Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships


             I spent a Friday/Saturday with Dr. Mike Rosmann as we jointly worked with a Nebraska farm family experiencing family conflict. I invited Mike to join me, among other reasons, to get to know him better. He will be my successor in writing this column.

            I have known Mike mostly by reputation as a mover and shaker in the field of what I was used to calling “rural mental health” and what he was calling “agricultural behavioral health”. We were like two peas in a pod, though we had come to this spot through different paths and lifestyles.

            My path. I was a big-city raised westerner with a farmer-friendly name transplanted into rural South Dakota and North Dakota. I developed my affinity for working with farm and rural people through the counseling profession - learning about the complexity of an idiosyncratic combination of a nature oriented, weather-reactive home-based family business and their unabashed love affair with a work-based lifestyle and land.

            That was plenty for me to chew on. I received encouragement during a seminar on helping  families in family businesses from a California almond grower who told me, “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man was king.”

            I resigned from my position as Executive Director of a Community Counseling Services in Huron, South Dakota to enter private practice. I immediately fell on my face financially. I had a profound experience with failure, a loss of self-esteem and a forced relocation to Rapid City, South Dakota. My writing about farmers, farm stress and coping took on intensity based on informed emotion of my own personal crisis.

            My newspaper column was started in 1984 where I combined journalism, counseling, and family business consultation into a professional career serving rural families that made me many friends and has given me many rewards.

            This was quite timely as my development was spurred onward by writing a weekly column primarily about the farm crisis of the early and mid-80s, the widespread drought of ‘88 and  the flooding of ‘93. In addition to rural topics, I expanded my column to deal with a whole range of mental health, sociological and cultural topics.

            I became a regular guest on the radio call-in program AgriTalk in 1994, further cementing my accessibility in the eyes of rural people. My career unfolded in front of my readers as I tried to keep up with the demands of a weekly column and radio show.  I kept my full-time employment while doing sandwiching my writing and other pursuits at night and on weekends.

            That is my story. What about Mike Rosmann? He left a faculty position at the University of Virginia to reconnect with his farmer roots.

            His disbelieving colleagues challenged him on the wisdom of his choice. Mike surprised himself with his spirited defensive passion for working farm people as a worthy clientele who needed his services as much as anybody in society. “Somebody has to care for the mental health of farm people.”

            He and his nurse wife Marilyn set themselves up to live active, demanding lives as farmers and as professionals in their rural community. This was also during the farm crisis of the mid-80s. Farmers would seek Mike for his unique understanding of farmers and their personal issues.

            Mike started in private practice but joined with a community mental health center to gain additional support for all the work he was generating. Eventually he was asked to found the Prairie Rose Mental Health Center in Harlan, Iowa. Mike soon became a leader and lecturer in much demand on topics of rural behavioral health.

            A farm accident changed everything. Mike experienced a crisis in his own life as he had a major farm accident where his foot was caught in an auger. His own life was distorted by trying to combine incessant pressures of farming full-time with a huge clinical practice and as a professional speaker and educator.

            He had his own epiphany on how he was trying to do too much and partially for the wrong reasons. “A higher force was telling me that my behavior and my motives were less than completely healthy. I shouldn’t work so hard, or maybe work smarter. I should concentrate more on helping others and focus less on material gains.”

            Mike gave up farming, his position as Executive Director at Prairie Rose and his positions on two boards to have a life with more balance, recreation, family time, laughter, talk and fishing.

            He took a position with the College of Public Health at the University of Iowa. He then founded AgriWellness, Inc., a multi-state nonprofit organization based in Harlan, Iowa. AgriWellness developed  farmer-friendly telephone helplines in seven upper Midwestern states.

            Since then, Mike has helped popularize agricultural behavioral health programs being taught to physicians, nurses, and behavioral health professionals such as psychologists at several universities and workshops around the country.

            Mike has written a book, “Excellent Joy: Fishing, Farming, Hunting, and Psychology” which describes his philosophy about keeping the “family” in family farming. “For farm people who do this (find meaning in farming as a way of life) as our life’s work, farming is a sacred act. Understanding the behavior of farm people is my life’s work.”

            Now do you see why I am leaving this column in good hands? Dr. Rosmann cares about you like I have.