Farmers and Suicide: ‘Counselors Say They’ve Heard the Pistol Being Cocked Over the Phone’

At a time many small farms and their owners are struggling with so many problems, new solutions are emerging

Farming is all that Sandy Rivers (not her real name) has ever known. She grew up in northern New York and has spent her entire life living and working on a farm. Times right now are tough — both for her and for many other small farming operations across the country.

Prices are down, stress is high, tariffs are in limbo, and business contracts are down, too.

But it’s always been a challenging profession, Rivers told LifeZette. Even during some of the most economically successful years, she and other farmers “do what they have to do to keep going,” as she put it.

For Rivers, that includes running the farm that she and her husband — who is now gone — built together. Tragically, her husband took his own life in January 2010 on their dairy farm.

“It’s really difficult. We still have some of the bloodline [the dairy herd] that my husband and I started,” she told LifeZette. “We still have milking cows. I still have the barn running, and the fields are being cropped,” she said, adding. “This is all I’ve ever known. But I feel increasingly pushed off the farm” by the stressors mentioned above.

Of her husband, she told LifeZette, “I was very proud of him, despite everything that went down. He took a tough situation, and he battled as long and as hard as he could. He was really brilliant. We all still miss him.”

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Rivers isn’t alone. The uncertainties facing many small family farms are almost tangible across the rural United States.

In the past three years, farm income levels have hit their lowest point since 1985, according to Kansas Wheat, an advocacy group for Kansas wheat farmers. From 2014 to 2015, farm income dropped 95 percent, and farm debt levels have increased by 25 percent. Farmers are spending a tremendous amount of money, with little revenue in return.

Related: Trump Tariffs Could Put Money in the Pockets of American Farmers

Joel Greeno, a farmer in southwest Wisconsin and president of Family Farm Defenders in Wisconsin, says he almost hates to answer the phone these days because the stories he hears from neighbors in dire straits are terrible — and the resources to help them are few.

“I think Farm Aid doubled its amount of emergency funding available for farmers this year already,” he told LifeZette, adding that crisis calls have been off the charts, at levels he hasn’t seen in 30 years of working with the organization. A network of musicians formed Farm Aid back in the ’80s to help protect family farms; the first concert the group held was in Illinois in 1985.

“It’s just tough,” Greeno added. “All these people know is life on the farm, and there are just no options. You offer them what hope and consolation you can — the government is proposing a $12 billion allotment for farm handouts, but dairy alone could absorb all that money without having to split it up among all the other farm sectors.”

His uncle is one of those who could use the help; he’s one of the last in the Greeno family still trying to save his dairy operation.

“He’s in his late 60s, and he’s been on the farm since 1942,” Greeno said. “He is at his wits’ end as to what to do to survive because he can’t pay the day-to-day bills, let alone have something break down or go wrong. It’s a pretty bleak picture out there.”

The United States once had 3.5 million operating dairy farms; today, only about 55,000 remain. Increasingly, farmers are demoralized, said Greeno. Many don’t feel there is any hope.

“I’ve heard counselors say they’ve heard the pistol being cocked over the phone and you know that you only have minutes to respond, and too many times it’s been too late,” said Greeno. “The other thing, too, is a lot of suicides now are being staged as farm accidents. They know it’s easier to get money from an accident than a suicide. So they find a family member tangled in a piece of equipment.”

Ted Matthews, the lone mental health counselor in all of rural Minnesota, has a long history in crisis intervention. And he is seeing the same situation. (Matthews said Minnesota is considering hiring another full-time professional to help that state’s farmers through tough times.)

On any given day, Matthews says he gets 15 to 40 calls from farmers, lenders, farm business management professionals, bankers, and just about anyone else that works in farming. But now he’s trying a novel approach to reach the men of farming: He’s talking to the women of farming.

“Men, in general, when stress gets higher, don’t reach out. They pull back further and further.”

“I’ve been working with women way more than I used to. And one of the reasons I do is when I ask the men, ‘What are the top issues on your farm?’ they never identify communication. For women, it’s at the top of their list,” said Matthews.

He said women’s roles on the farm have changed dramatically in the past 50 years — they’re part of farming and the farm economy like never before. They talk about their issues openly, which helps when they’re in need, according to Matthews. They’re more willing to reach out and ask for help for themselves and their families.

“Men, in general, when stress gets higher, don’t reach out. They pull back further and further. And it’s crucial they talk because if they feel like they’re alone, if they feel isolated and they’re not talking to anybody, things get worse,” said Matthews.

(See the growing role of women in farming in the video below.)

Matthews said the job is not about just diagnosing the person who is struggling with a mental illness, but it’s pulling together a support team for them. That team might include local officials, neighbors, and emergency professionals.

Rivers — the woman who lost her husband to suicide — believes that sort of help might have saved her husband.

She had sought out resources for him for years, she said, but she didn’t feel anything like that was available to the family at the time. She is hopeful the attention farmers and their economic plight are getting now will make a difference for other families like hers in the face of ongoing tough economic times.

She sees a future for the small family farm. “I still think that’s possible. It’s not always easy. No job ever is. But it’s a good life.”

“If people get to know their farmers and support their farmers and buy goods and products from farmers they know, and [goods] they know are U.S. produced, the better off we’re all going to be,” Greeno noted.

Related: ‘Death Tax’ Cut Means Farms Can Stay in the Family, Trump Tells Farmers

“The more they get to those small family farmers, the more they’ll put back into their communities and the more good that dollar does for everybody. I think a long time ago, we forgot the significance of that — and we need to get back to that more than ever,” he continued.

He added, “Groceries don’t just come from Walmart. They’re actually grown and produced by somebody with a lot of blood, sweat and tears. Nowhere in the economy does the dollar turn over more and do more good than in the agricultural sector.”

Carly Wilson is a freelance writer and photographer from South Dakota.

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