Homegrown relief: Farming communities tackle rise in suicides

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Cows amble toward a field on a dairy farm in Reedsburg, Wisconsin.
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Millions of dollars in debt, Randy Roecker had slid into a darkness that he was unable to shake. Despite years of careful planning, his family’s dairy farm was hit hard by the 2008 recession. So he struggled alone – until a friend and fellow farmer took his own life in 2018. Mr. Roecker broke down in tears on the Sunday afterward outside his church, explaining to the men gathered there, “You have no idea what it’s like when your world is collapsing.” 

Two years later, the support group started that day operates as the Farmer Angel Network. Along with other advocacy organizations, farm boards, agricultural extension workers, and politicians, they are mobilizing to reverse what has become one of rural America’s more disturbing trends – one, they say, that should be forcing a national reckoning over how this country grows, and values, food.

“We’ve always known that stress, emotional health, behavioral health in agriculture are always connected to bigger financial and legal stressors,” says Farm Aid’s Alicia Harvie. “They have to do with farm strategies that are not centered around the well-being and livelihood of people who grow our food.”

Why We Wrote This

Farm families are upending the go-it-alone traditions of a shrinking occupation – addressing a rise in mental illness by taking care of each other.

One humid afternoon this past July, on the gravel driveway of Lime Ridge Ag Supply in the rolling green heart of America’s dairy land, a small group of masked volunteers delivered sugar cones and goody bags to farmers in big trucks.

The purpose of this “drive-through ice cream social,” according to the promotional flyer, was to celebrate the farmers of Sauk County, Wisconsin – a way to say “thank you” and recognize that “as ‘essential workers’ farmers work hard every day to feed our nation.” 

But the goody bag materials belied an additional purpose, one that the Farmer Angel Network, the grassroots group that organized this get-together, has been promoting to increasing attention over the past two years. Along with the advertisements for seed companies and tractor suppliers, and the $5 off coupon for the Branding Iron Roadhouse and the foam cow stress toy, provided by a local veterinarian, each care package contained information about wellness resources – and pamphlets about how to keep loved ones from killing themselves. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
“We needed to do something. We can’t afford to lose more lives,” says Dorothy Harms (left), a member of the Farmer Angel Network, who is narrating a hayride to raise money for the nonprofit that helps farmers deal with mental health issues.

Why We Wrote This

Farm families are upending the go-it-alone traditions of a shrinking occupation – addressing a rise in mental illness by taking care of each other.

“We needed to do something,” says Dorothy Harms, a Farmer Angel Network volunteer who helped pass out ice cream and who, with her husband, raises beef and dairy cows on the land his family has owned for 140 years. “We can’t afford to lose more lives.”

For the past decade, Ms. Harms and others living in agricultural communities across the United States have watched with alarm as a growing number of their neighbors have killed themselves. Although clear statistics are difficult to find, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says those working in farming are among the most likely to take their own lives, compared with other occupations. Recently The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting confirmed that some 450 farmers killed themselves in nine Midwestern states between 2014 and 2018 – a  number that is likely higher in reality, the group says, because many suicides are classified as farm accidents. 

“Farmer suicide has reached all farming communities and all farming sectors,” says Tracy Brandel, a dairy farmer who also works as a senior agricultural program specialist at the Wisconsin Farm Center, which helps farmers with everything from financial planning to organic certifications to mental health counseling. “You don’t have to go too far to see how it’s affected someone’s life.” 

Now, a growing coalition of grassroots groups such as Ms. Harms’ Farmer Angel Network, along with farm boards, advocacy organizations, agricultural extension workers, and politicians, is mobilizing to offer relief to farmers across the U.S. With everything from local support networks to crisis hotlines, wellness podcasts, and suicide awareness trainings, they hope they can reverse what has become one of rural America’s more disturbing trends – one, they say, that should be forcing a national reckoning over how this country grows, and values, food.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A cornhusk angel stands by the booth of the Farmer Angel Network, a nonprofit that helps prevent farmer suicides, during a festival in Witwen, Wisconsin.

Safe spaces amid stigma

It took Randy Roecker nearly 20 years of planning and saving before he was able to expand his family dairy in the way he had been dreaming about since he was at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  

He was one of a cohort of local farm kids at the big city university, and after he graduated he was eager to bring what he had learned about modernization and economies of scale back to the small family dairy in Loganville, a farm town about an hour away from Madison. He toured larger operations around the state. After some years he hired a business planner. And then, in 2006, he invested $3 million in expanding the operation from 50 or so animals into a 300-cow farm. That same year he was appointed to the National Dairy Promotion & Research Board of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), a position for those considered regional leaders in the industry.

Then the recession hit. His loan got sold to a bigger bank. Milk prices tanked. His farm was losing around $30,000 a month.  And Mr. Roecker slid into a darkness that he was unable to shake. 

“I had borrowed millions of dollars and then I felt the world was crashing down around me because of the worldwide economy,” he says. “I thought I was a failure.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Jeff Ditzenberger climbs out of a tractor on his farm where he grows corn and beans in Argyl, Wisconsin.

For years, he tried to keep it to himself. Farmers, he knew, were a hardy and stoic bunch. His neighbors wouldn’t have much time for feelings, he thought – a sentiment shared by many of his colleagues, according to a recent American Farm Bureau Federation study, which found that nearly 60% of farmers say their friends and neighbors attach a great deal of stigma to mental health issues.

And so Mr. Roecker struggled alone.  

Then, in October 2018, a friend and fellow dairy farmer took his own life, not far from Mr. Roecker’s farm. The following Sunday, a group of men was talking about it outside St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, a place where, back in the day, the sermons and social events had revolved around agriculture. That was before the dairy farms began closing in record numbers in this state, nearly two a day in 2019, according to the USDA.  

Mr. Roecker remembers walking up to the group and breaking down in tears.

“You just don’t understand,” he recalls saying to them. “You have no idea what it’s like when your world is collapsing.”

He started sharing his financial stress, the feelings of depression, and how he had thought many times about killing himself. The men listened, and as they talked Mr. Roecker had an idea. He contacted the head of his men’s group at church and asked whether he might hold an informal gathering for farmers and neighbors to discuss their struggles.  

He advertised the meeting in church bulletins around the county. Volunteers arranged for sandwiches and set up folding chairs. Mr. Roecker wasn’t sure if anyone would come. But some 40 people showed up for the first meeting, along with a local news reporter. Soon, people were driving several hours to join the group, looking for a safe space away from their own communities to find hope and healing. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A license plate on a truck in Wisconsin marks it as a farm vehicle.

“We sat around the tables; we introduced ourselves,” he recalls. “We wanted to share stories. There were a lot of tears shed.”

He decided with some of his neighbors that they should formalize the group, which they eventually called the Farmer Angel Network. Soon other churches in the region began holding similar get-togethers, and farmers began forming similar collaborations.  

Regional, and then national newspapers, started writing about the meetings, and Mr. Roecker got calls from television networks and magazines. Organizers of Willie Nelson’s Farm Aid benefit concert asked him to attend as a special guest – and he found himself sitting next to musician Dave Matthews and other performers on the main stage. 

“It was bizarre,” he says. “When I started on this, I had no idea this was going to happen. I just thought it would be a source of comfort for our area. I thought it would be a source of comfort that we could talk this out at church. ... Now we realize there is such a need, across the whole country.”

New pressures of farming, on top of the old  

Farming, of course, has never been an easy profession. It is physically demanding, often solitary, and dependent on the mercurial weather – all without the backstop of a guaranteed salary, health insurance, or other sorts of financial security.  

It is also, say those in the industry, more than a job. For many, farming is a way of life – an identity and an inheritance. According to 2017 census data, more than three-quarters of farms are generational – meaning that the vast majority of farmers are the children and grandchildren of farmers.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Corn is harvested on a farm in Sauk County, Wisconsin, in late September.

“There’s a unique subculture in farming,” says Eric Karbowski, a community behavioral health educator with Michigan State University Extension who focuses on farm stress. “It’s an incredibly proud subculture.”

Which means that when things start to go badly, the emotional impact can be huge.  

And over the past few years, the normal pressures of agricultural life have been compounded by a combination of structural financial strains, climate change-related disruptions, and commodity pricing fluctuations. Using USDA data, Farm Aid estimates that farmers saw a nearly 50% drop in net income between 2013 and 2018.

By 2019, money made from farming made up only a small percentage of household income for those who own what the USDA classifies as small farms, those operations that have less than $350,000 in gross revenue. Instead, these households depend on nonfarm earnings, along with government payments.

That’s telling, say advocates, because these small farms make up approximately 90% of the country’s farms overall.  

Meanwhile, a small number of large-scale agricultural operations took an ever-bigger cut of the country’s farm income.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Hay bales are painted with “God Bless America” at a dairy farm in Reedsburg, Wisconsin.

Can't just stop milking a cow

Dairy farmers, such as Mr. Roecker, face particular financial hardship. The vast majority of milk in the U.S. is sold as a commodity through cooperatives or directly to processors, and its price is determined by a combination of federal regulations, market forces, and regional agreements. Often farmers do not know what they will be paid until weeks after the milk leaves their farm.

Recently, dairy farmers have been getting paychecks that offer less than the $20 per 100 pounds of milk that it takes to break even. But unlike other commodity producers, who might decide to leave a field fallow for a season, it’s hard for dairy farmers to lower production. They can’t just stop milking a cow, and they have to feed all of their animals.

(This is why earlier this year, when the COVID-19 pandemic shifted the milk market to at-home buyers rather than institutional purchasers, many dairy farmers who had contracted with schools and restaurants had to dump their milk. There was no way for them to stop producing it, and no safe way to store it.)

“Because our farmers are always living on the edge of poverty, as soon as the price goes up they need to get more cows and more milk to get themselves out of debt, and everyone does that at the same time,” says Sarah Gardner, associate director of the Center for Environmental Studies at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, who made a documentary about New England’s declining dairy industry. “But then it produces a glut and the price goes down. ... There’s constant volatility.”

In early 2018, Agri-Mark, one of the largest dairy co-ops in the Northeast, mailed a suicide prevention pamphlet to its farmers along with their milk checks.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A flag stands prominently on a farm in southern Wisconsin.

“Farmers as a whole – they’re very independent, pull myself up by the bootstraps, put my head down, work harder and we’ll get through this,” says Rick Hummell, spokesperson for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. “Well, that just hasn’t been working anymore. For four or five years, [they’re] not even earning enough money to pay for the work [they’re] doing. And for a lot of them, their father and their grandfather and their great-grandfather were doing it – it’s multigenerational. They don’t want to be the one who lost the farm. Hence the depression and the suicide we’ve been hearing about.”

The number of dairy farms in New England dropped from 20,000 in 1959 to fewer than 2,000 in 2012. Today Massachusetts has only 117 dairy farms remaining, says Dr. Gardner. Across the U.S., according to the USDA, the number of licensed dairy herds dropped from 70,375 in 2003 to 34,187 in 2019.

But increasingly, there are places farmers can turn for help. Mr. Hummell says that growers experiencing excessive stress are calling the Wisconsin Farm Center, which is part of the state’s agriculture department, in greater numbers. The center offers farmers $100 vouchers to pay for counseling. Last year the state government allocated $100,000 for the center to bolster its wellness programming. Advocates say they are also working on forming a network of therapists who are familiar with farming, often people who are farmers or from farm families themselves.

This summer, the Wisconsin Farm Center launched a new podcast focused on farmer wellness, called “Rural Realities.” It also started a 24/7 farmer counseling help line and paid for radio ads intended to reduce the stigma associated with depression. And it created new ways to train people who work with and around farmers – the service providers, the veterinarians, and so on – to help them recognize individuals at risk of taking their own lives.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A road sign cautions about tractor traffic in farm-heavy south-central Wisconsin.

The federal government is getting involved, too. In 2018, Congress earmarked $2 million to the USDA’s Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network, which funds regional collaborations to help those working in farming. This year, it increased funding to $28.7 million over three years.  

In the Northeast, a coalition of agricultural groups, including Farm Aid and the National Young Farmers Coalition, is using that money to build a network of service providers, along with a website that will let farmers easily search for wellness and mental health resources. It will also continue to build out the Farm Aid hotline, which the group started during the farm crisis of the 1980s, amid plummeting commodity and land prices and record farm foreclosures. 

Calls to the hotline have increased dramatically over the past two years, says Alicia Harvie, Farm Aid’s advocacy and farmer services director. There was a 109% spike in calls in 2018 compared with the year before; 2019 was about the same. This year, with the COVID-19 pandemic, calls increased again.

“We should be alarmed that the people who grow our food are struggling to feed their families,” Ms. Harvie says. “That says a lot about what we are or are not prioritizing in our economy and our society. ... It’s literally human life that’s becoming at stake with this system.” 

This is why John Peck, executive director of the Wisconsin-based organization Family Farm Defenders, argues for a different approach to the growing stress he sees among his neighbors. Mental health resources are all well and good. But, he notes, even if you can talk someone off a cliff, “if they’re back looking at the cliff tomorrow, it’s hard to change things.”

The real challenges to farmer wellness, he says, stem from agricultural policies that benefit large farms, opaque pricing systems, and production methods that move control from farmers to agricultural corporations.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Cornhusk angels stand by the Farmer Angel Network booth manned by Brenda Statz (left), whose husband killed himself, and Amanda Coorough at a festival in Witwen, Wisconsin.

Mr. Peck and some others have been pushing for a new system of milk purchasing and pricing, for instance, that would be closer to Canada’s system of supply-side management with quotas. This would allow dairy farmers to have a living wage, he says.

“We have state legislatures that say we need all this money for rural mental health services,” Mr. Peck says. “And farmers are like, ‘It’s the underlying socioeconomic conditions that are causing this.’”  

Caitlin Arnold Stephano, the national chapter manager for the National Young Farmers Coalition, an advocacy group, agrees. “The systemic issues are huge,” she says. “Agriculture today in the U.S. is a product of policy change.”

But those issues are complicated and political – and with government programs such as Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance, groups are supposed to work on services only, not policy.  

“We’ve always known that stress, emotional health, behavioral health in agriculture are always connected to bigger financial and legal stressors,” says Ms. Harvie, of Farm Aid. “They have to do with farm strategies that are not centered around the well-being and livelihood of people who grow our food.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
“I don’t want people to feel like I felt the last day before my suicide attempt," says Jeff Ditzenberger. "We all need to take a step back and remember that everybody is facing a battle, and we just need to be a bit nicer to each other.” Mr. Ditzenberger, here with his dog, Luke, on his farm in Argyle, Wisconsin, is a suicide survivor who started the organization TUGS - Talking, Understanding, Growing, Supporting – to help other farmers.

A message of caring

Jeff Ditzenberger says this is why he always tells his fellow farmers that you can’t control anything but your attitude.

Mr. Ditzenberger farms corn and soybeans an hour outside Madison, and he has sold farm machinery in the region for about 20 years. He was the president of the Green County Farm Bureau for 10 years, and jokes that he and his dog, Luke, also have their own sweet corn business, Luke’s Luscious Corn. 

He is one of the area’s more outspoken survivors of a suicide attempt. Nearly 30 years ago, he brought a suicide note to an abandoned house and set it on fire, planning to go with it. Farming, he said, had just become too much, as were the images he clung to as a military veteran.  

But something kept him from following through. He was convicted of felony arson, and spent nine months in jail.

He began his organization – Talking, Understanding, Growing, Supporting, or TUGS – in 2013 when he saw how many people in his community were struggling. 

“I wanted a chance for people to meet other people that they might relate to,” he says. “You’re sitting there and Joe Smith tells his story and you think, oh my God, that’s what I’ve been through.” 

Mr. Ditzenberger’s approach is straightforward. He believes that listening, engaging, and spreading kindness are key to helping alleviate what he agrees is an epidemic in his region. He tries to convince people to stop and notice their neighbors, to ask what’s going on, to really listen.  

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Cows graze on a farm in Wisconsin framed by russet and golden fields.

He is a proponent of the QPR approach to suicide prevention – an acronym that stands for “question, persuade, and refer.”  But really, he wants people to know that he – and others – care. He has brought this message to growing numbers of training sessions and public talks.

“I don’t want people to feel like I felt the last day before my suicide attempt,” he says. “We all need to take a step back and remember that everybody is facing a battle, and we just need to be a bit nicer to each other.”

This is exactly what Ms. Harms was hoping to do during the Farmer Angel Network’s dairy socials. Yes, the group wants to spread information about crisis hotlines and suicide prevention resources, she says. But as much as that, they wanted to build a sense of community.

“We tried to put a positive spin about bringing farm families together,” she says. “Fellowship in any of these situations is so good. Farmers get together and they start talking and they tell you about the tractor that broke down and the cow that got sick and the hay that got rained on. At the very least, you get talking to the other guys and you think, oh, my life isn’t so bad.”

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