husband and I are here. And obviously I grew up here and stuff, but we're still just very much soaking up as much as we can from them and they're running it still. But we're here to just kind of garner every ounce of knowledge that we can and, and kind of just prepare ourselves and be here to do, you know, the heavy lifting as it were.
Torgerson: And have you all started succession planning yet?
Williams: Yeah, we're in talks for that. So that is definitely something that is a hard thing to go through. I mean, it's… there's so much to it. Even if there weren't the conversations to be had and confusion and making sure everybody’s on the same page and trying to avoid hurt feelings and multiple siblings. And even if all that was completely clear, the legalities of it and like getting through the steps and everything, there's so much to it, that it's incredibly overwhelming, I mean. And as a coach, that's actually one of the things that I love to put out there and be like, “I can help you get through that,” you know? Because there's just so much that goes into it, that it's physically and mentally draining sometimes. They always say that succession is one of the biggest reasons why places don't continue, because it is a hard process to go through and there's so many pieces.
Torgerson: My family just went through succession planning. And we, you know, had the accountants involved and the lawyer involved, but I think it could have been really helpful to have a wellness coach too, to kind of like explore the other dimensions that can kind of fall to the side, like, even just thinking about losing a part of your identity not working on the farm and ranch anymore. Yeah, I'm curious what kind of things you've worked on with your clients in the realm of succession planning?
Williams: Honestly, the biggest thing, and I mean, we are still working on this, it's not that I'm an expert, and trying to like, be like, “This is what you do, because I know how to do it.” I am working through it too. But I think one of the primary things that you have to do, which is a constant journey, is to be really clear with yourself about what you want, what your expectations are, and work through that yourself and with your spouse. Like, say, okay, so me and my husband are the next generation, so me and him have to be super clear about what we're thinking, what we're wanting, what our expectations are. And then so does my mom and dad, you know? And so both generations have to be able to get really honest with themselves.
And that's where I, as a coach, come in a lot of times, because I'm that third party outsider that has no interest in it, no agenda in it whatsoever. And so they can bounce ideas and really figure out what's clear to them. That's like the primary step. Because once you get clear on what's really going on in your head and your heart about it, then you can bring that to the table. And then both generations and siblings, whoever else is involved, can all bring their honest to God heart to the meeting, and then they can move on from there. But that's, I think, the primary thing that a coach can help with is just getting really clear. And because there's a lot of things that might bug you, and you don't know what it is, and then, like you said, like, where your role is going to change, you know? Whereas for both generations, the role that you bring is going to change when you talk about the succession. And for both generations, all generations, I think it's a little uncomfortable, because change is uncomfortable.
Torgerson: Well, you know like how some family farms and farmers and ranchers, they work together, but they're not always saying what they're doing? It's just like, it's like a really beautiful dance. Like they know what tool to grab, or how to help the other person or how to work cows together. But they're not maybe verbalizing that in a coffee meeting beforehand. So I think that it's really cool to think about you helping farmers and ranchers communicate and just identify what they want. And so I'm kind of curious, how do you draw that out of your clients?
Williams: Like you just mentioned, you know, when you're working cows, you work together, most families I mean, so you don't need to talk. But now you're doing something totally new. So you have expectations of how that person is going to act. But you're in a totally new situation, so people don't necessarily act the way you expect them to. And that can throw you, and there's hurt feelings and everything else. And that's where it comes out to be like, okay, you need to get really clear with yourself, they need to get really clear, come together. And then you can clearly tell each other what the expectations are so that you can then get that dance going. When you're trying to do the business side, not just the work side, because that's the thing with a lot of farmers and ranchers, the work side is the easy side, you know? You just go and get it done. You just work good. And everybody pitches in and does their part. But when it comes to the business side and the planning side, that brings a different dynamic.
Torgerson: Before we kind of dive into the different methodologies behind your coaching, I was wondering if you could share a little bit about what led you to get into this field and what your experience was like with the coaching that you received through the training program that you were in as well.
Williams: I grew up on the ranch, obviously, but I experienced a not uncommon phenomenon where you work really hard and you're out and about all the time, and yet I was overweight, and I really struggled with my weight all throughout my teen years and into my early 20s and stuff. And I was just, like, it just became a huge battle. And it became one of those things where I was like putting off life, you know? You're like, “Well, when I lose this amount of pounds, then I'll live,” you know, “Then I'll go do this or that or the other thing.” And it was just a really long journey for me to get through all that to change my perception of myself, to change my life, to get healthy, to get to a good place with good healthy weight, good mental state, with my self-confidence, all that stuff. Like that was a huge long road for me. And when I got not to the end of it, because it's always a journey, but I got to a point where I was like, “You know, there's a lot of things that I've learned that I would love to help people take shortcuts through.”
So that's what got me into it, was just wanting to help people from that aspect. And I really didn't know how I wanted to do it. And then I finally came upon being a coach, and I started researching it, and they're still just now like trying to come up with standards in the industry so that you have to have some sort of training in order to call yourself a coach like that. You can find a coach, but it doesn't necessarily mean they've been trained as a coach. But the National Board of Health and Wellness Coaches was formed and now there is a standard. And so I found a training program through Mayo Clinic, and it was accredited by the national board so that once I got done with the Mayo Clinic certification, I can move on and take the national exam, become nationally certified. And that was important to me just to have that standard and to just have that continued training. Because, you know, once I'm certified, now I have continuing education credits to keep up with to keep the certification, all that so I just felt like that was for me. And then I got into the coach training and it totally transformed my entire idea of coaching, like I didn't realize how wide open the door was with coaching and how useful and how transformative it can be. Because I definitely didn't go into it thinking that I needed coaching, but I received so much coaching from seasoned coaches in the training program that were training us and also brand new coaches like myself, and it was just phenomenal. Like, there were so many just epiphany moments that came out of the training course.
Torgerson: You wrote about your coaching experience as riveting, monumental and transformative, not only for yourself and your health goals, but for your ranching operation. So could you share the ripple effect of some of those epiphanies that you had during your coaching experience? I'm sure that having those experiences just really made you want to get out there and share your knowledge even more.
Williams: Yeah, I mean, there were so many simple revelations like that, just for my health and wellness, that made a difference as far as navigating my new life as a mom, and how my identity changed as a mom. And reconciling those two beings, you know, because I am still who I was, but I'm a mom first now. And you know, being a full-time rancher with my husband before and working together and everything, and my role had to change, his role had to change, our relationship about those roles had to change. So that is where, like, having these personal revelations with just my health and self-care and identity and perception, all went into those relationships. As far as being transformed, I think, for an operation, it’s because I was used to being in the day to day, down and dirty, all the stuff, all the things, and that's where I always wanted to be. And then you have a little one, and we had a little one in the winter right before lambing and calving so I was out of all of it. And it was weird. That's about the best way to put it. It was so different. And not that I wanted to be anywhere else. Obviously, I wanted to be with my little girl. But it was still something to wrap my head around and to get through. And I was being coached through all that. And going through the training program with all that, I mean, that was huge helping me get through that and helping me change. Like we talked about succession, like that's a role change to where you have to accept that you have different roles now.
And then I also got into this, which I could talk about this for the rest of the day, but getting into the concept of changing your ideas around management versus leadership. And management is the day to day, out in the dirty, getting it done. Leadership is making sure that you're going where you want to go long term, you're looking out to all these things, and planning out the future, vision-boarding, and making sure that your operation, yourself, your personal life, your relationships are all going where you want them to go. Because at the base of it, coaching is accepting and acknowledging, learning where you are right now, not judging it, just saying, “This is where I am,” and becoming really clear on where you want to go. And then coaching works in the gap in between, and helps you to figure out how to get there. And so it helped me through all those transitions, still helping me through all those transitions.
And with that, then another epiphany of changing between management and leadership. When I was out, before I was in the management part, and then when my roles changed, and it was winter, I mean, obviously, I couldn't take the baby outside when it was 50 below. A lot of my roles changed to more of a leadership role, and getting some of the talks going about succession, really becoming super in tune with my empathy for other generations, and really putting myself out there and trying to make sure that I was being aware of where they're at, and becoming clear with them instead of having it be this taboo thing that's like hanging over you. Just being like, “Yeah, let's get in it. Let's get through the storm and go for it and then come out the other side, and we'll be fine.”
And then, like I said, that's what transformed my idea of what all coaching could do. I definitely still want to help people with health, with weight management, nutrition, stress management, mental health, all these things. But then throughout my coaching experiences, like oh my goodness, this is so useful to get through this process. And maybe if we can help people get through this process, we can keep people on the land, we can keep these legacy places going, you know? If you can get through these hurdles, and keep the family relationships intact, maybe there won't be as many places that don't make it through the process.
Torgerson: Wow, that's a very important goal. I love to hear your long-term vision of what this type of coaching can do. I'm curious how you get from people being mired in the management into leadership. You know, in my own experience, being a small business owner, I've had times where I've been working way too much, and I'm very stressed and I'm nearing burnout and I'm not thinking about things strategically. I'm just trying to check things off the list, you know? And I know that for farmers and ranchers, they're often very much in the same, you know, even more so…
Williams: Oh, yeah.
Torgerson: Yeah, like, let's just get the seed in the ground. Let's just go, you know, do what we need to do. So how do you get them into that envisioning mindset?
Williams: I'm going to speak from my own experience again, just because I can definitely put my heart out there with it. I think the biggest thing, for me anyway, was really stepping back and, you don't look at how you're going to get there at all, you start at the end and work your way backwards. So if your end goal is to have your grandkids still farming or ranching the place you're on, then you kind of visualize that and be like, “How do we get there?” and work backwards. Because if you try to, like you said, just get the things done because there's so many things and you're never done, you're never gonna be done with your to-do lists ever.
So I think it's something that is born out of need. You have to switch modes, because like you said, you're stressed. You're almost to burnout. But when you think of envisioning, and you're like, “Oh, okay, that's what I want. Okay. All right. What do we do? How do we get there?” it brings you peace. It brings you joy to think about what you really want from it. That allows you to take a step back.
You know, where you're like “I need a change”? Let's look at the long-term because that brings me joy, the idea of, “Oh my God, it's 50 years later! We're happy! We've made it! We've improved the place! We have infrastructure we never thought we'd have! We have numbers that we never thought we would have! And my kid’s back and loving it. And it's set up. I don't feel bad about passing it on to her because it's a viable, sustainable business,” you know? All these different goals that people could have, that brings you power. That brings you joy. And so it helps to make that switch.
Torgerson: And just hearing you describe that, I think one of the reasons that your coaching is successful is, of course, because you also have the same experiences as the ranchers that you're helping. I wonder if there's anything that you could add about the importance of relatable experience within successful coaching in the ag industry?
Williams: A good, well-trained health and wellness coach can still help get through the mental hurdles, because the way, especially with the training that I went through and stuff, it's very much about letting you work yourself out. But having a relatable experience and being able to help other producers is super helpful, because there's so many standards and so many shoulds that do not fit in an ag lifestyle, especially at certain times of the year, like all these other things, succession planning, stress management, all these things. Like, they all come back to your health, because, you know, if you're stressed out that affects your body. It affects your hormones. It affects your ability to eat well, exercise, take the time for yourself, sleep well, you know? If you're stressed out, you're not going to be sleeping as well generally. Some people can sleep fantastically no matter what.
Torgerson: Not in my experience.
Williams: But all those things come back to your health. And that's where health and wellness coaching can tie in all those other things that you wouldn't like… You would not think to go to a health and wellness coach for succession planning at all. Like it doesn't compute right off the bat. But once you get into it, you realize how deeply those things affect your body.
So there's so many basic health things, for example, sleeping. You gotta sleep, you know, seven to nine hours a night and get that REM sleep. Well, when you got a little kid and you're calving, and you might be lambing on top of it, or at least in the overlap, or who knows what. It just snowed three-and-a-half feet and the wind’s blowing. You're not going to sleep. If you get an hour or two at a time, you're doing good. And then there's seeding and harvest. There's very few times in the year that you're going to get what they say that you should get. And instead of going down the rabbit hole of, “Well, this is what I should be getting, and I'm not, so obviously I'm doing it wrong. I can't do it. And I feel bad about not getting it because they say I should,” you know? So that whole rabbit hole. Try to be like, “Yeah, you're not.” I'm going to be like, “Yeah, I got it. Yeah, for sure. What can we do? My blood does feel good. Do you feel rested? Like, how many hours do you really need? Like, does your body actually need that right now? Like you sleep, you know, for three hours, but do you feel rested? Enough to get to your next nap? Or are you struggling? Are you falling asleep on the way to the barn? Where are we at, you know?” And kind of being able to work through those lifestyle things where standard health advice doesn’t fit.
Torgerson: So I wanted to kind of get some fundamentals and understandings behind the name of your wellness coaching.
Williams: Yeah, well, From A to E Wellness Coaching. It stands for from anxious to excited. And that encompasses my experience going back to school and agonizing over whether I could afford to go back to school to going through the training, going through the training with a baby, going through the training during lambing season and calving season, and then being so blown-out-of-the-water, ready-to-hit-the-ground excited about what I learned, how it affected me.
I really want to help other people do the same thing and realize that the investment in themselves is totally worth it.
Torgerson: Could you also share just thinking about some actionable tools that we could leave listeners with? Like any of your top tools for managing stress in a farm environment?
Williams: Everybody's stressed. Everybody's always got too much to do, too little time, not a balance in life. Balancing the work life and personal life on a farm and ranch can be really hard because you live where you work. Your work is your life. So having a balance with your family relationships, taking time to do the fun things, taking time off the place to go and see things and do things that you've been wanting to do, taking time to have relationships with off-farm or -ranch family members. All that kind of balance, and that adds to stress. And that adds to picking and choosing and feeling like you're running behind the eight ball. And, you know, a lot of coaching is just trying to feel like you're in control and you have a choice about what you're doing instead of feeling like you're always behind it. You're always stressed, choosing those value-added things to focus on so that the things that you're doing add up. That's something that I have talked to several people, is choosing the value-added things that expound on themselves. Like, if working out is important to you. Like for myself, working out is important to every other aspect of my day. It helps my mental health, emotional health. I feel like I've got the world by the tail if I can get up and get it done first thing. And so I know that that's a value-added thing for me. So making sure I get that in the box. Like having a jar, and you have three or four big rocks, and 100 little rocks, and you gotta get them all in there. And if you fill it up with a little rocks, the big ones aren't gonna fit in there, but if you get the big stuff in there first, all the little stuff filters into place. Eventually, it'll get down in there and it'll work itself out, and it'll be fine. So identifying and focusing on how to make the big things count. And what you can do that will make those big moments happen, then all the little stuff falls into place, is just picking those value-added moments for yourself.
Torgerson: So what hopes do you have for the health and well-being of Montana producers?
Williams: I hope that they can enjoy it more. They can stress less, feel blessed more. Really, daily feel that gratitude and appreciation for the life that we're living. I don't know any farmers and ranchers that do this that couldn't easily do something else, you know, with less stress, make more money, have more time to themselves, but we're doing it because we love it. And so I want that to be an everyday feeling and something that clearly comes through to their kids every day, and makes them love it just as much. And yeah, just an empowerment, you know, instead of feeling like you have to do this. Be like, “I chose to do this. This is my choice. This is what we're doing and I'm 100% on board with it.” Not to feel like you're running behind the eight ball all the time. To feel like you're living intentionally with purpose and using your strengths in that way. And something that we haven't touched on at all is to be able to reach outside of the operation to fill that, like I am with coaching, to be like, “You know what? Yeah, it's gonna be hard to run a second business out of the operation. Yeah, that's gonna take some time that I could probably be doing something else for the operation.” But I love this. I have a passion for it. Like, I feel like this is what I was meant to do is try to pass these insights along and give people the space to figure themselves out. And I feel like that's what I was meant to do. And so allowing people the freedom to know that just because they're choosing farming or ranching, that doesn't mean the rest of the world is closed to them either. With the world that we're living in, the options are endless. All you have to do is dream it and believe in it and you can make it happen. So through the empowerment of coaching, I feel like people can get there, and then they can live their true happiest life doing everything they want to do.
Thank you to Dr. Alison Brennan, Courtney Brown Kibblewhite and Lisa Williams for sharing your experience. Visit the episode page at reframingrural.org to find links to A to E Wellness, Beyond the Weather, Western Region Agricultural Stress Assistance Program’s farm stress data, Frontier Psychiatry and MSU Extension’s stress resource clearing house designed specifically for farmers and ranchers to help them understand how stress affects the mind, body and relationships.
Next month I’ll bring you with me to Ledger, Montana where we’ll hear the story of John Wicks, a fearless organic farmer and farm advocate working to improve soil health and the family farm system of agriculture for producers in the West and across the country.
I produced and co-edited today’s story. Music and editing for this episode was done by Aaron Spieldenner and Sean Dwyer at Hazy Bay Music. Josh Moyar transcribed the interviews available on our website.
This episode was funded by the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation. Season Three Groundwork is also funded in part by Humanities Washington, Humanities Montana, Headwaters Foundation and listeners like you.
To access resources referenced in this episode, full transcripts and to make a donation to Reframing Rural visit reframingrural.org. Reframing Rural is a fiscally sponsored project of the Montana History Foundation and an original series by Tree Rings Records, LLC. Thank you for listening!