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Elevator offers assistance to shareholders

There is little question that agriculture operates in cycles of “good” and “bad” years.

The depressed ag economy of today, the years leading up to it and the fallout happening because of it has caused Rob Jacobs, CEO of Cooperative Farmers Elevator (CFE), to try and help the shareholder members of that company by offering them access to professional counseling and consulting services, free of charge to those members.

They have teamed up with Connections Inc., Employee Assistance Program (EAP), an employee assistance firm based in Rock Valley, Iowa. This program is offering shareholder members of CFE a chance to speak to a licensed individual in their area of expertise about their issue, and connect them with other licensed professionals able to best help them.

Services include management of stress, anxiety and depression, generational issues, family or marital issues, anger management, chemical and substance abuse, legal, financial or whatever the problem is.

“About a year ago we started getting inquiries like this from some of our other (cooperative customers of ours) throughout the state of Iowa … but CFE was the first to move forward with it,” said Matt Visser, CEO of Connections Inc., EAP.

Visser said they are hearing from most all of their cooperative clients that their members could use some sound advice or counseling services as they wade through these difficult times of low commodity prices, weather issues, tariff fallout, ethanol export reductions and labor shortages.

“We’re all small towns and we’re rural communities who depend on agriculture,” said Visser. “We’re feeling the pinch everywhere.”

Cooperative Farmers Elevator

Jacobs said he’s seeing the effects of the depressed ag economy in the customers his company serves, which was the catalyst in his desire to provide this kind of outreach to their customers who might be facing some kind of personal crisis in any of those areas. CFE has used this company for a number of years for its employees, but are the first company to extend those services to their member shareholders. The cooperative is offering it at no charge.

“People are usually pretty guarded about (their personal troubles),” said Jacobs. “We thought this could be very beneficial to our members, too. If people are happy or satisfied in their personal lives, they’re going to be a better employee. It’s just the right thing to do.”

Jacobs said this service is necessary for ag customers who are facing such critical times in their industry. They are noticing it in accounts receivable, as well as in their visits with the local farmers they serve.

“It’s been a really tough go,” he said. “It’s not healthy and we all deal with it in different ways. It’s important that people have that resource to reach out to. This program will at least get them going on the path, and then they can choose where they go from there. Any Class A member of the cooperative (anyone who has purchased a membership to the farmer-owned cooperative) is eligible, and they get the same benefits from it as our employees get.”

Jacobs said the cooperative will not know who is using the services, since their feedback from the program will be in numbers only–no names.

Under this program, members and dependent family members of CFE are entitled to receive up to three face-to-face sessions with a licensed professional in their area for free. When those sessions end, Jacobs said family insurance plans might come into play to pay for any necessary remaining services.

Signs of stress

Andy Visser, founder and president of Connections Inc., EAP, said there are signs to watch for to see if someone is experiencing stress they can’t manage. But he was quick to preface that with the fact that the person who sees that someone needs help needs to first reach out to a professional in that area, and be counseled on how to approach the person or family who needs help, so the situation doesn’t escalate into something worse.

“It can save you months or years of headaches (getting that counseling first),” said Visser.

Visser said signs of stress are different in all kinds of people, but he said the first and foremost sign is any change in established patterns of behavior, especially if that change leads to that person being counterproductive.

“It might be withdrawal if a person is very active and social by nature, or if that person is normally reserved, it might be talking more than normal,” he said.

Visser said another sign might be suspicion of mood-altering chemicals, which he said the farm sector is beginning to see because of (in part) the labor shortage, combined with the long list of work that needs to be done, and an inability to pay someone else to help.

“We often can get stuck using dysfunctional stress coping actions,” he said. “Alcohol abuse was the issue for years, but now local law enforcement is telling us there are young farmers using methamphetamines because it gives them a boost of energy. We’ve not heard this before in the rural ag population.”

Visser said another sign is noticing that people who could usually make decisions are having trouble doing that. He said it’s a rural approach to life that people are used to solving their own problems and not sharing them with friends and neighbors. When their private troubles pile up it creates incredible stress, making it harder to think and problem solve.

“We have some customers who didn’t get 40 percent of their land planted this year because of the constant rains,” he said. “The market fell out on corn because of the ethanol situation, and the grain markets are so low. There is incredible stress out there and we don’t find ourselves thinking about (how we are going to cope).”

Visser said work overload contributes to many kinds of problems.

“Our biggest weakness is an overused strength,” he said, explaining that overwork can eventually lead to ‘weakening the link’ elsewhere–on the farm, within the family and other relationships, etc. And when poor decisions are made, it can pack a punch financially, leading to bankruptcy or foreclosure.

“We are all social creatures and we are created to function most creatively in a group. So we need to surround ourselves with support,” said Visser.

In the end, Visser said the sooner a person can intervene, the better. But most importantly, he reinforced the notion that the person who first perceives trouble–should seek out professional advice on how to approach that situation wisely.

The road ahead

Jacobs said it’s not a matter of how many customer members of CFE use the services offered through the cooperative with Connections Inc., EAP.

“If you have 300 people and only five of them use the services to better themselves, it will have been worth it,” he said. “We have 3,000 Class A members, and if it helps anybody in any kind of personal crisis–regardless of whatever it is–it’s a win for the community, for the cooperative and for our customers. That’s what people do. It isn’t always about the bottom line.”

Jacobs was not hesitant to say he’s seeing the stress on the farm.

“Many of our people are under stress–their working capital positions can be in tough shape, they might be getting pressures from (an uncertain crop) … it’s coming from every direction. It can put stress on us (at the cooperative) and it puts stress on our customers as well,” said Jacobs.

He went on to say rural Americans are here to help each other, and that at the end of the day, rural Americans–Iowans–are grounded in their communities and families, and that it’s the most important thing.

“Hopefully our customers know there is help out there, and if we can work together until good times return at the farm gate, we’ll all be better off,” said Jacobs.

Matt Visser said there have been many cooperatives associated with Connections, Inc., EAP–as well as non-members of their company–who have inquired into something like this for their employees or customer members.

“I commend CFE and their team for being pro-active with the people they serve,” he said. “We look forward to working with them, because right now there’s not a lot of light at the end of the tunnel yet.”

Jacobs reiterated that CFE officials do not know who is using the free service.

“Farmers don’t talk about (personal problems) very much–they’re just doing their thing. This will give them someone to reach out to, anonymous to us,” he said.

CFE has elevator locations in Ocheyedan, Lake Park and Allendorf.