October 2006 // Volume 44 // Number 5 // Ideas at Work // 5IAW3

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Practical Strategies for Extension Agents to Partner with Mental Health Professionals in Providing Family Consultation to Farm/Ranch Families

Access to trusted, skilled mental health providers is often limited in rural settings. Cooperative Extension agents can use 13 research-based questions to identify mental health professionals and family consultants with the skills to work effectively with farm and ranch families. When informed Extension agents collaborate with family consultants and mental health practitioners in innovative ways, they can provide ranch and farm families with family consultation that reduces their stress and depression levels and enhances their native self-sufficiency.

Robert J. Fetsch
Professor & Extension Specialist
Human Development & Family Studies
Colorado State University
Fort Collins, Colorado


Very few businesses have as much day-to-day family involvement as intergenerational farming and ranching. Working side-by-side provides family members with opportunities for building camaraderie, communicating openly, and achieving shared dreams. It presents threats of open conflict and daily stress, however, especially when the family's communication skills are less developed. This stress has contributed to a decline in the number of families who are staying together on U.S. farms and ranches (Fetsch & Zimmerman, 1999; Rosenblatt, deMik, Anderson, & Johnson, 1985; Ward, 1987; Wilson, Marotz-Baden, & Holloway, 1991; Zimmerman & Fetsch, 1994).

According to the most recent U.S. Census of Agriculture (2002):

  • The number of farms has declined from 2,314,013 in 1974 to 2,128,982.

  • The average principal operator's age has risen from 50.3 in 1978 to 55.3.

  • The number of farmers/ranchers working off-farm 200 days or more increased from 28.4% in 1974 (657,971/2,314,013) to 39.1% (832,348/2,128,982).

Stress for ranch and farm families is at least partially due to predicaments over which they have little or no control, including:

  • Weather;
  • Rising costs;
  • Unaffordable health care costs; and
  • Low income from farm products.

Agricultural families have some of the highest stress, accident, and fatality rates (Fetsch, 2005), a problem exacerbated by a paucity of trusted, adequate mental health services available (Jurich & Russell, 1987; Weigel, 2003). Furthermore, the mental health literature provides few practical, research-based strategies for use with farm/ranch families. A literature review uncovered only three top-tier journal articles during the past 20 years (Fetsch & Zimmerman, 1999; Jurich & Russell, 1987; Zimmerman & Fetsch, 1994).

This article provides practical strategies that Cooperative Extension agents can use to identify highly skilled mental health professionals who can provide effective mental health counseling/therapy to farm/ranch families. These professionals might include clergy or licensed marriage and family therapists, psychologists, clinical social workers, mental health counselors, or guidance counselors.

13 Practical Strategies

Cooperative Extension agents who collaborate with local mental health professionals increase their effectiveness in working with ranch/farm families by providing research-based information (Fetsch, 2004a, 2004b) and effective educational programs. Some Extension agents have human development training and experience, and are already collaborating with mental health practitioners. Some are considering inviting family consultants to use an Extension office one day a week to meet with ranch and farm families. Providing mental health sessions in the more neutral Cooperative Extension offices reduces the stigma for families who are leery of being seen walking into a mental health clinic.

The following questions help identify those mental health professionals with therapeutic and cultural skills that work well with farm/ranch families.


How often do you:

  • Utilize a male and female co-therapy team when working with farm/ranch families, at least one of whom has an "agri-cultural" background?

  • Call what you provide "family consultation," rather than "mental health counseling" or "psychology," which closes doors fast with ranch/farm families?

  • Provide daylong family consultation at 6-8 week intervals? This form of family consultation is consistent with the Milan model (Palazzoli, 1980) with its session structure of monthly meetings for 6-8 hours to accommodate geographical distance. It assumes that change happens between sessions, so considerable homework is given, e.g., family meetings (Fetsch & Jacobson, 2004b).

Initial Telephone Contact

How often do you:

  • Make sure that the caller invites all the major stakeholders to the family consultation? Working with whole family systems in intergenerational family consultation is preferred to one-on-one individual therapy.

Initial Face-to-Face Visit

Do you:

  • Fly and/or drive to the farm/ranch for your first family meeting around the kitchen table or in the living room to build rapport and trust?

  • Establish clear family rules so that family consultation sessions are safe times to communicate openly and to solve problems directly? Five popular ones are:

    • I won't use what is said here against you later.
    • I will listen so well that I can repeat back to the speaker's satisfaction what s/he says, feels, and wants rather than lose my temper, yell, or get violent.
    • I will give no blame, no shame, and no violence.
    • I will ask directly for what I want rather than force another person to accept my way.
    • When we get angry, I will call for a "time out" to cool down, relax, and set a time when we can get back together to talk further

  • Arrange subsequent daylong family consultations in neutral motel conference meeting rooms in towns within driving distance of the ranch/farm?

Working with the Family to Achieve Their Goals

How well do you:

  • Facilitate a shared future family vision statement that is the family's goal for the next 3-5 years, e.g. "We want our family ranching to be harmonious, consensual, enjoyable, and profitable" (Fetsch & Zimmerman, 1999, p. 489)? Having a shared family vision gets "buy in" with all major stakeholders. Having it short makes it one that all can remember and work toward daily. It serves as the roadmap for follow-up family consultation sessions and may take 3-7 months to create.

  • Partner with trusted Cooperative Extension farm management specialists, agricultural economists, certified financial planners, certified public accountants? Farmers and ranchers often see the presenting problem as economic rather than psychological.

Being Practical and Effective

  • How flexible are you with seasonal scheduling? It may not be possible for the family to meet during harvest, calving, or planting season.

  • What percentage of time do you use what is practical and effective with farm/ranch families, e.g., solution-focused therapy (Lankton, 1986; Lipchik, 2002; Nichols & Schwartz, 2001) structural techniques (Minuchin & Fishman, 1981), strategic planning (Fetsch, 1990, Fetsch & Bolen, 1989), psycho educational strategies (McFarlane, 1991), experiential therapy (Satir, 1983), feminist theory (Goldner, 1985; Taggart, 1985), decision making (Fetsch, 2004a), problem solving (Fetsch & Jacobson, 2004a), and steps to create an amicable family estate transfer plan (Fetsch, 1999)?

  • How strong are your cultural competencies? Often an elder dad or grandmother is the principal autocratic decision maker. Sometimes rural values of making do and re-inventing rather than throwing away leads to marital conflicts initially.

  • Are you open to working with your Extension agent, who knows resources at the land-grant university with valid and reliable, quantitative measures of change in families over time (Fetsch, 1997; Fetsch & Zimmerman, 1999)? It is recommended that practitioners examine both statistical change and clinical improvements (Jacobson & Revenstorf, 1988; Jacobson, Roberts, Berns, & McGlinchey, 1999). There is a great need in the research literature for studies that report effective education and intervention with empirical and clinical outcomes with farm and ranch families.


Access to trusted, skilled mental health providers and practitioners is often quite limited in rural settings. Those of us who work in rural settings must work harder to connect professionals who are available to ranch/farm families. Extension agents and mental health practitioners can work together to address the emotional and family well being needs of farm/ranch families.

Most of these families are tough, hard working, self-sufficient, practical, and resilient. By recognizing them for their intelligence and by meeting them where they live and work with "agri-cultural" sensitivity, we can connect with them and make a dramatic difference in their quality of life.


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