Women in Ag 2023 conference in Willmar focuses on building resilience in challenging times
Several of the breakout sessions, along with keynote speaker and closing panel, at the 2023 Women in Ag Conference in Willmar focused on helping women build resilience.
WILLMAR — The past few years have been a challenge for most people with the pandemic — and the economic and social fallout that followed close on its heels. The stress and burnout could be even more acutely felt on the farm, where families must also live with the whims of nature.
The theme of the 2023 Women in Ag Network Conference, held by the University of Minnesota Extension on Feb. 7 at the Willmar Conference Center, was Building Resilience on Your Farm and Family. Many of the breakout sessions, along with the morning keynote speaker and the panel discussion held at the end of the day, covered different aspects of burnout, resilience and tips on how women can do to help build that resilience in their everyday lives.
"Resilience is growing through adversary," said Monica McConkey, a rural mental health specialist who gave the keynote address to open the conference.
Adversity, loss and burnout
With her history on the farm, McConkey knows about the adversity that can hit farms and their families.
"When we talk about adversity, it is different for everybody," McConkey said. "Adversity is those things life throw at us, some of which we expect, some of which we don't."
Agriculture families may also have to deal with a lot of ambiguity in life which can be another cause of stress and adversity.
"In agriculture we deal with a lot of ambiguity. There is a lot of things we can't control, there are a lot of things that can happen that aren't super clear to us, why they happen or how they happen," said Emily Krekelberg, Extension educator.
Krekelberg and Jenifer McGuire, professor and extension specialist, spoke about building resiliency in times of ambiguity. They specifically focused on ambiguous loss and how that can be a challenge to get through.
"In some cases, our grief cannot end, especially when we are dealing with something like ambiguous loss," which Krekelberg defined as a loss without clarity. "That process can be extended for years; we can be grieving our entire lifetimes."
Another issue that has been growing significantly during the last years has been burnout, both on the job and at home.
For family farms, it can impact both sides of life at the same time. According to a Gallup poll taken in 2021, 74% of respondents reported dealing with burnout, a 32-point rise from December 2019. While it is getting better, 67% of respondents now report feeling burned out, and society is nowhere near back to normal.
"We have a long way to go before we come back to this level that people feel we don't have to worry about it," said Christy Kallevig, an Extension educator twho focuses on leadership and civic engagement. She spoke on the myths of burnout and steps people can take to try and banish it.
Burnout is not an individual issue, and it doesn't mean a person no longer cares about their work, Kallevig said.
"Burnout doesn't mean we don't care; it means we care too much. We are fully invested, fully engaged," Kallevig said, adding burnout is an effect of chronic workplace stress and can only really be solved at the organizational level.
Drivers of burnout include things such as unsustainable workload, perceived lack of control, insufficient rewards and a lack of fairness. While burnout is a problem for everyone, it has been impacting women, persons of color and an entire generation more than most.
"It is also impacting millennials at a higher rate, so much so that millennials are starting to be referred to as the burnout generation," Kallevig said.
There are ways to turn things around when you feel bogged down by adversity, grief and burnout. A lot of it boils down to changing how you think by not letting the negative thoughts and emotions cloud everything else.
"When we change how we are thinking, it changes the whole scenario," McConkey said.
When discussing how to become more resilient, McConkey asks people to consider the palm tree. It can be pushed to near breaking during a hurricane, but the next day be standing tall among the damage around it. There are many characteristics of the palm tree — such as being flexible, letting go of things that could drag it down and surrounding itself with a support system — that people could use in their own lives.
"Resilient thinking is all about being problem solving focused, forward thinking focused. It is not blaming or thinking back 20 years," McConkey said. "It is present- and future-focused, it is positive."
To get through adversity and loss, one will need to be able to adapt to stressors and also prepare for future challenges. But to do so, you have to be willing to make the changes.
"It can be very hard to move forward with a new identity if you don't have openness to change," McGuire said.
Positive thinking is imperative to becoming more resilient. Even small positive thoughts can have a big impact on a person's mental well being and ability to get through the tough times.
"A positive emotion doesn't have to be big; it doesn't have to be happy, happy, happy and filled with joy," Kallevig said. "It can be peaceful, it can be calm an quiet."
A person also needs to take time for themselves, no matter how busy they may be. McConkey spoke about doing those things that feed one's soul.
"This looks very different for everybody. For some people it is the more traditional religious practice," McConkey said. "For some people it is being in nature, being around animals, volunteering, listening to music."
It is not just the mental side of things people need to take care of when building up their resilience. They also need to make sure they are sleeping enough and doing everything else to keep their physical self in good condition.
"We need to eat, we need to drink, we need to sleep and we need to move our body," Kallevig said. "Those four things can make such a big difference."
At the conclusion of the conference, a panel of women agriculture professionals shared their thoughts on adversity and resilience. Each of them had different definitions and outlooks on what resilience is to them.
"Having the ability, strength, creativity and awareness to get through the challenges in life and celebrate the good times," said Kathy Hupf, of CannonBelles Cheese in Cannon Falls.
Adversity can take the shape of many different things and the path to overcoming it is just as varied.
For Mary Jo Forbord, of Prairie Horizons Farm in Benson, the biggest and most heartaching challenge for her had been the death of her 22-year old son 13 years ago from a rare form of cancer. As she and her family grieved, Forbord said she learned how it important it was to have a purpose and a passion and to let go of things to make room for new opportunities.
"Try to go to the essence," which Forbord explained is a mix of the physical, mental and spiritual.
At Strawberries Galore and More of Albany, owner Tammy Frericks said for her it was about getting a brand-new business off the ground and learning how to adapt and be assertive.
"We have learned and we have grown," Frericks said. "Strawberry farming has made us a lot stronger."
The messages that the speakers shared during the Women in Ag conference all seemed to boil down to a few main points — that adversity happens to everyone in some way, and that building up your resilience can help you overcome that adversity. And, no matter the challenge you are facing, it is important to be good to yourself.
"Be kind to yourself. Give yourself that space you need," Kallevig said and allow yourself to care for you. "You have to stop and give yourself a breath."