Dairy Farmers Struggle With Economic, Health Challenges

By Brian Baker
Medill Reports

Andrews University opened its dairy farm in 1907. For more than a century, the private college in southwest Michigan used the farm for educational purposes and relied on it for financial income. But after three consecutive years of losses, the university’s board voted in early June to close its dairy operations next summer.

“After three bad years you lose heart and say, ‘let’s face reality,’” said Larry Schalk, the university’s vice president for financial administration.

The dairy farm had typically generated about $100,000 in annual profits for the school’s budget, but over the last three years had losses between $750,000 and $900,000 due to low milk prices and rising production costs, Schalk said. The finance committee had been urging the board to close the dairy operations for the past year.

Dairy farmers across the country are facing similar situations as a downturn in milk prices hits its fourth year, leaving most farmers unable to breakeven. The financial difficulties can leave farmers feeling depressed and hopeless, a dangerous combination for an industry with the highest suicide rate in the country, according to a 2016 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The rate of suicide for people in the farming, fishing and forestry occupations was 85 individuals per 100,000 people, according to the study.

Barb Smith, executive director of the Suicide Response and Resource Network, a Michigan-based organization that works to prevent suicides, said a farmer once told her that CEOs of major companies have other executives and a board of directors to help with decision making, but farmers just have themselves.

“They are totally responsible for their families and their livelihood,” Smith said. “When you have such a drop in incomes and there’s no way out, that’s a very hopeless feeling.”

Although Smith said about 20 percent of farmers suffer from depression, she said the actual number is likely higher. Farmers are mostly men and they are often uncomfortable asking for help or talking about their emotions, she said.

Dairy farmers are facing one of the most difficult environments they have ever seen driven by low milk prices and declining consumption as consumers opt for beverages like juice or water. The number of Grade A dairy farms, which produce milk for beverage consumption, dropped below 600 in Illinois for the first time ever recently, according to data provided by the Illinois Milk Producers’ Association, an advocacy group for dairy farmers.

“Milk has a lot of competition it didn’t have even 15 years ago,” said Tasha Bunting, manager of IMPA. “There are just a lot of alternatives out there.”

The economic situation is forcing some farmers to exit the business altogether, which can be emotionally taxing, Smith said. Farming is such an integral part of a person’s identity that its removal can leave farmers feeling worse off.

“If they have to walk away from it, it’s actually a greater loss to them,” Smith said. “It’s all they ever knew, it’s all they ever wanted.”

Michael Rosmann, an Iowa-based psychologist that studies the behavioral health of farmers, argues this feeling is due to the “agrarian imperative,” a biological need to acquire territory that produces resources. This need helps explain why farmers are especially vulnerable to suicide when things don’t work out, Rosmann said. Farmers can feel like they didn’t do enough to maintain the land for the next generation, he said.

“That is a great sense of failure and loss,” Rosmann said.

Michigan State University Extension has hosted workshops and webinars to help farmers manage stress, said Suzanne Pish, an educator with the program. The initiative began a few years ago after it became aware of a rise in farmer suicides, especially among dairy farmers. Teaching farming communities how to recognize signs of depression is critical because many farmers are in rural areas and don’t have the time it takes to see a doctor, Pish said.

Brian Frederick farms in Hemlock, Michigan, a rural community west of Saginaw, where he first took over his family’s dairy farm as a junior in high school and milked cows nearly every day for more than 30 years. He sold his dairy herd in 2003 after tiring of the onerous workload and now farms mostly cash crops like corn, soybeans and wheat.

“There’s no holidays milking cows,” Frederick said. “I was out there at 5:30 in the morning until nine o’clock at night every day of the week, every day of the year.”

Brian and his wife, Joann Frederick, began raising awareness for suicide prevention among farmers after hearing Smith talk at an event following a suicide in their community. Joann said she was surprised by the high suicide rate among farmers, but Brian said the pressure of being the family’s sole income provider while relying on things outside someone’s control like the weather, can take a toll.

The Fredericks have witnessed the devastating effects of suicide firsthand. A couple years ago, a neighbor farmer in his mid-30s that Brian had known his whole life committed suicide. Joann’s brother, though not a farmer, also took his own life.

The couple has gone through safeTALK trainings that teach participants how to recognize signs of depression and potential suicides. Joann said the training helped give her the confidence to reach out to people and check in on them, but many farmers still hesitate to ask for help.

“We’ve got to break that stigma that we don’t talk about it, because we should talk about it,” Brian said.

Some of the same qualities that make for successful farming can also make farmers unwilling to ask for help when they need it, Rosmann said. Many farmers have the capacity to endure extreme adversity and a strong desire to work alone, which can get them into trouble when they face health challenges, he said.

Trainings like safeTALK can help those closest to farmers recognize when something is off in their behavior and then help them seek professional care if necessary, Joann said. Farmers don’t always say it in a direct way, but learning to recognize when they’re having a difficult time is critical so they can get help, she said.

“Sometimes people just need somebody to listen,” she said.

Photo at top: A farm in Central Illinois (Sarah Foster/MEDILL)