Uncertainty and risk are everyday facts of life for local farmers, who must navigate their operations based on educated guesses about what the weather and what markets will look like in upcoming days and months.
When guesses go wrong or circumstances present a no-win situation, economic consequences can be devastating. Even when things are OK, constant stress can have severe impacts because many of the most important factors to a farmer’s success are out of their control.
“You can do everything right and still not have a great return on things,” said local farmer Chris Messner. “That’s a lot of the game that gets played and what makes it tough.”
According to Amy Lopez, suicide prevention coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Health, “We know that farmers, and especially just in general in rural communities, they are disproportionately affected by deaths by suicide. And there’s such a pervasive level of stigma as it relates to seeking help, especially for mental health services,” she told Minnesota Public Radio in late 2019.
Farm-related suicides have risen dramatically in recent years, currently at 1.5 times the general population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That figure is likely an undercount, because some suicides may be masked as farm-related accidents.
In addition to the risks they incur in their everyday work, many farmers are stressed because their fear of failure is so acute. With so many local farms passed down from one generation to the next, Minnesota Rural Mental Health Specialist Ted Matthews said they feel the weight of that legacy on their shoulders.
“If you’re the generation that loses the farm, it can be really traumatic,” he said.
On a positive note, Minnesota has become a leader in providing farmers with the support they need. Progress has been made even as the state’s mental health system has remained incredibly overburdened, especially in rural areas. As of 2017, Minnesota had only one mental health provider per 1,960 residents in rural Minnesota, compared to one for every 340 in urban areas.
The lack of providers is compounded by a lack of access and hesitance on the part of many farmers to seek help. To help under-resourced communities in an innovative way, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture established the Mental Health Outreach Program.
The program is uniquely suitable for farmers in need of help because it is free and requires no mental health diagnosis. In addition to supporting stressed farmers, the program helps to provide training for local Farm Business Management instructors, clergy and other community leaders.
Matthews served as the outreach program’s lone staffer for more than 20 years, until he was joined last year by Monica McConkey. Supplementing Matthews and McConkey is the free, confidential farm and rural helpline, which is staffed 24/7 by trained staff and volunteers. The program has been successful enough that other states have looked to emulate it. Wisconsin, for example, recently launched its Farmers Wellness Program as part of the Wisconsin Farm Center, which includes a 24/7 hotline and free tele-counseling sessions.
In comparison to prior years, local farmers had a relatively stable 2020. Thanks in part to the approval of the USMCA trade agreement and a Phase One deal with China, markets were notably more stable as the damaging trade wars of previous years cooled down. While corn prices collapsed in the spring due to the pandemic as well as an oil price war that crushed ethanol prices, a recovery helped corn farmers to avert much of the damage. When it came to weather, local farmers enjoyed reasonably good fortune as well.
That might be good news for many area farmers, but others are continuing to hurt. As Matthews noted, the economics of farming can produce a “whack a mole” effect as rises in certain commodity prices benefit some at the expense of others.
“It’s always something,” he said. “People say, ‘well farmers must be really happy that corn and soybean prices are high,’ and they might be, but then you look at the dairy industry, and they have to pay more for the corn they need to feed the cattle.”
On the positive side, Matthews said that many farmers are becoming more attuned to the importance of not ignoring their mental wellness. A crucial part of that has been the crisis line and the overall commitment to providing help for farmers — in a strictly voluntary manner.
“If you try to shove any concepts down any farmer’s throat they will reject it,” he said. “But the Department of Ag has done a great job in terms of promoting its resources.”
In order to really address the stress, Matthews emphasized that communities will need to pull together. That starts with trusted individuals like family, friends and neighbors acting as the first line of defense in providing support for those dealing with extreme stress.
Pastor Paul Graham of Dennison/Vang Lutheran Church said that that often isn’t easy, because they are so recalcitrant to reach out for help. He also noted that when relationships in tight-knit rural communities go south, that can add even more stress to a farmer’s daily life.
“Farmers tend to take the big view of things: if you had a bad year last year, maybe you’ll have a better year this year,” he said. “It’s kind of like playing the lottery.”
A quick Google search won’t yield much information, and a hotel is the only remaining building, but Sam Temple and Logan Ledman’s latest documentary explores how Faribault, Venezuela came and went.
“The Orinoco Company” is the most international story Ledman and Temple have put together for their Faribault documentary series “1855.” In the 22-minute episode, shot in Faribault and composed by Sam Dwyer, the pair details how a group of wealthy Faribault investors formed the Orinoco Co. and attempted to colonize 19th century Venezuela.
Prefacing the premiere showing, held via virtual platform March 9, Temple explained that the Orinoco Co. nearly sparked a world war not long before World War I. Without a clear central protagonist or biography to latch onto, he and Ledman explored key players in the Orinoco Co. and used footage from around town.
“I think we’ve put together as cohesive of a story as this can be,” Temple said.
Added Ledman: “The main point is to understand the chaos that’s about to unfold before you and the many different players who become involved in this Faribault … story.”
In the documentary itself, Ledman and Temple explain that Venezuela was desperate to build its own wealth after being its own nation for 50 years and subject to forced colonialism. A New York investor, Cyrenius Charles Fitzgerald, was granted 15 million acres of land in Venezuela, near the Orinoco River, in 1883. Joaquin Crespo, Venezuela’s then-president, hoped the move would ignite U.S. interest in developing the country at a time when the British were eyeing South America.
Fitzgerald started the Orinoco Co., and Faribaultian Donald Grant became one of its key leaders. Grant was known as the fastest railroad builder in the nation, according to Ledman and Temple, and his success with connecting Minnesota to other states and nations made him “larger than life” in Faribault. He was unanimously nominated and served as mayor in 1892 and 1893.
Grant was the chief Orinoco Co. architect and investor when he invited several Faribault settlers to look into the company’s land in Venezuela in 1895. Developing an “economic boom town” along the river was familiar to these settlers, Temple explained, and the industries of agriculture, quarrying, transportation and milling were the same industries that built up their Minnesota community.
“In many ways it must have felt like they were following the destiny of the generation before in creating their own Faribault,” Temple said.
A boatload of Faribault settlers took off for Venezuela to create a new town in February 1897, but the dream was short lived. The only remaining remnant is a hotel designed by Faribault architect Olof Hanson. After Venezuela’s president died in battle, creating the potential for anarchy, the Faribault investors sold the land to London investors.
A series of events led up to the Orinoco Co. declaring bankruptcy in 1911, all of which Ledman and Temple detailed in the documentary. Venezuelan governor and exiled military leader Cipriano Castro took power and ordered the expulsion of foreigners. New U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt planned a secret invasion of Venezuela as Castro’s power was on the verge of collapse. owed a debt to England and Germany he couldn’t pay, so Germany, too, planned an invasion that Castro yielded to immediately.
“This story intersects with so many broad historical concepts, it’s difficult to wrap this up neatly,” Temple said at the end of the documentary. “This story deals with the hyper capitalism of the Gilded Age as well as the idea of manifest destiny extending American authority to the south. It deals with colonialism, subjugation of Indigenous people, and our relationship with the past. Because history is so rarely a clean narrative we must draw our own conclusions from the facts presented to us. The narrative we decide to pull from the record is a reflection of the teller and can tell us most effectively about the present.”
Collecting and presenting history
Following the documentary’s premiere, Ledman and Temple took questions from the virtual audience.
The pair explained that they first heard about the Orinoco Co. from Sue Garwood, executive director of the Rice County Historical Society, a couple of years ago. They collected images and information from the historical society along with the Minnesota Historical Society and the Library of Congress.
In response to Garwood’s question about the hotel Olof Hanson built, Ledman said sources were “very scarce overall,” but they found out the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities has the blueprint, and people lived in the hotel “a good amount of time.”
Ledman spoke about other Faribault figures involved in the Orinoco Co. that came up in their research, including AC Rogers, who was then the Faribault State Hospital superintendent. They had also tried to find more information about Faribault’s Judge Baxter, a figure who had a fascination with Shakespeare and ignored Castro’s orders to leave Venezuela.
Remnants of the Faribault settlers’ time in Venezuela have been displayed around town throughout the years, Ledman said. That includes a couple pieces of gold in the opera house, located where the Paradise Center for the Arts now sits.
Audience members had also asked Ledman and Temple about their next projects.
Temple said he and Ledman plan to write a script for a mini episode based on their takeaways from teaching a Cannon Valley Elder Collegium course a couple years ago. Another topic on their radar is James Shields, founder of Shieldsville, who Ledman said nearly dueled with Abraham Lincoln.
Even while majoring in history at Yale University in Connecticut, Ledman said, “This kind of thing is so awesome — doing research and taking that research and presenting it to the community is such a compelling line of work … This kind of work we find really exciting and fulfilling. We’re both planning to keep doing it until we’re sick of it.”
A new housing development on the south end of Faribault could bring 13 single family homes to town, helping to deal with the region’s chronic workforce housing shortage.
Endorsed by the Faribault Planning Commission at its Monday meeting, the development, soon to be known as Camelot Court Estates, has been anticipated by the city since 2005, when it was platted by then-owners Elizabeth and Gerald Dusbabek. Known as Windsor Park No. 27, the lot was the last of those plots platted by the Dusbabeks to remain undeveloped when it was sold to Mankato-based developer Gary Wolters and his company United Asset Development Corporation last year.
Once the project is complete, each lot will accommodate a single-family detached home with a full basement or split-entry lookout. Wolters said the homes will be priced in the $250,000 to $260,000 range and aimed at first time home buyers. The homes would sit along an extension of an existing stubbed street which currently extends from Springwood Lane. It would be built at Wolters’s expense, and he’s asking for permission to change its name from St. Anne’s Lane to Camelot Court.
In an industry in which first impressions are often crucial, Wolters believes that Camelot Court would be an appealing moniker. While St. Anne’s is more in line with the names approved by the city for other streets in the area, he sees it as a clear dud.
“St. Anne’s sounds like a girls Catholic school,” he said. “I don’t want to name it under something it’s not.”
Along the south end of the property lies an existing city trail, connecting the properties to nearby Faribault Middle School and city parks. Wolters would also be asked to pay for a trail extension from the street cul-de-sac to the city trail, but the city would assume ownership and maintain it.
This is Wolters’ first crack at the Faribault housing market, though he touted his company’s success at completing similar projects throughout Minnesota and Iowa. Unlike other developers who have unveiled plans recently, he wasn’t recruited by city staff to pursue the project.
While he hasn’t worked with city staff to fine tune the plan in accordance with the needs identified in Faribault’s recently released rental housing study, City Planner Dave Wanberg noted that Wolters’s project could provide much needed new housing stock.
Recently, the Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism launched its own effort to increase affordable homeownership opportunities for Faribault residents, alongside South Central College, Faribault Public Schools, the Chamber Trust & Vision Task Force. While the homes provided as part of Wolters’s development would be more expensive than those built as part of the Chamber-led partnership, Wanberg reiterated that adding stock at any level of the housing market eases the pressure on all other levels.
As Johnson noted, the housing situation has become so dire that there are 300 vacant jobs in Faribault and just 20 homes on the market. In addition, many Faribault workers have already been forced to find a home or apartment in neighboring communities.
While it would provide much-needed development, Wolters’s development comes with a catch. Drainage issues have long plagued the property and neighboring properties, and Wolters says the city needs to pay most of the cost of addressing them if he is to move forward.
Wolters said he received no fewer than 11 letters from concerned neighbors wanting to know how the development would affect water runoff on their properties, and the Planning Commission received significant feedback as well.
While he can cover other project costs without public assistance, Wolters said the city needs to pay its share, or 92%, of the cost of routing water off of the property, after approving no fewer than three separate developments which routed runoff onto his property.
Under such an arrangement, Wolters said the city’s share of the cost would come out to around $84,000. The drainpipe which currently ends at what could become the cul-de-sac of Camelot Court would be extended, routing water to the northwest.
Neither city staff nor the Planning Commission have committed to provide that level of funding for stormwater management. However, the commission did wholeheartedly approve the overall development, forwarding it to the council for approval.
If the council does approve the preliminary proposal, a more formal proposal will likely be considered by city staff and the Planning Commission. Despite the challenges, commissioners members expressed confidence that the project will move ahead.
“The terrain as it is lends itself quite nicely for drainage,” said Commission member Dave Albers. “I don’t have a dog in the fight, but I think this will be a nice addition and I’m all in favor of it.”