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Tackling farm stress one step at a time

As increased light is being shed on and more resources being directed toward farmer mental health, the stigma that once seemed to permeate the topic may be lessening some, but learning to embrace the help and resources being offered to those suffering from farm stress can take time.

Family situations, health issues, weather worries, financial distress and other stressors can all create accumulating pressure on farmers. Layering the COVID-19 pandemic onto already present stressors, specifically an aging farmer population; often inadequate access to health care and mental and behavioral health services; and a lack of digital access, doesn’t help either, said John Shutske, professor and Cooperative Extension specialist at UW-Madison Department of Biological Systems Engineering.

The response from many farmers to those stressors has traditionally been to just shoulder the burden and move on.

“During times when we’re super busy and really stressed out, at least in my case,” Shutske said during the July 21 Professional Dairy Producer of Wisconsin Dairy Signal webinar, “it’s like, ‘OK, I’m just going to kind of check out of the unnecessary stuff, especially if it involves people, but I’m going to put my nose to the grindstone and instead of working 75 hours a week, I’m going to work 95 hours a week. I’m just going to work harder, and we’ll plow through this.’”

In an industry that has become synonymous with stoicism, that reaction can be the default, and changing how those stressors are automatically dealt with can take conscious effort.

Stress can be good in that it prepares people to react and activate their “fight or flight” response, Shutske said.

“We shouldn’t be afraid of stress,” Shutske said. “Stress is very necessary.”

It’s a human reaction required for survival and can aid in growth and be a lever for change, Shutske said.

In essence, stress is a response to a threat that the body and mind responds to, he said. The chemicals adrenaline and cortisol are released, the frontal part of the brain becomes less effective and the “fear center” of the mind takes over control of the situation.

Repeated stress, however, is another story.

The chemicals released in times of stress can build up and impact mind functioning, leading to a cycle in which bad decisions may be made and consequences of those decisions will have to be dealt with, setting off another stress event that continues the cycle, Shutske said.

All of that accumulated stress can lead to exacerbated anxiety or depression, potentially detrimental outcomes regarding health and injury, and elevated suicide risk, Shutske said.

There are “multiple throttles” farmers can use to try to break a stress cycle, Shutske said.

Planning, even if it can seem difficult to devote even a hour or two to doing so each week, is an investment in that can pay off in the long run, Shutske said.

Writing things down, he said, whether in a notebook, a smartphone’s note app or otherwise, can help in that memory can suffer in stressful situations. Being unable to remember can further add stress, something which written plans can help avoid.

Making an analogy to farmers making sure they have a plan in place before sending expensive machinery out, Shutske said the brain should be given as many tools as possible to make its job easier.

Building on that analogy, Shutske said that farmers are also unlikely to use substandard fuel in that equipment and therefore should be careful to keep their own bodies appropriately fueled with balanced nutrition and adequate hydration.

And while the mention of physical exercise as a way to cope stress has garnered eye rolls from farmers whose jobs are generally physically strenuous in and of themselves, Shutske said, of all the steps he discussed, physical exercise is the closest to a “magic bullet.”

It’s not that farming isn’t “the right kind of exercise,” Shutske said, but other purposeful exercise, such as a brisk 15-minute walk, provides an opportunity to escape the workplace and can have a noticeable effect by diminishing stress hormones and increasing anti-stress chemicals and hormones.

Building connections and keeping communication open are also critical during times of strain, Shutske said.

Trying to go it alone isn’t healthy, Shutske said, and can lead to loss of perspective and create an environment in which serious injuries or fatalities are more likely to happen.

Not only should producers maintain connections among people including family, friends or neighbors, they should also have connections who have expertise in areas including finances, law, production and health.

“When you’re talking about stress and some of these feelings that we’ve talked about, that sort of edginess and maybe difficulty sleeping or feeling anxious, what I always recommend is, make sure you’re checking in with your family doctor,” Shutske said.

While the steps are there, they also aren’t something that have to be undertaken all at once.

“I realize that these things are really difficult to put into practice,” Shutske said. “You’re not going to be able to do each one of these every day, but they add together; actually, they multiply together to have that positive impact.”

The idea is to pick a few and just try, Shutske said.

Making the effort to “slow the world down” an individualized experience can help, too, whether time for reflection involves journaling or writing letters or whether it includes going for a walk or sitting in a tree stand every November, Shutske said.

“Balance, I think, is almost like that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. We never quite get there,” Shutske said. “But as long as we’re moving toward the rainbow, you see a lot of beautiful things as you’re pursuing the gold, even though you might not actually get to the gold. Certainly the rainbow is beautiful.”

In addition to all of these steps, there are many state and national resources for those struggling to cope with farm stress.

In Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Farm Center, operated by the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection; Harvest of Hope; UW-Extension and local suicide prevention groups are available to provide help and resources.

National resources include the Farm Aid Hotline, Farm Crisis Center, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and HOPELINE.

For more on how to handle farm stress, visit

A female ruby-throated hummingbird sat earlier this month on her two eggs the size of navy beans in a nest the size of a golf ball in an oak tree in the town of Seymour. Hummingbirds take a week to build their nest and incubate the eggs for 16 days. A hummingbird has four or five clutches a season and typically lays two eggs per clutch. Juvenile hummingbirds leave the nest 18 to 28 days after hatching. The ruby-throated hummingbird can beat its wings about 53 times a second.

A rural need for speed

Back in March when the safer-at-home measures were rolled out and the quarantine began, I felt confident that my family was well situated, and incredibly fortunate. We have a wonderful warm home to weather the storm, a freezer in the basement stocked with food, and both my wife and I have jobs that allow us to work from home. On our 16 idyllic acres south of Eau Claire, I felt like the adolescent apocalyptic fantasies I’d once harbored were coming true. If you’re thinking, Who has fantasies of the apocalypse? consider for a moment that apparently, we all do, in some fashion. Whether it’s Young-Adult literature, Hollywood, or a New Testament rapture, the notion of end-times is old as the hills, and somehow, as commercial as gold.

I suppose I always imagined the apocalypse not in terms of utter environmental destruction, untold human carnage, or Mad Max style gasoline shortages. It was mostly about being with my family. As the gears of capitalism ground to a halt, I imagined we would have ample time to play board games, watch birds, read books, and take naps. A very rose-colored apocalypse. As it turned out, COVID-19’s presence in Wisconsin (especially early on) mostly meant no school, a lot of canceled speeches, and my wife working from our guest room. We were blessedly untouched by unemployment, sickness, or death, and I don’t mean to make light of that, only to display my own naivete and privilege.

If there is a drawback to riding out a global pandemic in rural Wisconsin, it’s the internet. Where we live, eight miles from Eau Claire — not eighty miles — the internet is about as reliable as a weather prediction. Most of the time it works. A not insignificant amount of time, it does not, and our only recourse is to flip a button on the router and pray. Pre-COVID, this was just an inconvenience, the kind of thing people living in the richest country in the world complain about because there aren’t other things to complain about, like say, malaria, famine, or civil war. But as the quarantine stretched on, and home-based education relied more and more on internet connectivity, the issue became less of an inconvenience, and more of an actual problem. Sometimes, our children were unable to join Zoom meetings with their teachers and fellow students. Other times, the connections were glitchy at best, like driving an old, rusty, VW Bug with a very bad transmission. Imagine being 7 years old. The excitement you would feel to see your beloved teacher’s face or the faces of your young friends, if only on a computer screen, and then — nothing but frozen or balky images. You would feel like you were stranded on the moon.

It wasn’t just the kids. If my wife or I needed to join an essential Zoom meeting for business, we often drove into town to set up a temporary office at a relative’s home. As my father’s guardian, I have been unable to see him in-person since March. Zoom meetings are my only chance to see his face, or to interact with his heroic caregivers. It is not an exaggeration to say that I find myself apologizing for my internet connection during each and every Zoom meeting.

I do not understand why statewide rural broadband isn’t a slam-dunk bipartisan issue. It should be. It should be the tool with which we fulfill the Wisconsin Idea. Reliable internet connectivity is the fulcrum of 21st century commerce. Without reliable internet, it is difficult to attract young entrepreneurs to rural areas or small towns; it would be like having no telephone connection in the later half of the 20th century, no mailing address in the first half of the 20th century. Or perhaps worse yet, a phone that worked only 70 percent of the time. A mailbox that a postal worker could find only 70 percent of the time. Business thrives on predictability, on steadiness. Twenty-first century business moves at the speed of the internet, if possible, at 5G speed.

Congress passed immense aid packages in the wake of COVID’s destruction on the economy, but to my knowledge, little discussion resulted about improving rural internet. Why not? My most cynical theories are that politicians representing such districts are actually perfectly content with how things are. So what if their constituents don’t have ready access to information or the news? Who cares if populations drop in these areas? Sure makes it easier for the powers-that-be to gerrymander smaller populations into larger districts while focusing urban or semi-urban districts into tiny bull’s-eyes.

If you love small-town America, small-town Wisconsin, nothing is more heartbreaking than witnessing a hollowed-out Main Street lined with abandoned storefronts. But I’ve always thought small-town America offered great opportunities for young people struggling to get by in America’s metropolises. Imagine if every small town in Wisconsin had reliable lightning-quick internet. Suddenly, those beautiful old brick buildings along Main Street, with their rock-bottom rents and easy commutes, might look a lot more attractive to younger entrepreneurs looking to mitigate startup costs.

This isn’t the apocalypse, thankfully no, not by a longshot. But it is a moment in American (and Wisconsin) history that reveals our weaknesses, and the sincerity of our political responses. I wish every rural Wisconsin politician would take the time to join a Zoom call with one of their young constituents, a third-grade girl for example, who wants nothing more than to learn at the speed of their own attention-span and passion. Or, an elderly constituent who cannot visit their doctor in-person, but now relies on a virtual medical appointment. I wonder, why our politicians aren’t moving faster. They seem as slow as my internet, maybe worse. Let’s flip their switch and see if they still work.

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Task force to address broadband access

As the coronavirus pandemic took hold in Wisconsin, access to high-speed internet became more critical than ever, with many residents forced to work or attend school from home.

In some cases, getting that access meant working or keeping up with school while sitting in cars or restaurants, in school or library parking lots or at their neighbors’ houses.

And now, with school districts working to figure out what the upcoming school year will look like and recommendations from the state Department of Public Instruction for reopening including access to broadband and digital technology, the importance of that access remains high.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored that access to high-speed broadband is a necessity, not a luxury, and folks across our state have had to adapt — from kids and educators shifting to virtual classrooms, workers having to work from home, and even folks using telemedicine to visit with their doctor,” Gov. Tony Evers said July 14 in a news release.

On July 14, Evers created the Governor’s Task Force on Broadband Access, a bipartisan task force to advise the governor and Wisconsin State Legislature on broadband actions and policy. The task force will prepare an annual report that will include the current state of broadband in Wisconsin, as well as recommendations for policies and initiatives to overcome challenges to statewide access, affordability and adoption. The group’s first meeting will be later this summer.

“This task force will bring together experts from across the state to research and recommend solutions that state leaders can adopt to connect every person in Wisconsin,” Evers said.

State Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, was one of four state lawmakers named to the Governor’s Task Force on Broadband Access.

On July 22, Marklein sent a letter to Evers asking him to spend Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding on the Wisconsin Broadband Expansion Grant Program.

“I have recently been meeting with most of the 34 school districts I represent to discuss re-opening schools. I have talked with parents and community leaders about their virtual learning challenges last spring,” Marklein said in a news release. “(Dedicating CARES Act funds to the Broadband Expansion Grant Program) would be an ideal way to use these funds to meet real, quantifiable needs with a proven program.”

More than a quarter of rural Wisconsin residents don’t have access to broadband service, according to the Federal Communications Commission’s 2020 Broadband Deployment Report.

The creation of the Governor’s Task Force on Broadband Access comes on the heels of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation’s June 30 “Wisconsin Tomorrow — An Economy for All” report. The report assesses the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Wisconsin and identifies priorities for the state’s recovery efforts.

The report calls for the state to focus on three priorities: getting everyone back to work, fixing broadband, and supporting innovation.

Regarding broadband, the report found that the pandemic has highlighted the digital divide in the state. Education, e-commerce, remote working and even contact with government depend on access to computers and high-speed internet.

“It feels like the mindset with broadband has been ... every town for themselves,” Missy Hughes, secretary and CEO of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, said during the July 23 Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Board meeting. “This is not something that is insurmountable. We can fix this problem. But it can be difficult when you have a scattershot approach.”

DATCP worked with WEDC on parts of the report that were outside WEDC’s scope of responsibilities, and DATCP Secretary-designee Randy Romanski said expanding broadband access is critical to the success of rural Wisconsin.

“Broadband is a necessity, not just something that is a luxury to have,” Romanski said July 16 during a conference call with agriculture media. “Not having universal access is a challenge for every industry, including agriculture.”

The Wisconsin Tomorrow report identified goals of expanding high speed internet access to every residence, business, and institution in the state; initiatives for digital inclusion; and pathways to unlocking and optimizing the benefits of statewide, affordable access to broadband for all communities in Wisconsin.

The report said the state took an important first step in that direction in March, when the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin awarded $24 million through the Broadband Expansion Grant Program as part of a $48 million investment in broadband included in Evers’ first biennial budget.

Evers said the task force is the next step in making sure everyone in Wisconsin has access to high-speed internet.

The task force will be chaired by Brittany Beyer, executive director for Grow North Regional Economic Development Corporation. The 24-member task force consists of “members who represent a balance of interests, perspectives, and areas of expertise,” according to Evers’ news release, and includes State Rep. Beth Meyers, D-Bayfield, State Rep. Jeffrey Mursau, R-Crivitz, State Sen. Patty Schachtner, D-Somerset, and Marklein.

“All children, no matter their income or geography, need internet access for their education, whether schools can reopen or not,” Meyers said in a news release. “We need to build up our economy and make rural Wisconsin a place where workers want to live and raise families, but that won’t be possible without this critical infrastructure.”

“This task force will have strong, rural voices to represent the unique challenges in our communities,” Marklein said. “I look forward to our work together to continue expanding broadband in rural Wisconsin.”