Ted Matthews doesn't like to call attention to himself, and he certainly doesn't want to be seen as more important than anyone. The 71-year-old's everyman appearance is both genuine and intentional.

While sitting at a table for a lunch break following his presentation at the 2019 Crop Management Input Seminar in Hutchinson last week, he explained that he likes how his job affords him the chance to dress casual, as opposed to clinical work early in his career. It reinforces that he doesn't sit above or in judgement of anyone as he offers free service as a rural mental health counselor.

Matthews, a psychologist, doesn't even like to talk about his credentials.

"I'm just a guy who knows a little more about mental health," he said.

While he talked, Hutchinson Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism president Mary Hodson walked onto the stage behind Matthews to make an announcement. After a few moments, Matthews realized the announcement was about him.

"Everyone needs a friend," Hodson said after inviting Matthews on stage. "Everyone needs someone to talk to." 

The University of Minnesota Extension and Chamber of Commerce Agri-Business Committee, he was told, had selected him as the Ag Person of the Year. 

"Ted doesn't have a farming background," reads a statement sent ahead of the award, "but what he does have is knowledge and understanding to help individuals in need."

Matthews, who has lived in Hutchinson for the past few years, still had a look of surprise on his face when he returned to his table, tears welling in his eyes.

The story of his work in agriculture started years ago when he was helping the Federal Emergency Mangement Agency with a support program during The Great Flood of 1993.

"We didn't have any farmers coming in," he recalled. "I started getting calls from farm business management and Extension asking me if we could work with farmers. Of course we would. It was a disaster for everyone."

That was when Matthews realized farmers never call.

"To this day, I've never heard a farmer say, 'I need to call my psychologist,'" he said. "It doesn't happen."

Today, Matthews works with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. When his vision of bringing support directly to farmers started, he was founded by the Bremer Foundation along with several other groups. A few years later, in the late 1990s, his program was fully funded by the state. He now spends his days singlehandedly traveling to Minnesota's hubs to meet with clients from around the state.

"I have the entire state," Matthews said. "I work with farmers, farm issues ... the stress of farming or the family or how all those things work. Frankly, farming has changed totally in the last 50 years ... because of the dynamic of the family farm and what that means."

In addition to the usual worries of weather, taxes and commodity prices, Matthews said, shifts in the family farm dynamic are creating stress. Women in farm families are filling new roles either on the farm or working in town to pay bills, and financial decisions are more of a group decision. The traditional arrangement of the farmer, a man, working while the wife raises children who helped on the farm is no longer present, and families can only afford a few children.

"These changes create family issues that didn't exist in the past," Matthews said. "That has created a whole lot of new issues, but the truth is two heads are better than one."

Because the modern dynamic is so different, it's hard to look to the past for advice. 

"You can't look to the parents because they didn't do it that way," Matthews said. 

Heritage and inheritance are also undergoing major changes.

"Forever, dads worked until they couldn't do it anymore, and that was in their 40s or 50s, and then they passed on the farm," Matthews said. "Now, very few things on a farm weigh more than 50 pounds. Therefor dads can farm into their 60s, 70s and 80s, and they are. And so that makes the next generation, their sons, in their 50s or 60s and still not in charge. And that is creating a lot of issues, and really on a lot of farms what is going to happen is dad passes on the farm to his grandson or granddaughter, not his son."

As farming technology continues to advance it can create friction between those who are prepared to adopt it and those who are not. New technology also comes with a price tag. Young people interested in farming head to school and major in agronomy, and learn techniques that didn't exist before. 

"Change is good," Matthews said, "but how do you integrate that onto the family farm?"

For Matthews, a typical work day involves plenty of driving, appointments at a central location and endless phone calls. One of the advantages of his Hutchinson residency is that hubs such as Willmar, St. Cloud and Mankato are all about an hour away, which means he can more easily setup in those cities — often at college campuses — for appointments. For many who seek out Matthews, though, an appointment isn't necessary.

"The beauty of the program is when people have a question, they don't need to spend an hour with me," Matthews said. "I get five minute questions, 20 minute questions."

Equipped with a cell phone and a hands-free system installed in his car, Matthews takes those questions and speaks to farmers as he travels across the state. Early in his career he did farm visits but found that often interrupted work longer than necessary.

As the only person on the job in Minnesota, demand for Matthews' time is high. While chatting with a reporter he started to scroll through the call history on his phone. It went on and on, but he wouldn't have it any other way.

"People need to know they can call," Matthews said. "I can't tell you how many times I answer the phone and people say, 'You answered.'"

It seems like there isn't a farming publication Matthews hasn't been featured in, and his number is almost always printed with the story. It's 320-266-2390.

"The idea that I would not answer a phone call," Matthews trailed off as he spoke, shaking his head. "I answer as many as I can."

Minnesota's program may seem like it's behind the curb, but Matthews has found the state to be the leader. In addition to his local calls, requests from agencies and individuals out of the state are regular as well.

"There aren't enough of us doing what I do," Matthews said. "To the best of my knowledge, I'm the only one who does specifically what I do. I need help."

He's had people offer to volunteer and help him, but says he doesn't have time to train them. In the meantime, demand for the program is only growing. Why?

"Suicide," he said. "Farming is one of the highest rates of suicide. ... People say they want to know why, but don't like the answers. (Farmers are) isolated. They feel helpless. The commodity prices and so on are really low and there is nothing they can do about it. ... So it's bad for a month, then it's bad for a month, and then it's bad for a year, and then it's bad for two years. And farming is all they know, it's all they believe in and all they want to do."

"Sometimes they reach out for help," Matthews said, "but sometimes they kill themselves instead."

When speaking to the crowd last Thursday, Matthews said the key to helping is to have a plan. 

"We don't have to be experts," he said. "All of us need to have a plan. Who do we call if we think someone is suicidal? If we don't have an answer to that, we will do nothing."

If people are facing thoughts of suicide or worried that a friend, family member of neighbor may be having thoughts of suicide, Matthews suggests calling social services, the sheriff's office or a clergy member. 

"The sheriff's office here is a good example. It's a good sheriff's office," Matthews said. "They know this kind of thing. It's what they do."

He knows people worry about calling for help for someone who may turn out to be fine.

"The sheriff's office is not going to say, 'You wasted my time because you were concerned someone was going to kill themselves,'" Matthews said. "If indeed they weren't going to kill themselves, OK, so you wasted a little time. You feel a little embarrassed, but what if they were? How important is that? The amount you gain is life-giving."

He acknowledged people worry about reaching out because of a stigma of mental illness.

"People hear mental health and they think mental illness," Matthews said. "They say they are not crazy, or whoever they are talking about is not crazy and you have to get to a certain point to fit the criteria. ... It's not about mental illness, it's about mental health. There are people who definitely work with and experience mental illness, but that's not what I do. Most of the people I work with need to be mentally healthier, and why wouldn't anyone want that?"

Matthews hopes his program can grow in time for him to retire. He said he is optimistic the upcoming state Legislature will increase funding and support for the program so it can be bolstered enough to train more professionals. Until that support comes, he's going to keep at it.

"I really love what I do," he said. "I love working with farmers. I believe in what I do. I think if you have a passion for what you do, you don't look at what time it is. In that way, I suppose it's similar to the people I work with — farmers. They don't look at an 8-hour day. They look at, 'When do I get the job done?'"

Recommended for you