KEARNEY — Michelle Soll knows all too well how the economic downturn in agriculture the past few years is taking a toll on Nebraska farmers and ranchers.
She saw, heard and lived it all during the 1980s farm crisis. Then, Soll was a farmer’s daughter who had married a West Point farmer.
Soll now is farm and ranch program director for Legal Aid of Nebraska.
Starting part time in 1988 and becoming full time in 1995, Soll has answered thousands of calls made to the Nebraska Rural Response Hotline.
“It was a hotline referral type of thing then,” she said in a Hub interview Friday before her breakfast presentation at the Nebraska Women in Agriculture Conference in Kearney.
The hotline was started in 1984 by Interchurch Ministries of Nebraska. Nebraska is one of only a few states to maintain its farm crisis hotline, according to Soll.
“It was just basically a lot of listening going on” in the 1980s, she said. “They were establishing all this as the crisis was going on.”
“I think that at first there was a barrier for trust or even asking for help ... They (farmers and ranchers) were really stressed, with a lot of depression and there were a lot of family dynamics issues,” Soll recalled.
“If you survived the ‘80s, that was a big accomplishment. A lot didn’t,” she continued, including many good farmers. “It takes only one dynamic to change an (ag) operation in a heartbeat.”
High interest rates were an economic pressure on farmers in the 1980s.
“The taxes are just killing them today,” Soll said, because property values haven’t declined at the same pace as commodity prices.
“We’ve seen an uptick in frustration and disappointment,” she added. “... We’re starting to see a lot of financial stress now. It’s all ages.” Beginning farmers and ranchers struggle to get into agriculture and difficult economic times also affect some older, established producers.
Soll and Lori Marr of Lyons, who also answers the hotline, hear from people with a range of concerns. There are financial and family problems, and calls seeking help with legal questions.
“We both have a lot of knowledge in the farm industry ... We have to get their confidence,” Soll said. “We’ve been doing this a long time.”
She reminded her ag conference audience Friday that many stress issues are beyond producers’ control, including market prices, weather and government program changes.
Because she has more tools to help farmers and ranchers than she did 30 years ago, Soll can be more than just the understanding voice at the other end of the telephone line.
She asks questions to define the help needed and then refers callers to choices on a long list of services made possible by a growing number of sponsors, including the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, Nebraska Farmers Union Foundation, North Central Risk Management Center, the state Department of Health and Human Services’ Behavioral Health Division, and the Beginning Farmer Network.
Soll said she applies for many grants to fund the programs, including support for the beginning farmers and ranchers work from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Amy Swoboda is the beginning farmer specialist at Legal Aid of Nebraska in Lincoln.
Soll’s goal for nearly every hotline call is to get the caller to attend a monthly farm and ranch clinic at one of the several sites across the state, including Grand Island and Lexington.
Ag producers can call the hotline at 800-464-0258 to get clinic times and locations, and to schedule a one-on-one meeting with an ag law attorney and/or financial counselor.
“We focus a lot on confidentiality,” Soll said.
Longtime clinic specialists are Dave Goeller, who for years was a farm business succession planning specialist at UNL, and Omaha attorney Joe Hawbaker of Omaha, who specializes in estate and transition planning.
Other hotline-linked services include mental health and relationship counseling, transition and estate planning workshops, farm mediation for conflict resolution, and on-farm ag financial mentoring.
Soll said legal advice also is available to producers looking to diversify their businesses with home-based or value-added enterprises.
Most of her hotline conversations usually last five to 10 minutes. “Most call back and ask for services or help. They just need to think about it a bit,” Soll said.
She’s seen the need for family counseling help grow in the past two to three years, especially the last six months. Couples can choose a counselor from a list of 120 across Nebraska and can be reimbursed for up to five sessions by HHS, through the Counseling, Outreach and Mental Health Therapy program.
“It’s all because of the stress and financial burden. We’ve been enrolling a lot of kids in the program, too,” Soll said. “... a lot of 16-, 17- and 18-year-old males. I’m not sure if they think that now they can’t come back to farm.”
When asked how she deals emotionally with the sad stories she hears over the hotline, Soll replied, “We feel we have had a lot of success with the callers, so we’re glad we’re there ... There’s a lot of happiness too when you help people.”