COLUMBIA, Mo. – Missouri farmers and ranchers increasingly struggle with mental health challenges and access to resources. The state’s rural suicide rate is growing faster than in urban counties, increasing 78% between 2003 and 2017.

With a four-year grant commitment from the MFA Foundation, University of Missouri Extension will have new avenues to support rural communities in need of mental health assistance.

“Most parts of rural Missouri don’t have access to mental health providers and services to meet the need,” said Karen Funkenbusch, an MU Extension health and safety specialist and director of the Missouri AgrAbility project. “The MFA Foundation’s substantial four-year commitment will allow the expansion of teletherapy sessions and increased educational awareness in more rural communities. This generous gift will assist in the creation of more resources and the development of a statewide mental health awareness campaign targeting one of Missouri’s most vulnerable populations.”

MU Extension addresses the challenge through resources shared by trained extension specialists. With backgrounds in both agriculture and mental health, these specialists have a deep understanding of the pressures that farmers and ranchers face, such as rising fertilizer and fuel costs, challenging weather, poor harvests and struggles with debt.

“The lack of mental health support in Missouri’s rural areas is an ongoing challenge,” said John Ihler, president and CEO of Columbia-based MFA Oil. “It has been difficult to address for multiple reasons, from cultural to financial, but there is a clear need for better access. The MFA Foundation recognizes that need and hopes to be part of providing resources that can help fulfill it.”

One such resource is the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance program, which provides mental health resources and telehealth counseling sessions. Since 2020, the program—broadly known as Show-Me Strong Farm Families—has served more than 2,000 farm community members in all 114 Missouri counties. Funkenbusch and her team teach classes and provide resources to people experiencing problems related to mental health.

The program has saved Missouri participants $91,330—the amount that USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture and MU Extension scholarships covered to ensure individuals can attend the behavioral health programs regardless of need.

“Seeing the approach that the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance program has taken convinced us that partnering with University of Missouri Extension will be a true multiplier for the MFA Foundation's financial support,” Ihler said. “If we focus on this challenge, we can make a difference.”

The MFA Foundation is funded by MFA Inc., MFA Oil and local affiliates of both companies.

Resource: The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline provides 24/7, confidential support to people in mental health-related distress. To speak with a trained counselor, call, text or chat 988. Counselors will listen, understand how callers’ problems are affecting them, provide support and connect them to resources, if necessary.

MFA Incorporated

MFA Incorporated is a Midwest-based regional farm supply and marketing cooperative serving more than 45,000 farmer/owners in its trade area. Through its network of retail locations and affiliated cooperatives in Missouri and adjacent states, MFA provides value-added products, services and expertise to help farmers succeed.

MFA Oil Company, formed in 1929, is a farmer-owned cooperative and the ninth-largest propane retailer in the United States. The company supplies fuels, lubricants, and propane to customers in Missouri, Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. Through a subsidiary, MFA Oil operates Break Time convenience stores in Missouri; a Big O Tires franchise in Missouri, Arkansas, and Kansas; a solar panel installation company, Energized Solar; and APM, a wholesale fuel distributor.

Writer: Jake Hispher