DeRon Brehmer

About the cover: DeRon Brehmer, Bellingham, at his seat on the Lac qui Parle County Commissioners meeting room. Photo by Andrea Johnson.

MADISON, Minn. – With 85 percent of the communities they serve being agriculture-based, Countryside Public Health is seeing a very high need for ag-related mental health strategies.

Serving the west central Minnesota counties of Big Stone, Chippewa, Lac qui Parle, Swift and Yellow Medicine, the Public Health Agency wants to provide tools to help individuals survive and thrive despite stressful times.

“Our hope is to create awareness, expand resources and provide education on farming-related mental health,” said Anna Snyder, Countryside Public Health educator. “We hope to gain partnerships to disburse these resources.”

Snyder, as well as Elizabeth Auch, Countryside Public Health administrator, reached out to county commissioners across the region to share their concerns. They asked farmers to share their own stories for working through stress, too.

A county commissioner from Lac qui Parle County, DeRon Brehmer, said he was willing to share the stressors involved in his multigeneration farming operation over the years. He also talked about how he deals with those stressors to keep them in check.

Brehmer Family Farm

Like many farmers, DeRon Brehmer, 60, has experienced a lot of changes on the farm where he has lived all of his life.

His parents, Wilbert and Gladys Brehmer, purchased a dairy farm back in 1966, and DeRon started working on the farm when he was 7. After graduating from Bellingham High School in 1978, he attended Ridgewater College in Willmar before going back to farm in 1980.

“I don’t regret having done what I did. I grew up always wanting to dairy farm,” he said. “I got to do that.”

Talk about turning lemons into lemonade – DeRon’s first loan for cattle was at 17.5 percent interest, but he felt that was a good thing.

“You really learned how to become a good manager right from the beginning,” he said. “It was extremely tough because the end of the 1970s was where people started feeling a lot of stress.”

The milk check wasn’t the highest throughout the 1980s, but it was stable. The dairy allowed DeRon to make a living and get married to his high school sweetheart, Sylvia. She knew that when she married DeRon, they would live on the farm.

Sylvia was a huge help to the operation by working full-time at the State Bank of Bellingham, and before their kids were born, she also waitressed at night. In addition, Sylvia took care of the calves, housework and bookkeeping – plus feeding cows.

“For the most part, she doesn’t tell me what to do or not to do,” DeRon said. “I’ll explain to her and she’s very supportive. She’s always been that way.”

But what was expected of a “farm wife” was very different in 1980 than it is today. DeRon has learned that for many young people, moving to a rural area or a farm can be very isolating. Moving to the family farm does cause stress and individuals do have the right to feel apprehensive and not sure what to do. Not every farmer has to live in the country anymore, he pointed out, and that’s okay.

Sylvia and DeRon have four sons who were raised on the dairy farm. Isaac, 34, Aaron, 32, Matthew, 31, and Jordan, 25, are all involved in the farming operation today, and that is what DeRon appreciates most.

He was given an opportunity to come back to farm with his parents, and he and Sylvia have tried to offer that to their own children and their families.

DeRon and Sylvia purchased Brehmer Family Farm in 1991. They ran a dairy operation until 2012 when they transitioned into crops and beef. DeRon had the opportunity to work as a substitute mail carrier when the boys were young and has now served as a county commissioner for 11 years. The income diversity has helped greatly to even out the highs and lows of farming.

“Into the 1990s, there were some years when the weather got to be quite wet, and then it got stressful,” he said. “We had one year with an early killing frost in August. Then we had some bad winters.”

The Brehmers lived through the years when they had to pull the milk truck in and out of the driveway when things got muddy. They had to clean out the barn when they would rather have done something else. There were times when DeRon and the boys would come into the house to sleep for only two hours daily before returning outside to get the work done.

Having four strong boys helped get the work done; and all four sons developed a good work ethic and sense of responsibility. They’ve all married, and some have kids.

As his sons have remained involved in farming, DeRon noted some of the stressors he sees. The price of farmland makes it almost impossible for young people to buy land. Rental rates are so high that farmers can’t afford to make any mistakes or have weather downturns.

The Brehmers use each other’s equipment (mostly DeRon’s) to help lower the cost of crop production. Each brother makes decisions on their own farmland, but DeRon says they have to do things his way on his own farmland.

The 2019 growing season was especially stressful. The crops were very late to get in because of cold weather and excess rain and water in the fields. The high stress level continued all the way through the late harvest.

“When the weekends were coming, you didn’t get a choice – you could go to church, but you weren’t getting Saturday or Sunday off,” DeRon said. “You had to keep on working because the next day may not be nice. You just keep working until you get through it.”

In situations like this, DeRon mentioned several things that have helped him deal with stress over the years:

- Be willing to admit when something is no longer working or is very hard to do. Even if the land was handed down generation to generation, it’s not healthy to believe you can do everything on your own.

- Have a team. When they were milking cows, Brehmer Family Farms had a diagnostics team that included a lender, nutritionist, Adult Farm Business Management instructor and an equipment dealer. Today, the family business still relies on many services for success.

- Things usually work out. If you feel confused, take that as a signal not to act. There will be days when there is no solution and you don’t have an answer.

“Go to bed, say a prayer and usually things work out,” DeRon said. “Maybe it’s not always the way you want it to, but usually it works out.”

- Living within your means helps keep finances on track. That’s something the Brehmers believe is required for success. A conservative lifestyle has its downsides, too, DeRon said. Taking fewer risks may mean some opportunities are lost, so farmers have to decide what’s most important to them and their families.

- Find someone you can talk with. Sometimes DeRon found it difficult to talk with his dad because they had differences of opinions. DeRon would find his uncle, who was single but willing to listen. The uncle was calm and encouraged DeRon to get along with his dad.

That helped some, as well as a friend who ran a machine shop 10-12 miles away. When things were difficult, the machinist would ask the right questions, so DeRon felt comfortable talking about the situation. When that shop owner made a suggestion, DeRon was able to “hear” the advice and find a way through.

- Sometimes things just go wrong. It’s nobody’s fault. What do you have for a backup plan? There is a good life available outside of farming. No one believes that if you don’t get one specific job that it’s the end all. There’s always another job you can apply for, and there’s always services available if things fall through. Farming is not the end all.

“My mother always told me, she said, ‘It doesn’t matter if you fail. It’s whether or not you keep going after you fall,’” he said. “As long as you’re learning something, you’ve gained something to take you forward.”

Do you have a story you’d be willing to share about ways you’ve reduced stress in your life? We’d love to share your story. Contact Andrea Johnson at andreaj@mchsi.com.