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Published March 30 2012

Farmer says goodbye to column

Decades ago, Val Farmer was giving a talk on rural psychology at the South Dakota State Fair in Huron when a reporter approached him to do a story. Farmer said yes, but wasn’t entirely happy with the way it turned out – and figured he could do better.

“I’d been misquoted in a few interviews here,” Farmer said. “I thought, ‘This is my interview, my thoughts, I can do this.’ ”

So he started writing himself, launching a weekly newspaper column about rural mental health and relationships that became a hit in dozens of newspapers nationwide, including the Farmer’s Forum.

Nearly 30 years later, Farmer, 71, is hanging up the column for good as he and his wife head to Mongolia on a mission trip. That caps a run in which Farmer became one of the premier voices in issues of rural life.

“I was in a very timely position to give a voice to rural people and to tell the stories of agriculture,” he said.

Farmer, a Fairfield, Mont., native who lived in Fargo for several years and now works out of Wildwood, Mo., spent the first eight years of his life on a farm before his family lost it. He didn’t find out what had happened until he was an adult, but re-immersed himself in rural life during graduate school with in internship in rural Nebraska.

“It really exposed me to the unique problems that farm families were having,” Farmer said.

When he started writing, Farmer figured he could fill two underserved niches at once: writing about rural life, and writing about psychology for public consumption. Psychology and mental health issues weren’t widely discussed in rural communities when he started his column – something he helped change.

His last name – it’s really Farmer – probably helped. Farmers are “very skeptical about the field of psychology and mental health,” he said, because they might think it runs afoul of rural values like independence and self-reliance. “To have a psychologist by the name of Farmer helped ease the pain a little bit.”

Farmer’s early writing coincided with the farm crisis of the 1980s, when many families lost their farms amid financial turmoil.

“My column came out just at a time when there was a lot of emotion and anger and frustration and grief and mourning about what was going on,” he said.

He tackled issues such as the stresses of mixing business and family, the pressures of farm debt, and the complexity of rural social life. He said some of his best work was on issues of marriage and committing to family despite the demands of the farm.

In 1994, he became a weekly guest host on the AgriTalk radio network, taking call-in questions about rural issues.

“There’s a huge part of the rural audience that really loves the radio,” he said. “I really did not appreciate the power of radio in the rural community.”

From 1997 to 2006, he was affiliated with MeritCare in Fargo. Now, he and Darlene, his wife of 41 years, are going to Mongolia in May for 23 months to help families with history and genealogy work. When he comes back, he’ll resume his counseling and mediation work, but not the column.

“We’re really excited,” Farmer said. “I’ll be able to see a rural society in another country.”

For Farmer’s blog on his Mongolian mission, visit drvalfarmer.blogspot.com.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502