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A farewell to Farmer

CHERYL TEVIS Updated: 04/01/2012 @ 2:31pm Cheryl has been an editor at Successful Farming since 1979.

Say it isn't so! That's how longtime readers of Val Farmer's weekly syndicated "Family Life" newspaper column reacted when he recently announced his retirement.

For the past 28 years, Farmer's columns worked their way from farm mailboxes to the heart of the home: the kitchen table. His advice sparked lively discussions among families and helped to resolve thorny issues.

I met Val Farmer over 30 years ago when he was a psychologist at a Huron, South Dakota, community clinic. He also was commuting 65 miles one way weekly to meet with rural clients at a physician's office."Farmers felt like there was a stigma to asking for help, and it helped to disguise the reason for their visits," he says.

To begin to erase that stigma, Farmer agreed to take me into the homes of farmers who were struggling with behavioral health issues triggered by the farm crisis. I'm indebted to him for trusting me to tell their stories without revealing their names in the February 1982 eight-page showcase, "Stress."It wasn't just Farmer's last name that uniquely suited him for a career as a resource provider for farm families. 

He was born on a farm near Fairfield, Montana. His father's work as a sheep shearer often took his dad away from their small farm, so his mother handled the day-to-day work. His family moved to Great Falls when he was 8 years old. "I never realized until my father died at age 86 that we left the farm under duress," he says.

But he never completely left the farm. When Farmer was a young teen, his dad took a job at Seattle Pack in Washington. "I helped set up sheep, tie the wool, and stomp it into long burlap bags," he says.

Farmer went to college, and years later he earned a doctoral degree in clinical psychology at the University of Arizona, where he made a key observation. "I realized farming was almost a subculture with a value system different from the urban population," he says.

An internship in Norfolk, Nebraska, brought him face to face with farmers. "I began to feel I understood their issues," he says. He also traveled to Cleveland, Ohio, to a seminar by Leon Danco, the first adviser to recognize the unique interpersonal challenges of managing a family-owned business.

Farmer's practice of dispensing the written word began in 1982 when he wrote a column for Farm Wife News magazine. "The magazine received feedback to reflect more about real farm life," he says.In 1984, he began writing a weekly column for the Rapid City (South Dakota) Journal. By that time, rural America was in the depths of the farm crisis. "My column addressed the anger, frustration, and conflict arising from debt problems," he says.

Farmer began self-syndicating the column later that year. Before long, his column appeared in 90 newspapers. At the same time, he continued a 40-hour week of counseling."People were hungry for information," he says. "They felt they were in a new world and needed reassurance that their feelings were normal and valid. They were empowered to talk with neighbors or to get help."

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