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Harvesting Hope in tough times

The mission of The Abbey of the Hills is simple – to foster the rediscovery of peace. Simple, yet often out of reach in today’s hectic world. For those who make their living in agriculture and face unstable commodity prices, political pressure, family tension and volatile weather patterns, it is even more elusive.

That is why the Abbey is hosting their second “Harvesting Hope,” a non-denominational, one-night retreat on Jan. 10-11, 2020, for farm couples to get away from the stresses and worries of production agriculture and reconnect to each other and themselves.

Jill Adelman is Chief Development Officer for The Abbey of the Hills. She and her husband Stan live on a farm in rural Bellingham, Minn., and this event is especially close to her heart. Adelman said when the Abbey was contacted about serving as a setting for the farmers retreat, she felt it matched their mission. “This is exactly what we are called here at the Abbey to do, to offer peace. Knowing of the high stress and suicide rate for farmers, we wanted to do something to make a difference.”

The Abbey of the Hills was originally established as the Blue Cloud Monastery in 1950 with the purpose of serving the Native American population of the area. With a dwindling and aging population of monks, it was closed in 2012. The sprawling estate was soon reestablished as a non-profit organization dedicated to hosting individuals and groups to their peaceful property on over 80 acres of rolling prairie hills in Eastern South Dakota. They host retreats, family reunions, concerts and business meetings. The grounds include a cattle herd, vegetable gardens, orchard, bee operation, an off-site vineyard, hiking trails, and many areas for private reflection.

The first Harvesting Hope retreat was held last year, with 17 couples in attendance. This year there are already 20 couples registered, with room for many more. The retreat is offered for a freewill donation, and no one will be turned away for inability to pay. Sponsorships are also available, and Adelman says many businesses or organizations are happy to be able to do something because they personally know farmers, and see the struggles they face.

The agenda of the two-day event starts Friday evening at 6:30 p.m. when couples join together for a home-cooked meal, followed by a presentation by local farmer and humorist Brent Olsen of Big Stone County, Minn. Afterward is open social time, to offer couples time to spend with each other, communicate, and rediscover peace in the 100,000 square-foot building with multiple fireplace rooms and areas to relax.

Saturday opens with an optional, non-denominational prayer service from Deacon Paul Trymen, the Director of the Abbey. Then keynote speakers Ted Matthews and Tim Holquist will lead the couples through an open discussion session about key stresses in farm life and how to deal with them. Matthews is the director of Minnesota rural mental health services and is a mental health practitioner with over 30 years of experience in counseling in rural areas. His focus for the past two decades has been farmer mental health support.

Holquist has been a farm management consultant for over 40 years working with farm families by helping them set family, individual and career and financial goals.

Adelman says this open session is really the heart of the retreat. “Last year there were a lot of tears shed. Those tears were obviously from the stresses discussed, but also from the empathy and support they received from other couples. There’s a kinship formed. They see others are in the same situation,” says Adelman.

No one is called on to speak at any time, and attendees are free to share if they want or to just listen.

Julie VanDover of Westport, S.D., will conclude the retreat, which ends at 3 p.m. She and her husband, Troy, were attendees at the first Harvest Hope retreat last year. “We enjoyed the time spent with other farm couples and sharing both the highs and lows of farm life,” VanDover says. This year she was asked to serve as one of the speakers, and will share a wife’s perspective on rural life and how their faith is at the root of all she and her husband do on the farm. “We look forward to reuniting with people from last year and meeting new couples as well,” she says. “What a gift it is to share our faith and our experiences with other farm spouses.”

Adelman says they are excited to offer such a great team to lead the retreat. “Ted Matthews is very well sought-after; he speaks all over the country and is really, really good at what he does,” she says. “His focus will be on communicating with your spouse and the differences in the way men and women handle stress.”

Adelman says people – especially farmers – who haven’t been on a retreat might not know what to expect, but that there is no pressure. The focus of the two days is on hope, faith, communication, reduction of stress and humor.

“To everyone who walks in the door, whatever their walk of life may be, however they find peace, that is all we want them to do, to find peace,” says Alderman.

In farming, the stress and the work and the worries will likely still be there upon return. But when the focus is on hope and camaraderie and the beauty of life, they become just a little less daunting.


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