By Lura Roti
South Dakota Farmers Union
This article ran in the February 2018 issue of the SDFU Union Farmer newsletter.
As an agriculture journalist, I’ve been driving through rural communities across South Dakota for more than two decades. If I pull into a fuel station before noon and step inside, I nearly always witness coffee.
Coffee, as defined in this article, is quite simply a group of men, dressed for the workday in coveralls or T-shirts — depending on the weather of course — hands around steaming mugs or pop cans visiting.
When I, an out-of-towner, walk in, conversations nearly always wane. And, even though I don’t say a word, I always feel as though I am interrupting an important meeting of sorts — the kind of the feeling I get if I arrive late for church.
Other than that uncomfortable feeling, I didn’t give these coffees much thought until I spent a November morning visiting with Peter Bisgard and his adult sons, Bob and Randy. While interviewing them about their family’s Day County farming operation, the men mentioned that coffee with neighbors is part of their daily routine.
They explained to me that this daily ritual has value beyond the social. “We used to meet every morning at a bachelor neighbor’s house. After he died, and we didn’t meet for about six weeks. We all missed it and realized that we get a lot of information by talking to neighbors,” Peter said.
He explained to me that whether it was discussing a new piece of machinery before making a purchase or sharing a bit of local news, the men felt their day went better when it began with coffee. Today, the men meet up in the basement of their rural church.
After talking with the Bisgards, I began to think about the role coffee has in the lives of South Dakota’s farmers and ranchers. The more I thought about it, the more eager I was to visit with other farmers and ranchers to learn about this time-honored tradition that I believe dates back to homesteading.
Just last winter when I was reading the Little House series to my 7-year-old daughter, Parker, I noticed that several chapters included comments about the Ingalls family waiting for Pa to return from coffee at the General Store to provide them with information.
Staying connected, especially during the winter months, is the reason Salem farmer, Jim Wahle heads to T & C’s Pit Stop each morning.
“It’s the social aspect. I stop out here first thing in the morning, have coffee, catch up on current events and what is going on in the community,” said Jim of the morning coffee routine he’s kept nearly all his adult life.
Brian Heinecke, agrees. A Sisseton crop and livestock farmer, Heinecke has been going to coffee with his dad, Richard, for as long as he can remember.
Typically, the men meet up at a local C-store, but a few years back, when Richard was undergoing chemo and was confined to a wheelchair, a few guys would meet up in the Heinecke’s kitchen.
“It really meant a lot to dad. We’re a small community where everyone checks in on everyone.”
Beyond the feel good reasons
Connecting with friends on a regular basis is good for your health, says Andrea Bjornestad, assistant professor in the Department of Counseling and Human Development at South Dakota State University and SDSU Extension mental health specialist.
“We all have a human need to feel connected to others,” Bjornestad explains. “To feel connected, you need to be with people with whom you feel comfortable sharing your thoughts, ideas, worries and concerns.”
Social support, Bjornestad adds, reduces the risk of depression — an important health outcome for farmers and ranchers, a group of individuals who in 2012, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) listed as having the highest suicide rate.
“We need to focus on farmers’ and ranchers’ mental health,” Bjornestad says. “With the economy the way it is, our farmers and ranchers are experiencing daily stress that may be turning into chronic stress.”
She explains that chronic stress can contribute to the development of anxiety or depression.
Bjornestad and Leacey Brown, SDSU Extension gerontology field specialist, recently conducted a study of 185 farmers and ranchers from South Dakota and other Midwest states that looked at the impact of social support on the depression symptoms of farmers and ranchers.
The survey looked at social support as coming from a significant other, friends or family. The study showed that 9.2 percent of participants were depressed. Higher scores on the three subscales (family, friend, significant other) were all associated with lower depression scores.
“What was unique in my findings, is friendship support was the most significant type of support. Most farmers reported support from family members and/or a significant other. However, those with more depression symptoms reported less support from friends,” Bjornestad explains.
She adds that unlike a physical illness, mental illness often goes undetected and undertreated.
“When our body is hurt, we eventually go to the doctor. When our brain is hurt, we are more likely to ignore all the signs and symptoms,” Bjornestad says.
Although coffee isn’t a cure-all, Bjornestad says it’s a healthy activity that shouldn’t be ignored.