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Faribault resident, Miss US Ag MN, using her reign to erase mental health stigma in ag industry

Breannca Bussert was stunned when she learned about the high rate of suicide rate among famers, ranchers and farm managers.

According to the notes she saved a February SafeTalk training session, which certified her as a go-to person for those in need of mental health resources in the agriculture industry, the suicide rate for farmers, ranchers and farm managers is 2 to 3.5 times higher than the national rate of 14.5 per 100,000 people.

“I wasn’t aware of how many farmers are actually affected by [mental illness],” said Bussert, a Faribault High School graduate who grew up on an area farm. “I knew it was a big thing, but I didn’t realize how many farmers had actually taken their lives.”

In September 2019, Bussert was named the 2020 Ms. United States Agriculture Minnesota. The program, which started in the southern region of the country, is fairly new to Minnesota and involves promotion of the agriculture industry during community events, such as county fairs. Many of Bussert’s duties have shifted to an online format due to COVID-19, but she plans to represent Minnesota at the National Miss United States Agriculture Pageant in Florida this June, or a later date if it’s postponed.

Inspired by her research and her personal connections, Bussert is now using her title as 2020 Ms. United States Agriculture Minnesota as a platform to eliminate the stigma of mental health issues in the agriculture industry.

Bussert said she knows quite a few farmers who struggle mentally, especially as many deal with financial burdens during the coronavirus pandemic. The virus and supply chain issues have forced hog farmers to put down the animals they’ve raised, dairy farmers have needed to dump milk, and apart from that, social distancing has taken a toll on their mental health.

Even before coronavirus hit, a poll sponsored by the American Farm Bureau Federation, which surveyed rural adults in May 2019, revealed that financial issues (91%), farm or business problems (88%) and fear of losing the farm (87%) also impact farmers’ and farmworkers’ mental health.

Rural Health Information Hub cites other common stressors for farmers as falling commodity prices, natural disasters that have harmed crop yields, and increasing levels of farm debt.

“It’s hard for [farmers] to see the bright light at the end and to keep moving on, because a lot of them are struggling to deal with [these issues] on their own,” said Bussert.

During her reign as Ms. United States Agriculture Minnesota, Bussert wants to erase the stigma that has particularly impacted older generations of farmers, who grew up during a time when talking openly about mental illness was less common. Shame, embarrassment and a lack of awareness can prevent farmers from seeking help.

The SafeTalk training Bussert attended in Mankato made her aware of the multitude of mental health resources available specifically to those employed in agriculture, and she’s on a mission to bring awareness to these resources. One podcast she recommends is Red River Farm Network, in which farmers share their personal experiences of dealing with mental health conditions.

Meg Moynihan, ag marketing and development coordinator at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, said MDA and the Minnesota Department of Health partnered with the SafeTalk company, LivingWorks, to make the mental health safety training more applicable to those living in rural areas. They’ve offered training throughout the state, including in Faribault last year. She’s gratified that people like Bussert want to use their platform to promote mental wellness for ag workers.

“We really have a culture where we all like to help each other, but we have a hard time accepting help for ourselves,” said Moynihan, also a farmer. “… It’s important to keep everything in ship shape on the farm, but we don’t think the same about our own personal wellness. We need to do what the farm needs, but the farm is only as strong as we are.”

Bussert said she’d like to complete more training beyond SafeTalk and possibly work with mental health professionals, particularly counselors that focus on farming in Minnesota. With them, she’d like to figure out ways to implement further programming.

For those who aren’t in the ag industry, Bussert encourages supporting local farmers not only on a mental health level but on an economic level, since the two can go hand in hand. One of the best ways to support farmers, she said, is to shop local, buy from vendors at farmers markets and research products.

But farmers’ mental health doesn’t solely depend on how well their business is doing. During COVID-19 especially, they could be dealing with unmet social needs.

“If you know a farmer and notice they might not be acting quite like themselves, reach out and say, ‘Hey, I notice this is different about you,’” said Bussert. “… And don’t be afraid to ask them if they’re struggling with mental health (issues), and don’t be afraid to give them the resources that can help them.”

Area shops, hammered by shutdown, hope curbside pickup will help

A change to Gov. Tim Walz’s “Stay at Home” order went into affect Monday, enabling local retailers to sell their products via curbside pickup. Small local businesses say the order is likely to boost their sales, but only slightly.

Nicole Winter of Urban Loft Boutique said that her sales have been cut by 85% to 90% since the Stay at Home Order was first issued. Winter’s store, located in downtown Owatonna, offers accessories, clothing and home decor items.

Winter owned several area businesses before opening up her latest venture in 2018. Before the pandemic hit, she had seen strong sales growth and felt economically secure enough to hire several part time staff.

Now, any and all expansion plans have been called off for at least the next year or two, she said. Winter even stopped buying new goods shortly after the Stay at Home order was enacted, helping her to avoid significant financial loss.

Winter has tried to boost online sales, though they only comprised a small share of her sales to begin with. However, by posting photos of items on both her website and Facebook page, she’s been able to help customers who would normally want to see items in person before buying. Curbside pickup doesn’t provide additional help for customers, Winter said, since they still have to purchase their product in advance. But it adds a layer of convenience, and she’s hopeful it will help to boost her sales.

“This has been a challenge,” she acknowledged. “But we’re trying our best to make it work.”

Winter said that even if restrictions continue to be relaxed, she’s concerned about what the future holds from both an economic and public health standpoint. Even once the pandemic begins to lift, she noted that the economic damage is likely to be felt for years to come.

Like Urban Loft, Faribault’s Star Sports and Apparel has reverted to being a one-person shop since the Stay at Home Order went into effect. Normally aided by three assistants, Star Sports and Apparel owner Heather Vavra has had to fulfill orders all on her own. Star Sports and Apparel offers sports equipment, custom embroidered and personalized trophies. While its store is of course closed, the company is continuing to take orders online and can be reached by phone during normal business hours.

While the company is doing its best to make do, Vavra said that it’s normally heavily reliant on in person customers visiting its store. Like Urban Loft, Star does have an online gallery to give potential customers a sense of its products.

Still, the company has seen a large decrease in demand without its regular in-store clientele of browsers looking for just the right gift for a friend or family member. Vavra said she hopes that curbside pickup will help to relieve that, and urged people to shop local during this difficult time.

“It’s great when people continue to support local,” she said. “It helps keep our community alive.”


Keith Paulson and his wife, Jenn Paulson, who was named a member of the 2020 class of Dole Caregiver Fellows. (Photo courtesy of Jenn Paulson)

Bethlehem Academy boys golf team

The Bethlehem Academy boys golf team took third place in the Class A state tournament. The team (pictured, left to right) is made up of Dayne Paro, Eric Hagen, Grant Wayland, Adam Donahue, Nick Murray and Jay Knoff. (Photo provided)

Food trucks roll into fairgrounds this weekend with social distancing on the menu

With all events canceled or postponed at least through the end of May, the Rice County Fairgrounds is unusually quiet for this time of year — but that’s about to change this weekend, with several beloved local food trucks about to make their way to the fairgrounds.

With public events all but prohibited, local small businesses have been hit harder than the local concessions industry. In a normal year, food trucks would see their business ramp up as we enter the summer months. But this is hardly a normal year

Seeing local concessioners struggle to weather the unprecedented economic storm, and locals in need of a fix of their favorite fair foods, Fair Manager John Dvorak decided to do something to help both and help families celebrate Mother’s Day without having to cook.

Food will be available to go from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. No seating is available on site and customers are asked to follow strict social distancing protocol while ordering. Vendors will be spaced out to help people stay well away from each other.

All vendors are locally owned and annual staples of the fair, but will offer a variety of food to suit nearly any palate. They are Schroeder’s Concessions, El Rey de Taco, Grandma’s Lunch Wagon, Delicious Potatoes and Uncle B’s BBQ.

Several vendors have prepared special menus for the occasion. Uncle B’s, for example, will branch out beyond its traditional BBQ-centric menu to offer a surf and turf special, with a tri-tip steak, shrimp, a vegetable, cheesy potatoes and dessert for $20.

The truck’s famous ribs will still be available, either as part of a meal or by themselves, either by the whole rack or half-rack. However, unlike the other vendors, Uncle B’s will only be at the Fairgrounds on Sunday.

Uncle B’s owner Brian Freed has been in business for seven years. Freed has built up a heavily local clientele, regularly serving food alongside breweries, distilleries and other businesses around the region.

Freed said that he has been able to retain some of that business by offering to go meals. Still, he acknowledged that business has seen a significant decline since the pandemic began to make waves in March.

“Please, come on out and visit and support the small business owners like food truck owners,” he said. We’re not as busy as we have been in the past due COVID, but we’re dealing with it the best we can.”

In comparison to Uncle B’s, Schroder Concessions has a business model that has traditionally been much more reliant on fairs and other big events. Faribault-based and family owned, Schroder has been a staple at the fair for more than 50 years.

Owner Brad Schroder said that he’s looking forward to bringing corn dogs and cheese curds back to the fairgrounds. He’ll be working the weekend alongside his granddaughters, who are the fourth generation to work the family business.

Schroder said that traditionally, the stand does 35-40 fairs and major events throughout Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin before wrapping up the year by traveling to the east coast for the Eastern States Exposition in Massachusetts.

Typically, Schroder would already have begun its packed yearly events schedule, attending fairs nearly every weekend. Unable to do that this year, Schroeder said he’s grateful that the Fair Board has given them this opportunity to serve a hometown crowd.

While the county Fair Board hasn’t made a final decision about the Rice County Fair, what this year’s fair will look like, if happens at all, is unclear. Should public health conditions permit, Dvorak has floated the idea of a pared down fair for this year given economic conditions.