Former Alberta hog producer and now Lutheran pastor struggled for years with an unwillingness to let go of the farm
SHERWOOD PARK, Alta. — It took Colin Millang 27 years to earn his master’s of divinity from Lutheran Theological Seminary to become a pastor.
Along the way, he farmed, lost his farm, recognized his depression, beat his depression and finally embraced his new life as a pastor.
“There is life after the farm and it is a good one,” Millang said at his Mount Olivet Lutheran Church office in Sherwood Park, adjacent to Edmonton.
Millang can now look back and see how his poor state of mental health directed his poor decision to keep farming well beyond the time it was financially or mentally feasible.
Driving all his decisions was the singular goal of keeping the farm despite collapsing hog prices, growing debt and escalating financial stress.
“In hindsight, I wasn’t willing to let go of the farm. My whole identity was wrapped up in being a farmer and to keep the farm going. I wanted to pass it on to my children. I wanted to give my children what my parents gave me.”
Farming wasn’t always a struggle. In 1993, he turned down a $500,000 offer on the farm he took over from his family. He had no debt, but his goal was to keep the farm for his children.
In 1994, he graduated from Augustana Lutheran College with a degree in sociology and a plan to move with his family to Saskatoon to take his master’s to become a pastor.
But Millang couldn’t give up being a farmer.
“Underneath it all, I am trying to keep the farm going because my worth and my value was tied into being a farmer.”
Instead, for six years Millang drove to Newman Theological College in Edmonton, the Roman Catholic theological college, to take courses that could be interchanged with the Lutheran ministerial course, while he continued to farm.
In 1998, hog prices collapsed and Millang lost $100,000 in one year, a loss from which he never recovered. With hundreds of Alberta hog producers in financial trouble, the Alberta government offered hog producers a $100,000 loan to keep going.
“I took it, but the writing is on the wall and I am not wanting to see it.”
For Millang, it was the start of a downward mental and financial struggle. As it became harder to make a living as a hog farmer, his stress and anxiety level increased and his health deteriorated. The decisions were not made with a clear mind.
“The accountant is asking why I am selling off land to keep this farm going. But I am determined because I can’t imagine myself not being a farmer. I wasn’t going to give up the tradition of being a farmer.”
Farm debt mediation advisers helped Millang juggle his bills to allow him to hang on.
“The government was helping to keep us going. I should have been advised to say, ‘I am done. Let’s do an orderly liquidation’.”
In 2000, Millang received the Alberta SPCA Farmer of the Year award for his work converting his sow barn from stalls to free run. He removed the farrowing crates in his barn and switched the hogs to a vegetarian and drug-free diet. He said receiving the award was one of the worst things that could have happened.
“Now I can’t quit. You can’t get an award like that and quit.”
Determined to keep working toward his master’s and continue farming, he started to commute to Saskatoon from Camrose one day a week. He would leave the farm early in the morning, take the courses and leave Saskatoon at 10 p.m. after his second course and make the five-hour drive back to Camrose.
“Do you know how stupid that is?”
Slowly, Millang said he began to retreat.
With creditors calling, the never-ending pressure to feed animals, his growing anxiety and depression, he quit returning phone calls and dealing with his increasing troubles.
On the first week in March 2005, the bailiff showed up and hauled away all his pigs and equipment. In the following weeks others foreclosed on his land and equipment and shortly after his natural gas was cut off.
“What I realize now is, if you don’t make decisions someone else will and it is not to your benefit. If you wait for someone to make the decisions it will not be in your best interest. I wasn’t making decisions, I wasn’t communicating clear enough with my creditors. I had made the decision to do an orderly liquidation but I didn’t communicate that with a plan and one of them got jumpy.”
His job as a part-time pastor ended because he couldn’t function and his marriage of 20 years also came to an end.
“I couldn’t function. I was just absolutely collapsing under the weight of all this. I lost everything.”
Looking back with the clarity of hindsight, Millang said he didn’t get depressed because he lost everything; he lost everything because he was depressed.
“I had been depressed for decades. That is why the farm collapsed. I had been struggling with depression and anxiety. I am a male. I am not going to go for help. Why do we farmers love to farm? Because of our dogged individualists: suck it up, pull up the bootstraps. You are not socialized to connect with your feelings. You just work,” he said.
“I had been struggling with mental illness for years and years. Part of the depression was the writing was on the wall and I couldn’t see it. I sit back now and I think, why didn’t I see the writing on the wall?
“You make bad choices and you bring up the stress. It becomes a vicious circle downward and it all collapsed.”
Eventually Millang paid off his secured creditors and began work in a truck parts yard. He stayed for seven years to heal and to deal with the end of his farming career and the loss of his farm.
“It took seven years to get my brain working again and until I felt I was on solid footing. It was a humiliating way for the farm to come to an end.”
Despite the collapse of his farm and the time that had passed, Millang still wanted to be a Lutheran pastor. He approached his local bishop, who placed Millang in the central Alberta community of Hanna as a licensed layperson. Both Millang and the congregation agreed Millang would work toward finishing his degree.
For three years he worked part-time and took classes at the seminary in Saskatoon. In July 2017, he received his master’s of divinity, 27 years after he started university.
Millang believes his struggles — his life as a farmer, his battle with mental illness and his bankruptcy — have made him a compassionate and understanding pastor.
“I am an exceptionally good pastor because of what I have gone through. I can communicate with people. I know what they’ve been through and I won’t judge them. I understand rural and I understand what it means to be a farmer.”
It’s been 16 years since Millang lost his farm. He still thinks about it, but with a clear head can now see how depression and anxiety hampered his ability to make smart decisions.
“When a person has good mental health they can adapt to change.”
Recently, Millang moved from his parish in Hanna to one in Sherwood Park. He doesn’t have farmers in his parish, but he does have parishioners who also have struggled.
“I can relate to city folks. I know enough of this human journey.”
When COVID-19 closed businesses, including churches, Millang said the black dogs of depression started to grip him again. But this time he sought help through a therapist.
“I knew what depression cost me and I didn’t want it to happen again,” he said.
“I am now making good decisions with my life and I can do hard stuff.”