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Saturday, June 22, 2024

Wisconsin has lost nearly two dairy farms per day the past two years to worsening economic conditions, and small farmers have felt the stress — and a need for better mental health services. 

Organizations across Wisconsin look to address rising suicide rate among dairy farmers

With an escalating number of farmers committing suicide in Wisconsin, outreach programs with educational seminars and community social circles have worked to curb the crisis.

Wisconsin leads the nation in farm bankruptcies as farmers are facing some of the worst economic times since the 1980s Farm Crisis.

Reasons behind this economic decline include supply surpassing demand due to scientific advancements, uncommonly long low price cycles, monopolization of factory farms pushing out generationally owned operations, as well harmful trade and tariff policies implemented by the Trump administration. 

Those conditions have led to a 40 percent decrease in dairy farms in the past 16 years — a rate of almost two farms a day since 2018 — and usually affected smaller, family-owned operations which were passed down for generations.

That loss can feel like a failure, and the sense of desperation shared by many farmers created an exponential increase in requests for mental health service vouches in those communities.

“We definitely have seen an increase in folks who are closer to being that desperate. There’s a major increase in their stress level,” Angie Sullivan said, a subdivision supervisor for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture. 

Many authorities cite the discreet, proud and stoic nature shared by farmers as partly responsible for the stigma associated with seeking mental health services. 

Now, the farming industry has the leading occupational suicide rate — double the rate of veterans and five times that of the general public. 

“In my 16 years, it’s never been this bad,” Wally Orzechowski said, executive director of the suicide prevention project at the Southwestern Wisconsin Community Action Program. 

The SWCAP is a non-profit service which advocates for low-income people and provides anti-poverty programs for five counties in Wisconsin. With the rise of suicide rates, the program is working to end the culture of self-reliance and the shortage of mental health resources in rural areas. 

While organizations have been making an impact, some farmers have taken a grassroot approach. 

The Farmer Angel Network — created by a group of farmers affected by suicide — works to connect and foster a community support system for farmers across Wisconsin. 

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During last night’s State of the State address, Gov. Tony Evers announced a plan to help the agricultural industry, especially the small farmers who have been affected the most. Included in his agenda is the need to expand state services to farmers including accessing mental health.

But until then, farmers believe they need the support provided by the other programs to lean on during this trying time.

“Farmers need to talk to farmers,” Randy Roecker said.

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts please call the 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or chat online with counselors here.

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Kylie Ver Kuilen

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