Ag suicide on rise; bill could save lives

The lives of your friends and neighbors may be at risk.

Chuck Jolley 1, Contributor

May 22, 2018

5 Min Read
Ag suicide on rise; bill could save lives

This is the second in a series on ag suicide. To better understand the crisis, read my interview with Dr. Mike Rosmann, first. It was published last month by Feedstuffs and you can find it here:

Last year, Jeremy Wolf decided to get out of farming. He set the end of this year as his target date. I learned about him when he posted his heartfelt thoughts on YouTube.

"Sometimes the numbers just don't work," he said. Oddly, he was immediately attacked by a few other farmers who accused him of mismanagement and publicity seeking. Those are harsh judgments from his peers who also weathered five straight years of falling farm prices, which hopefully have bottomed out at half what they were in 2012.

He urged his fellow farmers to do the numbers, recognize them for what they are and just "pull the plug" and walk away when those numbers don't work.

To clarify, he meant pull the plug on their business, not their life. If you're tough enough to be a farmer, you should be tough enough to handle the loss of your farm and become successful in another pursuit. After all, you've proven you have the work ethic and dedication to the job. So just walk away and get on with it.

Easy to write? Yes. Hard to do? Absolutely. Losing your life's passion can be devastating, all too often a fatal blow for a staggering number of people in agriculture. The ties to the land, especially when you're the third or fourth or fifth generation to work it, are not easily broken. The sense of failing after several generations of your family had worked so hard to pass their heritage on to you can knock down the strongest person.

Let's get real about those numbers: You can work non-stop all year long, institute strict controls over your costs and save all you can on your day-to-day living expenses but you're selling a commodity and you have no control over the price someone is willing to pay for a bushel of corn or your livestock. Those dollars can fluctuate wildly at the whim of governments, and the ephemeral demands of the public.

The best a farmer can hope for is that when harvest time comes, the price someone is willing to pay for what he's brought forth with a year's worth of sweat is just a little bit more than his cost of producing it.

If he takes a loss at the end of the year, it hurts. If he's faced with losses that stretch for several years, the personal and financial pain begins to compound. The statistics show that the pain can become unbearable and the solution chosen by too many is suicide. It has become epidemic in agriculture -- the reported numbers are the highest of any job classification. The unreportable numbers -- that unexplainable farming accident, for instance -- make it even worse.

Reaching across party lines, two Senators, Tammy Baldwin (D., Wis.) and Joni Ernst (R., Iowa), have introduced legislation to improve needed mental health services for farmers. Senators Michael Bennet (D., Colo.), Cory Gardner (R., Colo.), Heidi Heitkamp (D., N.D.) and Jerry Moran (R., Kan.) are co-sponsors.

The FARMERS FIRST Act would provide $50 million in funding through USDA to establish mental health support and resources such as helplines, suicide prevention training for farm advocates and support groups, and reestablish the Farm & Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN).

This is Baldwin's second effort. She was part of a large group of senators who introduced a similar bill three years ago.

“Farmers are the backbone of our rural economy and leaders in our rural communities,” she said about her new effort. “The FARMERS FIRST Act will make sure that when there is a crisis on the farm, farmers know they are not alone and there are resources available to help them find a path through tough times.”

Ernst said, “The incredibly high rate of suicide within the agricultural community underscores the urgent need to act to address this crisis. We must do more to ensure those who work tirelessly from sunrise to sundown to feed and fuel our world have access to the mental health resources and supports they need." 

About Baldwin's failed first effort; appropriating money for programs like FRSAN might still be just political chin music. Its predecessor was the brainchild of Dr. Mike Rosmann who developed it during the farm crisis of the mid 1980s. It became the model for FRSAN and the program was approved as part of the 2008 U.S. Farm Bill, but it was not funded.

Sympathetic legislators tried to earmark money for FRSAN but they were voted down. Rosmann claims that key members of the House and Senate -– most of them Republicans –- were disingenuous. "They promised support to my face and to others who approached them but when it came time to vote, they did not support appropriating money."

Rosmann said they claimed it was an unnecessary expenditure that would increase the national debt, while saying healthy farmers are the most important asset to agricultural production.

The new Baldwin/Ernst bill has been endorsed by major ag industry associations like the Wisconsin Farmers Union, National Milk Producers Federation, National Corn Growers Assn., National Farmers Union, National Family Farm Coalition, National Farm Medicine Center, Farm Aid, Female Farmer Project, National Rural Health Assn., American Soybean Assn., National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, Rural and Agricultural Council of America, and U.S. Cattlemen’s Assn.

With that kind of backing, the chances of the bill being passed and funded look promising. To be sure, though, the ag community should identify those senators and representative, regardless of party, who might talk a good game but not deliver and bring extreme political pressure to insure they follow up on their promises. The lives of your friends and neighbors might depend on it. 

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