PLATTE, S.D. — Amber Dykshorn stood at her kitchen window and watched the storm come in.
It was a very dark Saturday night in the middle of the summer in the middle of a year that is on track to be the wettest in more than a century. The wind blew over the farm, the rain came down and she heard the ominous pings on her roof — pea-sized hail, striking the still-fragile stalks of the only corn her husband, Chris Dykshorn, was able to plant before he took his own life in June.
Did their crop insurance cover hail damage? She had no idea. That was something Chris would have taken care of, if he were here. Instead she was alone, with nearly $300,000 in farm debt, three kids ages 5 to 13 and a host of grief-fueled questions. Why hadn’t she been able to save him? What would happen to them now?
She scrolled through his final texts, rereading his words, leaning on the kitchen counter next to a whiteboard with the kids’ chore list — Kahne: dishwasher, Kalee: dust living room — and a book someone gave her titled “Through a Season of Grief: Devotions for Your Journey from Mourning to Joy.”
Chris had been despondent over the couple’s finances, crippled by surplus grain he couldn’t sell because of the trade war and flooded fields.
“I’m struggling so bad today. I don’t know what to do anymore,” he texted on May 31. “I seriously don’t know how we r gonna make it.”
On June 1: “I just want to sit in the house and cry.”
And then: “What am I supposed to do. I am failing and feel like I’m gonna lose everything I’ve worked for the past how many years.”
She was still asleep the morning of June 13 when he went to the utility room to get his gun.
In farm country, mental health experts say they’re seeing more suicides as families endure the worst period for U.S. agriculture in decades. Farm bankruptcies and loan delinquencies are rising, calamitous weather events are ruining crops, and profits are vanishing during Trump’s global trade disputes.
A 2017 study found that farm owners and workers were three to five times as likely to kill themselves on the job compared with other occupations. Researchers studying more recent data have not yet determined if farmer suicides are increasing, but leaders and social workers in rural America say that, anecdotally, they’re seeing more of these deaths. Calls to suicide hotlines around farm country have risen, prompting new federal and state programs targeting farmers’ mental health, including support groups, public awareness campaigns and funding for counseling.
The Agriculture Department is setting up the first $1.9 million phase of a farm and ranch stress support network to expand emergency hotlines, training and support groups for farmers and ranchers. In addition, the department started a $450,000 pilot program to train some of its workers in how to help farmers in extreme distress and make mental health referrals for them.
Here in South Dakota, the trade disputes and extreme weather have devastated farmers and ranchers — often isolated in rural areas, with little access to services — said Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R), a lifelong rancher who is working to expand the state’s suicide prevention efforts.
Calls to the statewide suicide hotline were up 61 percent last year, and South Dakota’s largest regional health system, Avera Health, launched a special hotline in January to help farmers and ranchers.
Chris had received counseling through Avera’s farming program and thought of reaching out again before he died. The last Google search on his phone was “farmer crisis hotline.”
‘In God’s hands’
“Did you get hail last night?” a neighbor asked Amber at church the next morning, where everyone was talking about the rain that hadn’t stopped.
Amber had seen the flattened corn on her way into town for the Sunday service with two of her children, Kalee, 13, and Kolbe, 5.
“I just started praying,” Amber said. “Maybe we can save it; I don’t know.”
Platte Christian Reformed Church has a stone tablet featuring the Ten Commandments on the lawn, a parking lot full of white pickup trucks and a young pastor, Drew Hoekema, who struggled with what to say to his congregation after Chris’s suicide. He finally settled on “he’s in God’s hands now.”
Amber has clung to her spirituality since her husband’s death, posting her favorite Bible verses and inspirational quotes on Facebook. She seems serene in her hope that God will provide, even though she made only $18,056 from her part-time job at an insurance company last year and no money from her hobby selling a direct-marketing makeup line.
“There’s no way anybody can walk this walk without faith,” she says. “I don’t know how someone could. There would be no hope. None.”
Even her daughter, Kalee, has asked, “Mom, how is this going to work?”
Pastor Drew chose Bible chapter Ezekiel 34 for that Sunday’s sermon, the one about God as a shepherd to his flock, gathering them back “from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness.”
Amber clutched a wad of tissues as a precaution, then tucked it in the pew, blooming like a white origami flower among the Bibles. But there were no tears this day, and when she left the sanctuary, the mauve eye shadow from her makeup line, a color called “Fervent,” was still in place.
“Where’s Kahne?” her friend Corinne Middendorp asked about Amber’s 10-year-old son.
“Chris took him fishing,” Amber said. Her hands flew to her mouth as she realized her mistake. “I mean, my brother took him fishing.”
“Awww!” Middendorp said at the mention of Chris’s name. She made a sad face and pulled Amber close.
These are the days of meaningful hugs. Amber is virtually surrounded by love — at church, at school, with both sets of grieving parents, siblings, friends and neighbors who come to pork chop fundraisers and bake sales held to benefit her family. She is enveloped by arms and held as tenderly as a baby, encouragement whispered into her blond hair.
“Thoughts and prayers,” everyone says. “Thinking of you.” And from a parent on the first day of school: “The Lord is going to hear your name a lot today.”
Sometimes, it’s a relief just to be a mom again, to change into jeans and a yellow T-shirt that reads “Support Your Local Farmer” and pile the kids into the SUV for the hour-long drive to Walmart for back-to-school shopping.
Their father had been a constant presence in their lives, playing Squeak on family game night, reading books aloud, and rooting for Kalee at track and cheerleading meets. Now freckle-faced Kahne, named after Chris’s favorite racecar driver, has been quiet and clingy. Amber thought Kolbe had grown out of his constant humming that once prompted his preschool teacher to suggest he be tested for autism. Since Chris’s death, Kolbe’s “sound effects” had returned.
Chris and Amber, both 35, met at a barn party while in high school and married in 2004. Chris, the son and grandson of farmers, got a job as a welder but longed to return to the farm. Amber was skeptical at first, but in 2014, Chris began working alongside his dad and took over the operation in 2016.
The transition would prove difficult. Amber missed their life in town and struggled with depression herself. The smell of hogs on Chris’s clothes nauseated her.
American agriculture was booming when Chris joined the business. Global demand stoked high commodity prices, with corn nearly $5 a bushel and soybeans more than $13 a bushel.
This was before Trump started his trade wars with China, Mexico and Canada. Before rain gauges in Sioux Falls registered 39.2 inches of rain in 2018, the wettest year on record. Before a freak spring blizzard claimed the lives of three dozen of Chris’s lambs and calves. Before the roads flooded and hemmed in nearly $100,000 worth of corn and soybeans he had been holding onto since last fall, hoping better prices would return.
The week that Chris died, corn was $3.73 a bushel and soybeans $7.50 a bushel at the local grain elevator.
“We owed his dad $16,000 and the Christian school $3,000 for tuition, and our operating loan was maxed out and we still had monthly bills to pay,” Amber said as she drove the kids to shop for school clothes. “We couldn’t haul grain because the roads were too wet. You couldn’t drive a grain truck on ‘em; you would sink.”
In the back seat, Kalee was listening intently, while Kolbe began making his anxious humming sounds. “Ummmm, hmmmmmm.”
“Kolbe, be quiet,” Kalee said. Then, to her mom, “Kolbe won’t be quiet.”
“Kolbe, will you quit making sound effects, please?” Amber said.
“Kalee started it,” he said.
“You’re a baby. Stay in preschool, baby,” Kalee said.
These are the times Amber struggles with being an only parent. Discipline is hard.
A song came on the radio by Christian singer Jamie Kimmett, one she has been listening to a lot these days. It’s called “Prize Worth Fighting For.” She turned up the volume and sang along, ignoring her squabbling children.
“For me, the prize worth fighting for is my kids — and eternity,” Amber said. “Because then I’ll see Chris.”
By the time they picked out a soft $8 T-shirt for Kalee, neon green and black Nikes for Kahne, and tiny Skechers sneakers for Kolbe, then stopped for dinner and began to make their way home, the sun was sinking behind the gold-washed fields, many with pools of standing water. Over the summer, the ravines became creeks, the creeks became rivers and the ponds became mini-lakes.
Amber took a detour, because the main route to her house was still flooded and blocked by “Road Closed” signs.
As she neared the farm, she looked to the right to try to spot the female deer that had been living with two tiny fawns in the clearing between their straggly corn fields. Seeing the doe — a hard-working single mother like herself — had been a source of comfort to Amber. But she wasn’t there.
When they pulled into the driveway of the modest tan farmhouse, the three-legged family dog, Diesel, once Chris’s shadow, was there to greet them. At night, Amber can hear him howling outside for his lost companion.
‘I can’t do it’
His belt was down to the last hole.
That’s when Amber first realized something was wrong, when Chris sent her a Snapchat in May to show how much weight he had lost from stress and ask her to pray for it to stop raining. Normally, his Snapchats were full of the joy of country life — the perfect arch of a rainbow at sunrise, newborn lambs, Kahne doing his homework in the combine, goose breasts sizzling in the smoker.
But now his jeans were hanging on his body, he was struggling to get the corn in, and nothing seemed to chase away his gloom, not even a trip to Florida, a gift from Amber’s dad.
Back home, there was no money to pay the electric bill, $700 and counting.
“We’re going to lose everything we have,” he texted Amber. “I can’t sell out, then we’ll have nothing.”
Just stay positive, she told him. God has a plan.
Then he woke up screaming, and she took him to the doctor, who arranged a video session with a farm stress counselor. Chris was admitted to Avera’s Behavioral Health Center in Sioux Falls the following day.
Duane “Bud” Meyerink, a relative who ran the farm equipment shop where Chris had worked, drove him to the hospital. It was a four-hour round-trip journey.
“He was in a really dark place,” Meyerink recalled. “I said, ‘Chris, you need God more than ever,’ and his comment to me was ‘I can’t even pray.’ ”
From the hospital, Chris texted, “I’m so bad right now. I’ve been praying for sleep and rest and a clear mind and I get nothing. I am so ready to give up farming and walk away.”
He seemed better after his hospitalization and returned home for a dinner of nachos. The next day, on June 12, he wrapped Amber in his arms and told her he loved her, and when she was out mowing the lawn that evening, she was heartened to see him back on his tractor, tilling the field. He sent her a text message with a thumbs up.
But the work wasn’t going well, and Chris’s mood quickly changed.
“I could see the storm clouds are coming and it was going to start raining, and pretty soon, Chris came walking behind the house and he says, ‘I can’t. I can’t do it anymore,’ ” Amber said.
The next morning, a neighbor near the pasture where Chris kept cattle went out to feed his dogs and found Chris writhing on the ground next to his car. He had shot himself in the heart with a deer rifle.
He kept saying, “I can’t do it. I can’t do it,” recalled the neighbor, Jim Mudder. Mudder called 911, and by the time Amber arrived, Chris had quit talking. She knelt beside him and grabbed his arm, pleading for him to hold on. There was blood everywhere. Across the flat land, they could see the ambulance that had come to save Chris was stuck in the mud.
It was a while before anyone found the suicide note, in a small notebook propped up on the dashboard of Chris’s car.
“I am so sorry. I can’t go on this way,” he wrote. “Lord forgive me for what I have done. I love Everybody. Thanks for carring [sic] about me. This is the Hardest thing I have ever done. Gonna miss everyone.”
Doubt and despair
The first day of school at the Dykshorn household was a flurry of last-minute preparations, as Amber curled Kalee’s hair for band photos and Kolbe kept saying “Let’s go!” It was the first of what would be many firsts for Amber — Kolbe’s first day of kindergarten, then her first wedding anniversary alone, then the first school fundraiser for which Chris wouldn’t craft a wood bench trimmed in vintage tin for the auction.
With the kids in school, Amber would have more time for herself, to make lists in her new organizer with “You Got This” embossed on the cover. The house is tidier, with no more boxer shorts left on the bedroom floor or fuzzy deer blanket on the sofa: Kalee now sleeps with it.
Amber has restarted her makeup tutorials on Facebook Live, her breezy “how-to” patter now sometimes veering to talk of Chris and his death.
Yet she’s haunted by fears that she didn’t do enough to save him. That night he texted her that he was upstairs crying while she was cuddling with the kids and watching “The Bachelorette” — should she have gone to him?
“This was supposed to happen to someone else, not me,” she wrote in a post on Facebook. “Just a few short weeks of sadness for him and I lose it all forever? LIFE IS NOT FAIR.”
As she drove the kids to school through the misty early morning, the sun was out for once and she spotted the doe back in her usual place, standing in a weedy patch with one of her fawns, watching them.
“I feel like it’s Dad telling you guys to have a good day at school,” she said.
On the way in, she stopped to take photos of the kids posed in front of the rock carved with a verse from Proverbs outside the school’s front door, a school tradition. She walked Kolbe to his new classroom and headed to the gym, where the kids, their parents and teachers would gather for an opening assembly.
It was empty except for a small ensemble of musicians with keyboards and an electric guitar practicing the morning’s song program, a Christian pop song called “Reckless Love.” She sat down alone under gold and black sports banners, alone in the bleachers, and shut her eyes, letting the music wash over her.
Then she started to cry, her shoulders shaking as she tried to hold back powerful sobs.
Julie Tate contributed to this report.