Wheat is harvested on the Cooksey farm near Roggen, Colorado in 2009.

(AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

Updated with transcript — "The agricultural economic crisis is real. The resulting stress is real. Let's TALK about it."

That's the pitch on the Colorado Department of Agriculture website for a new program aimed at helping farmers facing emotional crisis because of financial strains in their industry. The crisis line is 844-493-TALK (8255) or text TALK to 38255.

Agriculture Commissioner Don Brown says the program, just now rolling out, will train staffers at the Colorado Crisis Center hotline specifically about farming and ranching, so they can better counsel those who call. His department will also promote the hotline to farmers and ranchers statewide.

Colorado's wheat and corn farmers, in particular, are struggling as global competition forces prices down below their production costs. Brown says he got the idea for the special hotline service after talking with troubled friends in Yuma, where his family has a farm. He spoke about with Colorado Matters. Click on the audio link above to hear the conversation.

Conversation Highlights With Agriculture Commissioner Don Brown

On why it became clear this program was needed:

"Well I think there is two or three things I’d like to talk about and one of them is the fact that I started farming in the late 1970s, my wife and I, right before the ag crisis hit. So I’ve gone through this once personally as a young person and I guess I recognized, maybe what I saw the signs of, we're headed maybe that direction again. And particularly this winter, we had several neighbors or acquaintances call us and simply wanting to maybe sell us their land because they were under a lot of pressure from the banks and that told me that we’re headed down a road that we don’t like and then consequently emotionally and mentally that’s very, very struggling and difficult for a farmer and a rancher. Very difficult."

On an example of how to speak a common language with farmers:

"Let’s talk about Pioneer 1157 corn, of the GDUs, of so and so and so. Did you know what I’m talking about? Probably not. We talk about the weather. We talk about livestock. We talk about genetics. We have all sorts of terms and relationships and particularly the bond to the land, which I think is difficult to understand unless one has truly experienced it. And the fact that many of these operations are many, several generations old and that, that’s something that you have to know, I guess, in essence, to speak the language."

On why farmers find it so hard to ask for help:

"Well, there’s a great deal of independence and resilience. I mean, you have to be that way to stand there and watch a hailstorm wipe out a year’s worth of work in 10 or 15 minutes and we’ve observed that. We experienced that on our farm this summer early."

On whether there's hope on the horizon for farmers' finances:

"Well, I always, you know, I’m an eternal optimist. I’m a lemonade guy. When I get lemons, then all you do it put sugar in it and you’ve got something to consume. This, too, shall change and turn. We’re seeing a growing population and consequently everybody needs to be fed. So there will continue to be demand. There’s always cycles in the weather worldwide. And so we’ll see a rebound. It’ll be slow, or it might quick; you never know. But it’s difficult to realize, too, on occasion that if you’re under financial pressure, it may not be your fault. It probably isn’t your fault. Actually I’d say it’s not your fault because you’re, there’s weather; there’s financial pressures across the world; there’s interest rate, things that are beyond the farmer’s control."

Read The Transcript:

Ryan Warner: This is Colorado Matters from CPR News. I’m Ryan Warner. Life can be tough for farmers and ranchers these days. They are subject to increasing global competition, to the whims of weather, and to the high costs of doing business. Colorado’s Agriculture Commissioner, Don Brown, is a farmer and he has talked to friends who get depressed. He has come up with a new program to help farmers in crisis and Don, welcome to the program.

Don Brown: Well, thank you very much. I appreciate the invitation this morning. It’s a pleasure to be on the show.

RW: Well, I'll say that farming has never been an easy business, but give me an example of a conversation you've had recently with somebody in your home town, Yuma County, that led you to believe this program is important.

DB: Well I think there is two or three things I’d like to talk about and one of them is the fact that I started farming in the late 1970s, my wife and I, right before the Ag crisis hit. So I’ve gone through this once personally as a young person and I guess I recognized, maybe what I saw the signs of, we're headed maybe that direction again. And particularly this winter, we had several neighbors or acquaintances call us and simply wanting to maybe sell us their land because they were under a lot of pressure from the banks and that told me that we’re headed down a road that we don’t like and then consequently emotionally and mentally that’s very, very struggling and difficult for a farmer and a rancher. Very difficult.

RW: So this is.

DB: Extremely difficult.

RW: Déjà vu for you in some regards.

DB: To a degree and I want to get out in front of this thing. I think it’s important that we don’t come in the back side. We need to be proactive. We need to provide help for those who think they might need somebody to talk to.

RW: Did those folks who approached you wind up selling their farm?

DB: some of them did, yes. I mean, you know that’s kind of where you go when the bank says you need to restructure. They restructure and typically that’s the answer, and you’re selling the factory, your livelihood when you do that.

RW: So, this new program is actually based on something the state's had for some time, a telephone crisis line. The pitch on your website reads, “The agricultural economic crisis is real. The resulting stress is real. Let’s talk about it.” What will you do differently to cater to farmers and ranchers?

DB: Well, we’re doing an orientation program for those who run the Colorado, we speak a language that speaks, is a little different. As you in radio talk speak a different language, lawyers speak a different language, we in agriculture speak a different language.

RW: So teaching the operators.

DB: Our job is to try to teach them the language to be able to communicate with those who...

RW: What does that sound like? How is it different?

DB: Well, ah, okay, so let’s talk about Pioneer 1157 corn, of the GDUs, of so and so and so. Did you know what I’m talking about? Probably not. We talk about the weather. We talk about livestock. We talk about genetics. We have all sorts of terms and relationships and particularly the bond to the land, which I think is difficult to understand unless one has truly experienced it. And the fact that many of these operations are many, several generations old and that, that’s something that you have to know, I guess, in essence, to speak the language.

RW: So you are trying to train the operators at the crisis hotline in some of those terms.

DB: Right.

RW: And the themes that might arise. Has that begun, the actual call service or ?

DB: It’s available anytime.

RW: Yeah.

DB: But the organization component of it whereby we have trained them or provided them with the video tapes, that will be done here in the next week or two. But it’s always available. Yep.

RY: Okay. Are you seeing more foreclosures at this point? More farms being forced out of business?

DB: We’re starting to see that a little bit. Farming right now, of course it’s always been an up and down business and so you, it’s a commodity, and so when there’s surplus, the prices are low and when there’s a deficit production, then they’re high, and that often hinges on weather. And so consequently what we’re seeing right now is one of those dips.

RW: And what are the forces at play in the dip? Help us understand why.

DB: Too much production really. Worldwide weather has been good. Genetics of a lot of the crops and we’re producing more than we were.

RW: And those that, of course, drives prices down.

DB: That drives prices. There is simply more supply than demand at the moment and that, too, shall change. Weather is, you know, an aberration in itself.

RW: What crops does that touch?

DB: Well, it touches every crop, but primarily right now the surplus is in the wheat and corn commodities is where we’re really seeing it. Now what happens, too, then is people quit raising wheat and corn and they’ll move into another crop and then you oversupply that crop. So it’s kind of a two-edged sword, but typically right now would be the row crops. They’re literally half the price they were in 2012 and 2013.

RW: When farmers give up wheat and corn, what do they what do they tend to plant?

DB: Oh, they’ll move, particularly in the dry land and Eastern Plains area, they’ll move into commodities like grain sorghums, proso millets, some hays, those type of commodities.

RW: Colorado’s a huge millet grower, that’s right.

DB: Yes, it is, very much.

RW: What about bright spots?

DB: Oh, there’s always bright spots.

RW: Okay, what are a few of those crops?

DB: Oh, I mean, we’ve got some bright spots. We’re seeing the beef industry’s rebounded a little bit again now. Some of the produce crops that they have had contracted, they’re doing okay. I mean, it’s there’s no, this is pretty typical. It’s just hard on folks when they see a slide like this.

RW: Is there something about the farming life that makes it harder to ask for help?

DB: Well, there’s a great deal of independence and resilience. I mean, you have to be that way to stand there and watch a hailstorm wipe out a year’s worth of work in 10 or 15 minutes and we’ve observed that. We experienced that on our farm this summer early.

RW: Yeah, this happened to you son, too, right?

DB: This happened to my son, yes. He lost his wheat crop, him and his wife, in, oh, about 30 minutes on May 31st. It was gone. And so you have to have an independence and a resilience, but everybody, too, probably family members need somebody to talk to. They’ll recognize symptoms or signs of when somebody is struggling mentally.

RW: And we’ll post the number, obviously to CPRNews.org if you are looking for that. Yeah, absolutely.

DB: If you would please. It would be greatly appreciated.

RW: Well, what do you think is the long-term look here, outlook, that is? You’ve said that farmers have been here before in Colorado. Is there light on the horizon?

DB: Well, I always, you know, I’m an eternal optimist. I’m a lemonade guy. When I get lemons, then all you do it put sugar in it and you’ve got something to consume. This, too, shall change and turn. We’re seeing a growing population and consequently everybody needs to be fed. So there will continue to be demand. There’s always cycles in the weather worldwide. And so we’ll see a rebound. It’ll be slow, or it might quick; you never know. But it’s difficult to realize, too, on occasion that if you’re under financial pressure, it may not be your fault. It probably isn’t your fault. Actually I’d say it’s not your fault because you’re, there’s weather; there’s financial pressures across the world; there’s interest rate, things that are beyond the farmer’s control.

RW: What about crop insurance and subsidies though? Don’t those support farmers? Don’t those make these kinds of times easier?

DB: They certainly, crop insurance does help; however, typically if you’re fortunate enough, you’ll get your money back that you have invested. You certainly don’t make any profit and typically if you don’t have a weather disaster, you don’t get crop insurance anyway. You won’t get paid out and so consequently what happens to you then is you’re on the open market with it.

RW: And what about subsidies? Could subsidies be contributing to the glut in some of these crops?

DB: I don’t think so. The structure is completely different in the farm programs now. It’s based on an ARC and PLC and that’s some of that foreign language that you and I don’t have time to talk about. And I’m they play a much smaller role than they used to. They’re more of a price support type thing rather than a direct.

RW: You’re listening to Colorado Matters. I’m Ryan Warner and we’re speaking with Colorado’s Agriculture Commissioner, that’s Don Brown, about a new effort to reach out to farmers and ranchers who may be struggling in terms of their head space, their mental state with the pressures of farming and ranching. And those pressure aren’t just related to crops and markets. I know that health insurance, for instance, weighs on the minds of farmers.

DB: Typically everybody has to pay for their own health insurance. They’re not covered by any plan and, you know, those increases, of course, eat into the family budget. You’ve got less income and cost of production has gone up a great deal. I know in the 1980s you could buy a good-sized tractor that you needed for $50,000. Now that tractor costs $350,000. We’ve seen increases in everything and so that in itself creates pressures.

RW: So the United States is beginning negotiations with Canada and Mexico to change the North American Free Trade Agreement, known as NAFTA. What will you watch most closely from Colorado’s vantage point?

DB: Well, Colorado exports about 50 percent of its agricultural production.

RW: Half of what’s grown and raised typically.

DB: Typically, large dollars wise.

RW: Okay.

DB: And we’re a large very large beef state here and half of that goes to Canada and Mexico. So they’re big partners of Colorado agriculture and we’ve had good relationships with them in the past. We spend a lot of time in our marketing department, the Department of Ag, working with both of those partners.

RW: Is that threatened, that relationship, or what?

DB: Well, I think there’s probably some questions on the federal level in some of the rhetoric, but on the whole, I think everyone has recognized that food has to be purchased, food has to be eaten, and so we’re pretty fortunate in the ag side of that. We’ve been having meetings with the Canadian government and the Mexican government as well and we’re continually talking.

RW: It doesn’t sound like you’re going into that white knuckled necessarily.

DB: No. Initially, I was real concerned. We were seeing some reluctance on part of particularly the Mexican government. They we’re seeing purchases and things. I mean it’s always a concern. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to dismiss it, but I’m not as concerned as I once was.

RW: Speaking of trade, you’re part of a Colorado delegation that’s going to Cuba, I think, in November?

DB: Yes.

RW: What markets do you see for Colorado agricultural products there?

DB: Well, of course, you know with the embargos and that sort of thing, the only real thing you can take into Cuba is food and medical supplies. So we’ve got the food component. We see a demand for the pinto beans that we raise here, possibly potatoes, possibly beef, basic food items which they’re lacking.

RW: I’m not sure I knew Colorado grew pinto beans.

DB: We have a lot of pinto beans.

RW: And there’s a market for those in Cuba.

DB: Dominican Republic. The Mexican government purchases them. They’re probably our largest buyer of pintos.

RW: Farmers rely heavily on immigrant labor. Legal workers come in through special H2A visas. President Trump has called for tougher immigration rules and do you have some sense of how that might impact Colorado farmers?

DB: Well, certainly we do have a labor issue in particularly in the produce business and the dairy business and other facets, but particularly those two.

RW: Does that mean in the fields for produce?

DB: Well, produce would be in the fields.

RW: Yeah.

DB: And dairy would be in the milking barns.

RW: Yes, of course.

DB: Alright. So, yes.

RW: But it’s the picking of the produce.

DB: It’s the harvesting typically and of course, when a commodity’s ready, it’s ready. I mean, it doesn’t have three weeks, four weeks. You can’t just go take it up. It has to be harvested now and weather makes that, of course, extremely variable. So when you need a supply of available workers, you need them now, and that process has been, H2A process, has been slow and cumbersome in the past. I think everybody recognizes that, so it needs revision. Where that’ll go, who’s to say? I’m not in a position to control that.

RW: And then in dairy, what are those jobs that often go unfilled?

DB: Well, it typically is that whole process of everywhere from feeding the cows, calving the cows, milking the cows, to any job you can name in a dairy.

RW: Mm. So you’d like to see more H2A workers.

DB: I would like to see that system become less cumbersome so it was more practical to use so when they were needed, they would be available.

RW: Don Brown, a pleasure to talk to you. Thanks so much.

DB: Well, thank you. I’ve enjoyed it and I appreciate your time. This is an important issue to me.

RW: He is Colorado’s Agriculture Commissioner. This is Colorado Matters from CPR News.