Dalles Bergsma was a born farmer.
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As a six-year-old, he used his savings to buy chickens and launch an egg business, and 12 years later, he owned his first farm, a 1,600-head hog finishing operation.
“He tried to buy it the week before (he turned 18). We did all the paperwork with the real estate agent, and then he went, ‘Wait, you’re not 18? I’ll see you next week,’” said his mother, Diane Bergsma. “So, he had to come back the week after, on his 18th birthday, to sign the paperwork.”
Why it matters: Three Oaks Cabin will offer respite where farmers can find help to address emotional and mental health challenges.
All but one of Bergsma’s seven children are involved in agriculture, but Dalles, her third, wanted to actively farm, with a vision of eventually taking over the family operation.
“We had been expanding and growing the operation with that intent so he could take over,” she said. “In 2019, he built a 2,400-head finishing barn (on his second farm), and we followed suit in 2020. Shortly after that, he was gone.”
Dalles took his own life on Nov. 23, 2020.
The man with a wide, easy smile, who married his high school sweetheart, loved his family, farming and God, was gone.
“We honestly didn’t see it coming. We had no idea,” Bergsma told attendees of the Ontario Pork annual meeting.
“We could see he was stressed, but so is every young farmer, right? He was very aggressive, in a good sense, in building their business. So, we wrote everything off to the stress of today (and) tomorrow will be better, next year will be better. Having said that, in hindsight, how did I not see it?”
It’s hard not to revisit conversations and ask herself how she missed out-of-character answers from a man with a usually bright and ambitious outlook.
“That’s what I try to tell people now — pay attention to the wording,” she said. “I don’t want to create fear, but please have an open and honest discussion around (suicide) and normalize it. We (need to) take care of it like we do our teeth or a broken arm.”
The Bergsmas leaned heavily on their faith to guide them through the devastation of losing the man with the bright smile, sense of humour and love that glued them together.
“We have hope, and we know we will see Dalles again,” said Bergsma. “So, for the interim that we don’t have him here, we want to use everything that God has given us to come alongside people who are suffering and to give them hope.”
Determined that hope, not tragedy, would define their loss, the Bergsmas launched Three Oaks Cabin in mid-December 2020. It is a safe respite, in a 50-acre wood, where farmers and first responders can address mental health challenges and emotional fatigue.
“It was after he passed away you realize it’s a very lonely road. There is nothing available,” Bergsma said. “If we can provide a place while people are exhausted or dealing with anxiety or high levels of stress in a quiet setting where they feel heard, and their struggles are recognized, hopefully they can find a better place.”
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The cabin is a dual-purpose space offering comfortable accommodations for guests and their families on the main floor and a loft to accommodate mental health workshops on PTSD, stress, loss and anxiety. That area can hold about 20 people.
The charity partnered with National Farmers Mental Health Alliance to design a self-directed program and provide access to one-on-one care with therapists familiar with agriculture.
Donations from the community allowed the charity to retain enough funds to provide guests with immediate cost-free therapy and services.
Fundraising will be necessary if Three Oaks Cabin is to continue cost-free assistance and its two events this summer: Hard Miles, a five-kilometre run and walk in Mitchell’s Bay on June 17, and the inaugural Shifting Gears tractor parade in Florence on Aug. 12. More information is available at threeoakscabin.com.
Bergsma said Dalles embraced community spirit and always volunteered to help anyone in need. He was a Dawn-Euphemia Fire Department volunteer firefighter, like his brother Levi.
“Dalles was the kind of guy who just wanted to give wherever he could and whenever he could,” Bergsma said. “He was very community-minded, very relationship-minded. He was the go-to guy in our family and the community.”
Bergsma recalled that a fellow firefighter who had suffered a family loss was seen in his field by Dalles, who was barrelling down the road in his black Dodge Ram. In a cloud of dust, Dalles stopped his truck and, with his earth-eating stride, galloped out to hug the man and check in.
Bergsma said her son always made time, even on the busiest days, to go the extra mile for a person or animal needing extra care.
Since sharing the family’s experience and speaking about Three Oaks Cabin, Bergsma is often approached by people who share their own stories. She said she feels privileged to be considered a safe and trusted person for those discussions.
“Safety is fragile, or our sense of safety is fragile, and that will be one of Three Oaks Cabin’s top priorities, to keep that safe and that people’s stories and emotions are respected,” she said.
“We’re not walking in their shoes. I’ll never pretend I can help people, but I can be there for them in a compassionate way.”