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Soil Health is Good for Farmer & Rancher Mental Health

Karl Oehlke

Editorial Note: The audio and article copy has been updated to reflect a correction to a mistake made during editing by the journalist.

Practices used to manage the land can actually have a positive impact on farmers and ranchers’ mental health. This is according to a survey conducted by South Dakota State University for South Dakota Soil Health Coalition. SDPB’s Lura Roti explains.

Although Mt. Vernon farmer, Paul Hetland didn’t take the survey, its results don’t surprise him. 

“Conservation goes hand-in-hand with a lot of things that we are trying to do in production agriculture,” says Paul Hetland.

Hetland has implemented the conservation and soil health practice of no-till planting for nearly 30 years now. And more recently he began adding cover crops to his corn and soybean rotation.

Soil health is a term that encompasses a diverse number of management practices designed to build organic matter, sequester carbon, increase water infiltration, decrease erosion, feed soil biology and much more. All of which fall within one of five soil health principles.  

“So, the five principles are, soil cover limited disturbance, keeping a living root, diversity, and integrating livestock are the five principles of soil health the organization promotes,” Cindy Zenk says.

Cindy Zenk is Coordinator for the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition. The non-profit Soil Health Coalition connects farmers and ranchers across the state with soil health resources, information, education, research and mentors. 

Zenk says the coalition implemented the Farmer/Rancher Stress survey to understand if the practices the organization promotes impact producer’s mental health.  

Mental health of South Dakota’s agriculture producers is on the mind of many in the ag community. Low prices and challenging weather have plagued the state’s number one industry for several years. And now the pandemic took what were already bad prices and made them worse.

“It’s a perfect storm right now in agriculture. Definitely a better spring you know, compared to last year for folks, but financially, we’re in a worst spot than we were a year ago,” Karl Oehlke says.

Karl Oehlke should know. The third-generation Hartford farmer is also a physician assistant for Avera Medical Group Psychiatry. He explains that overtime, these chronic stressors can manifest themselves as anxiety, sleep deprivation, depression and even suicide. 

“You may feel alone in a tractor. You might feel alone sitting on that horse when you’re out doing chores. But you know the feelings that you’re having and the stress you’re under, you’re not alone. We can help,” Oehlke says.

More than 100 farmers and ranchers completed the online Farmer/Rancher Stress survey administered by South Dakota State University. The difference in stress levels between farmers who identify as those who implement soil health practices and those who don’t is significant explains survey administrator Larry Gigliotti with U.S. Geological Survey. 

“Of those who responded, there is a strong statistical difference between the two groups,” Gigliotti says.

For example:

·      80 percent of soil health practitioners thought their farming/ranching system was more resilient to weather extremes, compared to 60 percent.

·      31 percent of farmers and ranchers who focus on soil health say farm and ranch profitability has increased compared to 12 percent.

The last statistic may have to do with the fact that some soil health practices help producers lower their input expenses, explains Salem farmer, Kurt Stiefvater. He began implementing soil health practices 25 years ago.

“I’ve also lowered my fertilizer use and chemical use. Letting the soil work with the plants I guess and letting the plants work with the soil, that was part of understanding how the plants and soil interact with each other - all the microorganisms. Things like that. There’s a whole network underneath in the soil, that’s all working together,” Stiefvater says.

Stiefvater visits from his tractor cab as he plants corn. He says all operations are different, but it can cost a South Dakota farmer about $400 to raise and harvest an acre of corn. So, any way that a farmer can cut expenses helps.

“Diversity plays a huge role on our farm and helps to spread the risk and the workload. That way, if one market is stronger than another, that kind of makes up the difference. Plus, it keeps our soil healthy by feeding the soil different nutrients,” says Crystal Neuharth. 

Crystal Neuharth farms in western South Dakota with her husband, Levi. The Neuharth family raise a diverse mix of warm and cool season crops. They also custom graze cattle, raise dairy goats and a flock of laying hens. She says focusing on soil health makes her feel better even during these unsettling times.

“It is really nice peace of mind that I’m doing what I can to leave things better for the next generation,” Neuharth says.

Peace of mind is something all farmers and ranchers need during these trying times. If you or someone you love needs help, contact the Avera Farmer and Rural Stress Hotline today. Karl Oehlke says it is free and there are mental health experts standing by to visit.