Many Wisconsin milk producers are overwhelmed, dogged by financial worries, a crushing workload, labor shortages and bad weather
By Jack Kelly, Wisconsin Watch
It was Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2016. David Fischer had just arrived for work at his dairy farm in Rio, Wisconsin. A slight breeze punctuated the freezing, grey morning.
His drive to work is just 2 minutes. From where he parked his pickup truck on the farm’s gravel driveway, he could see his house on the top of a hill. Fischer, who owns the roughly 350-cow dairy farm with his wife, Amy, was ready for another day of work alongside his twin sons, 33-year-old Kevin and Brian, and a handful of other employees.
Like most days, the lifelong dairy farmer had plenty to do. He didn’t expect anything different from his usual 12- or 13-hour work day on his farm about 50 minutes north of Madison.
Fischer set off toward the north end of the dairy farm. He walked past the dozen or- so buildings to chop wood that would heat water in the milking barn and warm Kevin’s house on the property.
Fischer soon realized that Brian hadn’t shown up for work. He couldn’t shake a feeling that something was wrong. Was Brian sick? He would have called or texted. Did he take off unannounced to go snowmobiling? That wasn’t like Brian either. Around midday, while taking a short break for lunch, Fischer and his son Kevin set off to Brian’s house to drop off a feed wagon and check on him. What they found confirmed Fischer’s nagging fears: Brian’s body. He had died by suicide.
Brian’s death blindsided the Fischers. And four years later, they still ask themselves the same question over and over again: “Why?”
“I had someone ask me the other day, ‘Does it get any easier?’ ” Amy said, tears forming in her eyes. “I said, ‘It gets easier to cover it.’ ”
“It don’t go away,” Fischer said about the heartache he feels. “He should be here.” Financial pressures, long hours, labor shortages, harsh weather — these are all conditions that farmers and their advocates say are escalating stress and depression among Wisconsin’s dairy farmers. And nationally, people who run farms are much more likely to take their own lives than in many other professions.
In response, the state of Wisconsin and farmers themselves have launched a series of programs to help them cope.
Stress, alcohol, overwork piled up
The events leading to Brian’s death were complicated. The Fischers said Brian had a drinking problem and had just gone through a bitter breakup that ended a decade-long relationship.
The family had also invested heavily in expanding the farm, aiming to make it financially viable for the two brothers in the future. As Fischer describes it: “You have to grow. If you don’t grow, you’re getting behind,” echoing a common expression among dairy farmers in recent years.
With the expansion in mind, Amy said Brian was giving farming “100%.” Said Amy: “He (Brian) could be in the tractor for 60 hours straight.” The stress from work, the drinking problem and serious relationship woes frustrated Brian, the couple said. Brian had a “short fuse” before his death, Fischer said, but the couple never imagined he would take his own life.
“Nobody saw it,” the couple agreed. “Nobody saw it.”
Survey: 1 in 10 farmers struggling
Conversations with 10 current and former family dairy farmers in Wisconsin revealed that work days, which often start before the sun rises and end well after it sets, are jam packed with stressors that make coping difficult. Stress “absolutely” winds into every aspect of life on a dairy farm, said Linda Ceylor, a 66-year-old organic dairy farmer in Catawba.
The stressors are almost too many to count, ranging from often grueling daily chores to equipment breakdowns, sick animals, uncooperative weather, unreliable staff and, perhaps the heaviest stressor of them all: low and fluctuating milk prices.
Dairy farmers statewide share these concerns, according to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection’s 2020 dairy producer survey.
Among the 2,871 dairy farmers the agency surveyed, extreme weather was the top challenge. Other major concerns were managing day-to-day expenses, regulations, aging facilities, managing long-term debt and difficulty finding labor.
The COVID-19 pandemic has further stressed farmers. A new national survey from the American Farm Bureau Federation found 65% of farmers report the pandemic has impacted their mental health a lot or some.
Daily concerns, coupled with a half-decade of serious financial woes, leave Wisconsin dairy farmers in the middle of a mental health crisis, according to the farmers and dairy experts.
In the DATCP survey, 9% of respondents said they felt a need to access mental health services in the past year due to farming challenges, with 6% of respondents actually seeking out help. That suggests that hundreds, if not thousands, of Wisconsin farmers are feeling the crisis.
Data from the Wisconsin Farm Center — which is a part of DATCP and provides social and business-related resources to farm families — indicates the crisis is worsening. The center runs a 24-hour hotline (888-901-2558) for farmers struggling with suicidal thoughts, depression or anxiety.
Funding for help available
In recent years, Wisconsin state government and private organizations have funneled more money into farmers’ mental health. In his first budget, Gov. Tony Evers included $200,000 for farmer mental health initiatives. The Wisconsin Farm Center used that money to expand its voucher program and develop other initiatives aimed at alleviating farmer stress.
The voucher program covers counseling costs with select providers for dairy farmers seeking mental health care services. Up to three vouchers, good for one hour of counseling each, can be used to purchase services from licensed counselors. Additional vouchers are available upon request. The state has issued more than 1,500 vouchers to Wisconsin farmers since 2005.
The center issued 252 vouchers in 2020. That’s a 38.5% increase compared to 2019 — and a seven-fold increase compared to 2016, when only 31 vouchers were issued.
During the 2020 fiscal year — from July 1, 2019 to June 30, 2020 — the voucher program cost $7,700, according to Farm Center estimates. That number is expected to tick up to $10,200 for 2021.
These figures only represent one, state-funded avenue to counseling sessions. They do not account for counseling that dairy farmers may have sought out and paid for using their private insurance or paid for out of pocket. Oftentimes, at least one member of a farm family works off the farm to bring employer-backed health insurance back to their family.
Other organizations have also started offering Question, Persuade and Refer training. QPR training teaches people to identify the warning signs of suicide and refer someone to help.
The Farmer Angel Network, for example, has partnered with the Sauk County Health Department to train farmers and other dairy industry members how to identify and help people experiencing a mental health crisis.
Suicides up statewide
Wisconsin is seeing more suicides statewide, according to the most recent data from the state Department of Health Services. Between 2010 and 2017, an average of 815 Wisconsinites died by suicide each year, with the numbers trending up since 2015.
In 2016, the year Brian died, 862 people in Wisconsin died by suicide. And while DHS does not track the occupations of people who have died — medical examiners and coroners in Wisconsin are not required to list the occupation of people who die — one dairy farmer interviewed for this story said he “knows many (farmers) who have actually (died by) suicide.”
Suicide deaths are rising nationwide, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2017, nearly 38,000 working age Americans died by suicide, a suicide rate increase of almost 40% compared to the year 2000. The suicide rate among male farmers is 43.2 per 100,000, the data show — 58% higher than the national rate among men of 27.4 per 100,000.
Several dairy farmers interviewed for this story said they are seeing the crisis in their own rural communities. Ceylor said farmers are proud people who often won’t reach out for help, so she watches for subtle behavioral changes in her fellow farmers to see when someone is struggling.
She knows of three farmers who halted their operations last year for financial reasons, and all of them struggled for months to adjust to life after farming. Ceylor would sometimes ask them to work on her own farm so they could maintain a “farming connection.”
Randy Roecker, a 56-year-old dairy farmer and mental health advocate, has also encountered numerous Wisconsin farmers struggling with their mental health.
Roecker, who experienced a deep, financially driven depression sparked by the 2008 financial crisis, founded the Farmer Angel Network, a peer-to-peer support group aimed at getting farmers through tough times.
The farmer from Loganville, Wisconsin — located roughly 50 miles northwest of Madison — said “farmers don’t know where to turn” when they’re struggling with their mental health, and the group’s monthly meetings provided a space for people to get together and talk.
“We had farmers that were driving two or three hours to come up (the meetings) because … they’re embarrassed because they don’t want their neighbors to see them,” Roecker said.
But since the COVID-19 pandemic set in, the group, many of them regular attendees, hasn’t met. And online meetings sometimes aren’t feasible because many farmers lack access to adequate internet. For those who do have online access, the Farm Center has launched a new series of virtual counseling sessions starting in February for farmers and farm couples.
Financial hardships fuel crisis
Thirteen of the people interviewed for this story said the financial devastation many farmers have faced in recent years is fueling the mental health crisis.
Small Wisconsin dairy farms face a particularly dire outlook. Since 2004, the state has lost more than half of its registered dairy herds, according to data from DATCP. That’s nearly 9,000 fewer herds, with 15,904 registered herds at the start of 2004 dropping to just 6,949 as of December 2020. For the thousands of small dairy farms that continue to operate, the stressful fight for survival continues.
Financial struggles are “almost always” the underpinnings of mental health struggles for dairy farmers, said Florence Becot, an associate research scientist at the National Farm Medicine Center in Marshfield, Wisconsin.
“I think it’s hard to now talk about farm stress and depression without talking about the economy,” Becot said. “When you talk about (farm) stress and depression, so much of it … is connected to the way that farming is structured. You might not be losing money, but you might be afraid of losing money.”
Jayne Krull, director of the Wisconsin Farm Center, pointed to the volatility of milk prices — and the short- and long-term uncertainty rooted in that volatility — as a weight carried by the state’s dairy farmers.
“It’s really hard to make a plan for your farm when you don’t know what you’re going to be getting paid,” Krull said. “Add to that you’ve got the high feed prices, and it’s hard to make ends meet.”
The last five years have crushed family dairy farmers in America’s Dairyland. The price for milk, a commodity, has varied widely on a month-to-month or even day-to- day basis, leaving dairy farmers financially unstable. In 2020 alone the average price farmers in Wisconsin received per 100 pounds of milk varied from a low of $13.60 in May to a high of $22.30 in July, U.S. Department of Agriculture data show.
The drop in prices paves a difficult path forward for small family dairy farms, and former dairy farmers said. As Roecker describes it: “Our investment keeps going up and up and up, and our return goes down and down and down, and there’s just no profit in it.”
Hard work but little gain
Mark Stephenson, director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Dairy Profitability, attributes milk’s wavering price to the fact that it is bought and sold as a commodity. Stephenson said the dairy industry today consists of 30,000 individual dairy farmers, and when the price farmers are getting for milk is high, they often respond by producing more milk.
Accordingly, Stephenson said, when they all produce more milk, they can overshoot the actual demand for their product, causing the price of milk to drop dramatically. Unlike other products, the milk has a short shelf-life and can’t be stored for long periods of the time when there is a surplus, forcing farmers to take whatever price they can get for it before it goes bad, Stephenson said.
Fischer died by suicide at the age of 33 on Dec. 21, 2016. Nationwide, farmers face a higher rate of suicide than the national average and above many other professions. Like many of his peers, Jerry Volenec, a dairy farmer in Grant County, has seen the financial burden of dairy farming only worsen throughout his career.
After he finished college, Volenec started dairy farming full time, initially milking 70 cows. He grew his herd over time, following — but not enjoying — the mantra of “get bigger to survive,” and today milks 300 cows three times per day.
Even still, he’s struggling to get by. Volenec said he has never been “terribly comfortable” financially and only breaks even through “great personal sacrifice.”
“Right now I’m running with the fewest number of people that I’ve ever run, and I’m running the most land and the most cattle that I’ve ever run,” he continued. “Do the math on that.”
As Volenec has scaled up his operation, something that was supposed to lead to greater financial stability, he’s pinching pennies and taking on more of the day-today work — and stress — himself. He said the increased workload has harmed his family life and his marriage, but he’s not sure what else he can do.
“The happiness and joy has been sucked out of me,” Volenec said. “I don’t want to be this guy.”
Reporting for this story was supported by funding from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. The nonprofit Wisconsin Watch (wisconsinwatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.