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SDSU Extension to assess farm-ranch stress statewide

South Dakota State University Extension faculty will conduct a statewide comprehensive needs assessment to find more ways to help agricultural producers deal with stress through a new U.S. Department of Agriculture program.

The Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network program is a 12-state collaborative that seeks to expand stress management and mental health resources and services to agricultural producers and stakeholders in the North Central region. The program is supported by a three-year, nearly $7.2 million USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant through the 2018 Farm Bill.

“We decided to complete a comprehensive needs assessment to get a better understanding of how we can expand our work in South Dakota to provide more assistance across the state,” said SDSU Extension Mental Health Specialist Andrea Bjornestad, an associate professor in the Department of Counseling and Human Development. She leads the South Dakota team, which will receive more than $440,000 in funding.

Andrea Bjornestad
Andrea Bjornestad

Bjornestad has been doing research on the mental health of agricultural producers since 2015. She also leads the SDSU Extension rural behavioral health team, which focuses on farm stress management. Last year, she gave more than 20 presentations on coping with stress for agricultural organizations across South Dakota.

“This is a statewide effort to identify how to best to serve farmers and ranchers with the hopes of creating an assistance network across the state,” Bjornestad said. Producers already have chronic stress due to external factors outside their control, such as weather and market prices. Now they have the COVID-19 pandemic, which adds to their stress.

Bjornestad will be assisted by SDSU Extension Range Specialist Krista Ehlert, an assistant professor in the Department of Natural Resource Management, who will spearhead the West River effort from SDSU’s West River Research and Extension Office in Rapid City.

Krista Ehlert
Krista Ehlert

“By working together across the state, Dr. Bjornestad and I are combining our skillsets and expertise – hers in mental health and mine in agriculture – to have a multi-pronged approach to rural behavioral health,” Ehlert said.

SDSU Extension Director Karla Trautman said, “This  project will  establish the critical foundation needed to identify the mental health needs in across rural communities in South Dakota.  By establishing this foundation, SDSU Extension is then positioned to provide appropriate resources in accordance with our land grant mission, which is to provide transformational strategies that meet critical needs.”    

Partnering with ag organizations

A statewide task force composed of representatives from 10 agricultural organizations, including the South Dakota Department of Agriculture, will provide guidance on the comprehensive needs assessment. “This provides an opportunity to expand our work by partnering with state agricultural organizations to develop a more extensive distance network,” Bjornestad explained.

The Extension specialists met with the task force this month in a virtual retreat. Other South Dakota organizations represented on the task force are the Wheat Commission, Sheep Growers Association, Pork Producers Council, Soybean Association, Stock Growers Association, Grassland Coalition, Soil Health Coalition, Farm Bureau and Cattlemen’s Association.

Developing expanded network

“Doing a comprehensive needs assessment is a bit like starting with a clean slate—we do not know what issues or needs will emerge,” Bjornestad said. Guided by the task force, the Extension specialists will develop goals and objectives.

Focus groups with various groups, including producers, will be facilitated in the first year. In the second year, the researchers will survey agricultural producers and stakeholders and conduct key informant interviews. “We will hear their narratives, their conversations, which makes this exciting work,” she explained.

In the final year, the researchers will develop an action plan, which will provide the task force with a solid foundation for moving forward to create an assistance network. “We are setting the stage for everyone,” Bjornestad said.