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'Still adjusting, still farming' after husband's suicide, Minnesota woman carries on the family farm

With her miniature Schnauzer Bridgette at her feet, Theresia Gillie talks about her life following her husband's April 2017 suicide during an interview in her rural Hallock, Minn. home. Nick Nelson / Forum News Service1 / 6
At her kitchen table, Theresia Gillie talks with reporter Jonathan Knutson (left) in her farmhouse as her miniature Schnauzer, Bridgette, keeps watch. Nick Nelson / Forum News Service2 / 6
Theresia Gillie (not pictured) unloads harvested wheat into a grain cart at her rural Hallock, Minn. farm. Nick Nelson / Forum News Service3 / 6
Farmer and Kittson County District 2 Commissioner Theresia Gillie harvests wheat at her farm earlier this month. Nick Nelson / Forum News Service4 / 6
Theresia Gillie harvests wheat at her rural Hallock, Minn. farm earlier this month. Nick Nelson / Forum News Service5 / 6
Kittson County District 2 Commissioner Theresia Gillie watches carefully as she unloads harvested wheat from her combine into a grain cart on her rural Hallock, Minn. farm on Thursday, August 2, 2018. Nick Nelson / Forum News Service6 / 6

HALLOCK, Minn. — Theresia Gillie grimaces, only partly in mock exaggeration, and says, 'When people used to call me a 'farm wife' — I never liked that. It didn't begin to describe what I did. For 32 years I worked side-by-side with my husband."

But on April 1, 2017, her husband, Keith, beset with financial worries, took his own life. Now, Theresia Gillie, "still adjusting, still farming," is carrying on the family farm, albeit in different and evolving ways.

On an recent August day ideal for grain harvest, Gillie took a break from combining wheat to talk candidly about Keith's death and the challenges she continues to face.

It was just the second time that Gillie, a familiar presence in Minnesota agriculture, talked publicly about her loss. Gillie, president of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association when Keith took his own life, also was interviewed for the July-August edition of the association magazine.

Theresia Gillie's story is important on several levels.

• It reflects the expanding role that women play in operating U.S. farms. Sometimes women are doing more because they want to, and sometimes, as in Gillie's case, because they have to.

• It's a real-life example of why many in agricultural circles worry that the already-high threat of farmer suicide is rising.

• It illustrates the financial difficulties that even experienced, established farm operators face after years of poor commodity prices and tight or non-existent profit margins. Uncooperative weather, which hit the Gillie farm, worsens the problem.

Not bankruptcy, but ...

Theresia, who didn't grow up on a farm, met Keith, who did, when they were students at the University of Minnesota Crookston. Theresia was studying accounting, Keith crop production.

They married and in 1984 moved back to farm with Keith's family in the Hallock area. Hallock is a farm town of about 900 in northwest Minnesota.

Theresia loved farming and became heavily involved in it as Keith's business partner. She was most active in marketing and accounting, but helped in other aspects of the operation, too.

Like other area farmers, the Gillies enjoyed some good financial years and suffered through many tough ones — and 2012 through 2017 was especially volatile.

Their 2012 crop was excellent, but they just broke even in 2013 and 2014, forcing them to dip into working capital.

Then came 2015 and 2016, which brought two straight crop seasons of awful weather, including hail and drown-outs. At the same time, the price Gillies paid for rented farmland held steady, while some of their landlords wanted to sell their farmland — which the Gillies weren't prepared for.

In 2016, Theresia was elected a Kittson County Commissioner. The extra income it brought in — and the health insurance the job provided — helped the Gillies financially. Even so, it was uncertain the Gillies would be able to secure financing to put in their 2017 crop.

"It's not that we going to go bankrupt. That was never going to be the case. It's that it looked like we were going to quit farming and get a different job. People (non-farmers) get a different job all the time. But farmers just don't," she says.

Keith didn't leave a suicide note, so his motivation is uncertain. "All I know is, he left me," Theresia says.

But she thinks his self-identity was so wrapped up in farming that he struggled to accept the idea of working in another occupation. Keith had the skills to hold other jobs — he had a commercial spray license, for instance — but farming seemed to be all he could picture himself doing, she says.

Fear that people might think him a failure, especially since some of the land had been in the Gillie family since 1899, also may have influenced him, Theresia says.

Guilt, support system

In retrospect, there were clear signs that Keith was struggling emotionally, she says.

Among other things, "He wasn't sleeping. I should have picked up on that, that he just wasn't getting the sleep he needed. And as he went more and more without getting enough sleep" — she stops to search for words, then says — "well, I think his mind got smaller and smaller."

"So every day there's guilt. Every day I think of what I should have done," she says. "Keith was a private person, and I'm the one who should have noticed things weren't right. And I didn't do that."

Among her regrets: Being angry with Keith because he wouldn't get an off-farm job to bring in extra income, even though she was doing so as a county commissioner.

But friends, family, community and church provide a strong support system. "So many people have supported me in one way or another," she says.

One of those friends is Rochelle Krusemark, a director of the Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council, who has known Theresia for many years.

Krusemark says she doesn't have, or pretend to have, all the answers for Gillie. Krusemark's advice to anyone trying to be supportive of a friend in need: "Just be a friend. Don't try to be something you're not, just be yourself."

She also stresses that empathy is more important than sympathy, a point that Gillie makes, too.

Sympathy is feeling badly for someone else's misfortune. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Suicide carries a strong sigma in our society, especially among farmers who often think of themselves as tough and self-reliant, Gillie says.

As a result, farmers suffering emotionally can be reluctant to talk about it — and friends, neighbors and family can be reluctant to reach out to farmers who appear to be struggling, Gillie says.

"That needs to change. We've got to make it OK for farmers to talk about it. We've got to make it OK for other people to reach out to them," Gillie says.

'Making a new me'

The Gillie farm continues to evolve after Keith's death.

Theresia has given up most of the rented land that she and Keith once farmed. She still farms 950 acres, 750 of which she owns, down from the peak of 2,600 acres (most of it rented) that she and Keith once farmed.

Bryce Gillie, Theresia and Keith's 27-year-old son who once worked on the family farm, took an off-farm job away from home after Keith's death. Theresia says the change made financial sense for Bryce and she supports his decision.

When Bryce took the new job, Theresia inherited Bryce's miniature Schnauzer, Bridgette. So along with the others changes, "I've become a grandma," she says, a light-hearted reference to Bridgette having been her son's dog.

Today, Theresia farms with two neighbors, Steve Blomquist and Richard Lambert. Both were honorary casket bearers at Keith's funeral.

Theresia, Blomquist and Lambert share labor and equipment to raise wheat and soybeans on their respective farms.

"It seems to be working pretty well for us," Lambert says.

Gillie is evolving, too.

She still lives in the farmhouse that Keith and she shared for so many years. And agriculture, friends and community — including her work as a county commissioner — remain essential in her life.

But she's still adjusting to Keith's death and figuring out exactly who she is and what her future will bring..

"The past is gone. The old me is gone. They're not coming back," says Gillie, 55. "All I can do now is work on the future and making a new me."

Gillie rises from the chair at her kitchen table and picks up Bridgette, who has begun to yap. She smiles and says, "Right now, I've got wheat to combine."

Women operating farms

There's nothing new about women operating U.S. farms. In one form or another, they've always helped to raise crops and tend livestock.

But women's role in agriculture and society overall is expanding, and that's true in farm operations, too. On their own or working with neighbors or family members, women now account for nearly one in three U.S. farm operators.

Of the nation's 3.2 million farm operators in 2012, the last year for which reliable U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics are available, 969,672, or 30.3 percent, were women. In 2002, the 847,832 female farm operators accounted for 27 percent of the 3.11 million farm operators nationwide.

The change is even more pronounced from 1978 to 2012, a period in which the share of U.S. farm operated by women tripled. (Data on farm operators' gender wasn't collected until 1978.)

The numbers represent both "primary" farm operators, or the farmer who makes day-to-day decisions, and "secondary" farm operators, or farmers who help in some capacity.

Women also account for a growing percentage of principal farm operators. In 2012, the U.S. had 288,264 female primary farm operators, or 14 percent of the nation's primary farm operators. In 2002, there were 237,810 female primary farm operators, or 11 percent of the U.S. total.

Use caution in interpreting the principal farm operator numbers, however. Farm couples often split responsibilities — one handling, say, crop production and the other responsible for, say, accounting or marketing or both — and designating one as primary operator and the other as a secondary operator may not fully reflect decision-making on the farm. (The farmer completing the USDA questionnaire determines whether he or she is the primary operator.)

Also of note: The 2012 USDA numbers show that U.S. female primary operators were, on average, 60.1 years old, compared with male primary operators' average age of 58.8. A relatively large percentage of female primary operators were 65 and older, pulling up their average age overall. Though USDA doesn't analyze why that's the case, at least part of the explanation would seem to be older women carrying on the family farm after the loss of their husbands.

Resources for female farm operators

Women involved in running a farm — or who hope to run one — can draw on a number of resources. Public and private organizations, on both the state and national level, offer expertise, moral support and financial aid.

Three websites to consider:

• The U.S. Department of Agriculture — https://newfarmers.usda.gov/women-in-ag. (A good overall starting point).

• USDA's Farm Service Agency — www.fsa.usda.gov/programs-and-services/farm-loan-programs/minority-and-w....(Loan information and more.)

• Extension — articles.extension.org/womeninag. (A variety of information and topics.)

Reducing the risk of suicide

Farming is stressful — so much so that farmers traditionally have higher suicide rates than most other occupations. People working in farming, fishing and forestry were 3.4 times more likely than other American workers to die by suicide on the job, according to a 2016 study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Now, the multi-year run of poor commodity prices and weak farm profitability is raising concern that the already-high danger is increasing. Tough economic times exacerbate the sense of powerlessness or hopelessness that typically contribute to suicide, experts say.

But experts also say receiving proper help can greatly help farmers at risk of suicide. Here are some resources and suggestions that could be useful to farmers who are struggling emotionally:

• Reach out to a loved one; talk about how you're feeling.

• Talk to friends, clergy or medical provider.

• Call 9-1-1 for an emergency.

• Call 2-1-1 for listening support, suicidal thoughts, mental health issues, crisis and referral.

• Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

• Many state agencies and extension services offer written material and other resources to help farmers and ranchers. The list includes: www.ag.ndsu.edu/publications/kids-family/farming-and-ranching-in-tough-t....

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