Farm leaders call for action as state officials spar over mental health funding
Some Wisconsin farmer leaders say immediate action is needed to help farmers access mental health services, while state officials debate the funding.
State Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Secretary Brad Pfaff and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, exchanged statements last week after the Legislature’s budget committee delayed action on funding for farmer mental health programs.
Some stakeholders, including Jeff Ditzenberger, say helping producers struggling after years of low commodity prices is too important to wait.
Ditzenberger, a Wisconsin farmer who created TUGS, a support group for farmers struggling with mental health, said the state has not acted quickly enough to make sure farmers have access to mental health support. And he said farmers are urgently seeking out help.
"The calls and text messages and voicemails and stuff I get on a daily basis have increased by 75, 80 percent from what I’m used to," Ditzenberger said. "Farmers didn’t want to talk about it themselves before and now they're at that point where they're just like. 'I've got to have an outlet that I can talk to, that can help me deal with this."
Darin Von Ruden, president of the Wisconsin Farmers Union, said farmers have been in a crisis situation for more than 18 months and efforts like the Dairy Task Force 2.0 have done little to address the current problems farmers are facing.
"There's farmers who certainly need this help and for the politics of Madison to stand in the way, it's a little frustrating as an organizational leader," Von Ruden said.
The $200,000 in funding was included in the 2019-21 state budget, but needs additional approval from the Joint Finance Committee.
After the Tuesday committee meeting, Pfaff criticized Republican legislative leaders for the delay, saying DATCP only has funding for five more vouchers for counseling services for farmers.
"If the Joint Finance Committee doesn’t want to move this funding forward immediately, then they have a choice to make: which five farmers will it be?" Pffaf wrote in a statement Tuesday.
Fitzgerald responded with a letter Wednesday to Pfaff, calling the secretary’s remarks "offensive and unproductive."
"If you truly care about farmers’ well-being, I hope that you will strive to work with legislators on addressing mental health in Wisconsin rather than releasing inflammatory statements," Fitzgerald said in the letter.
Fitzgerald said the Legislature is taking action through a Speaker's Task Force on Suicide Prevention and plans for the Senate to take up bills funding mental health programs this fall.
Rep. Joan Ballweg, R-Markesan, chairs the suicide prevention task force and released a statement Friday criticizing Pfaff. She claimed DATCP withheld data on the demand for counseling vouchers and the number of calls received by the agency's Farm Center.
"The fact that the funding is needed, the fact that it's a necessity and there's a sense of urgency out there should be enough," Ditzenberger said. "Waiting until fall and then throwing it under some other programs or legislation or whatever is, in my opinion, is ridiculous."
This story originally appeared on Wisconsin Public Radio website.