SPOTLIGHT: Lessons Learned – A Passion for Farm Safety and Mental Health

SPOTLIGHT: Lessons Learned – A Passion for Farm Safety and Mental Health


UMASH and Emily Krekelberg go “way back” with our mutual mission of promoting farm safety and health. Emily knows first hand the inherent dangers involved with farming with family members who were both severely injured as a result. She recently shared her personal story with the Telling the Story Project which was featured on the Minnesota Corn Growers website.

Emily’s passion for the topic has led her to a new position as the statewide Extension Educator for Farm Safety & Health. UMASH is looking forward to working with Emily and all of Extension for a safer, healthier agricultural workforce. Read more about Emily’s story and her ongoing dedication to farmers.

Farm safety, mental wellness hit close to home for Extension educator

By: Mystique Macomber

Emily Krekelberg found her passion for farm safety early: Her dad lost a leg in a farm accident when he was 19.

“I grew up when that was normal to have a dad missing a limb,” she said. “That farm safety piece was always there.” Then, a few years ago, her brother lost an arm in an agriculture-related accident.

Her passion has grown into a larger farm safety ideal with a focus on mental health.

“I really believe so strongly in taking care of our overall health and well-being and how mental health plays into it,” Krekelberg said.

An advocate for mental health

Three days after earning a bachelor’s degree in animal science, Krekelberg found her dream job as a livestock educator with University of Minnesota Extension, working mainly with dairy farmers and promoting farm safety. During her time on the job, she became more interested in the effect stress has on farmers.

“It’s grown as we’ve seen mental health take the forefront,” Krekelberg said.

Then, two incidents jarred her. A college classmate’s brother died by suicide. In 2018, a close friend and farmer told her another farmer, the father of a college classmate, had died by suicide.

“That conversation with him was really powerful for me. I could hear the heartbreak in his voice. ‘Emily, what are you gonna do? What is Extension gonna do?’ That was so raw and real for me. I just took that to heart. This is a farmer who believes I can do something to help.

“That launched me into being an advocate for this,” she said.

Krekelberg and Extension had been offering some programs about stress management, but she took it a step further and organized an Extension program called Farming in Tough Times, a day-long event with a focus on stress, mental well-being and breaking down the stigma associated with mental health. She wasn’t sure anyone would come and was overwhelmed when 80 people showed up to hear speakers share their personal stories and talk about building resilience.

After the event, Krekelberg posted this on social media: “As I write all this now, tears are flowing from my eyes. I believe SO STRONGLY that the only way this gets better, the only way we break down the stigma of mental health, is by talking about it. By sharing stories and hosting programs you fear no one will attend. I have said this before, but if what happened today helped ONE person build the courage to express their concern for a neighbor, if it helped ONE person realize what they’re feeling is OK and that help is out there, then it was 100 percent worth it to me.”

Rural Stress Task Force leader

It didn’t stop there, though. Krekelberg was appointed director of the Rural Stress Task Force, newly created through UM Extension to work with state agencies, agricultural organizations and the University of Minnesota.

“Rural Minnesota is dealing with a number of difficult issues, including the weak ag economy, day care shortages, opioid and other substance abuse and so much more,” said Bev Durgan, Extension dean in announcing the task force creation. “Because Extension faculty and staff live and work in rural Minnesota and because they are knowledgeable about a wide range of related issues, we can provide access to resources that help Minnesota families and communities.”

The overall goal of the task force is to promote wellness and a holistic approach to wellness in rural communities, specifically farming communities, Krekelberg said, with an emphasis on improving physical and mental health.

“On a personal note, I want to help be part of the solution to decrease farmer suicide and stress, (and) equip farmers with tools to deal with stress,” Krekelberg said.

Stressors in farming

Originally slated to be a one-year appointment, Krekelberg has been assured the task force will continue, which will help her address the stress facing farmers.

“A lot of the media really points the finger at the economy,” Krekelberg said about the cause of farm-related stress, “but there are a dozen – probably more – stressors farmers have to deal with.” Markets, government regulation, weather events (wet spring or fall), long work hours, physical demands, injuries or fatalities, family relationships and business relationships can be stressful, she said.

“They all compound one another,” she added.

Anecdotally, the economy plays a role, Krekelberg said. “It’s not just the economy, but the economy is the final straw,” she said.

“I have a lot of hope for the future. I hope some stressors will go away,” she said. “Keeping the conversation going is to do just that.”

Continuing the conversation

Since the task force began, a lot of conversations about farm mental health are responsive or reactive, Krekelberg said. The focus is on how to get the word out and explain the basics, such as what is mental well-being, the difference between wellness and illness, how to communicate with someone who is stressed and the signs of stress.

Beyond that, Krekelberg has a broader view: “As we move forward, how do we have more broad, systemic type change?” she asked. “After this ‘crisis’ is over, how do we promote an overall approach to wellness on the farm? That’s the types of conversations we’re starting to have.”

Part of continuing the conversation means addressing the stigma around mental health. Just as in society in general, some people in the farming community won’t budge because of the stigma, Krekelberg said. Still, she and her colleagues continue to educate, talk about it and “keep doing this work that matters,” she said.

After the inaugural Farming in Tough Times session, Krekelberg wrote: “The overarching theme of the panel, and the day as a whole, was that it’s OK to not be OK. It’s OK to have a bad day, to feel anxious, to be depressed. What’s not OK is to get stuck in that cycle and allow yourself to become consumed by hopelessness.

“The panelists were asked what one piece of advice they would share with someone going through a similar situation. All four responded with the same answer: talk to someone. Tell someone you trust how you’re feeling. You don’t need to go through this alone. There are so many people in our lives that care about us and are more than willing to listen to us.”

Self-care comes first

Krekelberg’s passion shines through when she speaks from her heart about farm safety and mental and physical well-being in the farming community.

“Every single one of my farmers matters to me. Every. Single. One. Every single farmer on this planet matters to me. Any role I can play, however small, in keeping them safe helps me rest easier at night,” she wrote on social media after her brother Jake’s accident.

“We all find ways to cope with hurt and pain and everything else. And I promised myself I would cope by pouring my heart into others. Dad and Jake are truly the reasons I care so much about ag safety and health.

“Ag safety and health is for everyone: farmers, farm families, farm employees, plant workers, truck drivers and everyone in between. And it’s about everything: equipment and animal hazards, working conditions, mental well-being.

“I will never stop working for every farm to be safe. I know it’s an uphill battle, but if something I say or do can prevent one accident, can save one life, it’s all worth it. It’s for my dad. It’s for Jake. It’s for every family out there that doesn’t deserve that phone call.”

That passion can take a toll, however, and Krekelberg recognizes that.

“I need to remind myself very often: Adjust your own oxygen mask. As we work in these issues, we want to rush in and help. We want to be there and be a part of it, but we need to remember to take care of ourselves, too,” Krekelberg said.

Resources for Help

Additional stories of agriculture injury and the consequential impact can be found on the Telling the Story project website. The project is a collaborative effort involving the Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center, with funding from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

As of April 27, 2020, Krekelberg (@em_krekelberg ) began serving as the statewide Extension Educator for Farm Safety & Health. She continues working with the Rural Stress Task Force.

She can be reached at: