Lake Lillian farmer says he's not standing alone to manage stress on the farm

Lake Lillian farmer Harlan Madsen has persisted through a litany of health challenges in recent years, but said they pale in comparison to the stress he has experienced on the farm in the past year. He urges maintaining social connections for your own well-being, and that of others, during these stressful times.

Harlan Madsen has persisted through a series of health challenges in the past 10 years, but nothing has brought more stress to his life than the past year of farming in rural Lake Lillian. He urged an audience of ag producers to pay attention to their mental health needs, as well as those of their friends and neighbors, during these difficult times. He spoke Dec. 12 in Renville at a "Persist in Farming" event hosted by the Renville County Soil and Water Conservation District and Hawk Creek Watershed Project. Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune

RENVILLE — In the last 10 years, Harlan Madsen has dealt with prostate cancer, a blood clot in his lung, a hematoma, two hernia surgeries, two shoulder rebuilds, and kidney failure that had doctors giving him a 15 percent chance to live.

“Was I scared? You’re doggone right I was. Under a lot of stress,” Madsen told an audience of farmers at a “Persist in Farming” program offered by the Renville County Soil and Water Conservation District and Hawk Creek Watershed Project in Renville.

“But I will tell you nothing, none of that has compared to what I’ve experienced in the last year and a half,” said Madsen during the Dec. 12 session. “I will freely admit: I’ve never experienced a year like the last year.”

He was talking about the challenges he faced as a farmer.

Madsen, 71, farms north of Lake Lillian with his son and daughter-in-law. They raise row crops and manage 100 dairy cows and 150 heifers. He is also a member of the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners and is a FFA adviser. He had been a high school ag teacher for six years before he began farming.


Record precipitation, a late spring and late harvest, tariffs and trade wars and depressed commodity prices have all made this as stressful a time as ever for farmers.

“I have never been so physically, mentally exhausted in my life ever,” Madsen said of the past year and a half. It’s taking its toll on others, too. He’s had one person close to him tell him: “They can’t take it anymore and they don’t know how long they are going to be around. That gets your attention,” he said.

It’s also why Madsen spoke publicly of his challenges. He urged the audience members to pay attention to their mental health needs. He said two of his farmer friends committed suicide in the last couple of years.

Madsen pointed out that 80 percent of us will have at least one episode of depression in our lives.

He came to appreciate the mental health challenges people experience back in the drought year of 1988. He had run out of gas. A former high school classmate saw him walking and picked him up.

To his surprise, Madsen said the man apologized to him for how he had treated him in high school. His former classmate confided that he had learned that he had a brain chemistry imbalance that resulted in depression. Dealing with it and not suppressing it helped him feel better than he had ever felt in his life, the man told Madsen.

The two were neither friends nor enemies in their past relationship. “We were friends that day,” Madsen said.

There is no single solution to stress or mental health needs, but Madsen said nothing is as important as cultivating social relationships. Maintaining social connections is the best thing to do for longevity, health and mental well-being, he said.


He also urged his audience to focus on controlling their own attitudes. It’s the one thing you can control, and it can be done. He spoke about a doctor at the Mayo Clinic who starts each day by thinking about five people for whom he is grateful.

Farmers are by necessity an independent lot, and that can make them reluctant to seek out help, according to Madsen. Along with the stress they cannot control — from the weather to prices — farmers are also under steady pressure to rank themselves against the standards of success portrayed everyday in the media.

It all adds up, and these are tough times, making it more important than ever that we connect with others, according to Madsen. “Be connected with people because that is the single greatest thing that we will have ever,” he said.

Related Topics: AGRICULTURE
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