Bringing farmers' mental health struggles out of the shadows

Jan Shepel
Dairy farmer Randy Roecker has battled chronic depression brought on by the stresses of farming.

ARLINGTON –  At times farmer Randy Roecker's depression was so overwhelming he would drive out to the back forty, sit in his truck and just cry.

The depression he felt in 2008 over the financial situation on the family farm nearly cost him his life. 

“We never knew what depression was until then. We were losing all this money. It was devastating,” the Sauk County farmer recalls.

Mental health is a subject not many farmers will broach. They are an independent and stoic bunch – not wanting to complain or share their feelings too much – and are unlikely to ask for help if they feel depressed or anxious. Fortunately there are several programs designed to develop solutions to overcome those challenges.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Deputy Secretary Jewel Bronaugh joined Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin at a roundtable discussion on farmer mental health at the Arlington Agricultural Research Station Friday, May 27, and spoke of various efforts at the federal level aimed at helping farmers, including a $25 million grant program called the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN).

Baldwin said she and Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, introduced a Farmers First Act which was then incorporated into the 2018 Farm Bill. “The input we have gotten is that having a stable amount of funding coming through USDA was really impactful and it is a top priority for the next Farm Bill,” she said. “We hope to authorize a higher level of funding to expand the programs.”

Funding sources for services

Bronaugh said that besides the allocation and grants through the Farm Bill, the agency is utilizing existing resources to help get at these challenges. “We are using resources from Rural Development and other areas. Since telemedicine and distance learning can be part of the solution, broadband expansion will help. Money is available to all 50 states and our goal is to continue this conversation.”

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-WI, left, and U.S. Agriculture Department Deputy Secretary Jewel Bronaugh spoke with farm leaders and reporters on steps being taken to help farmers navigate federal programs dealing with mental health. The leaders want to see an emphasis on mental health services for farmers carried through in the next farm bill.

Baldwin says Farmers First Act authorized $10 million per year, and noted more money was made available via the American Rescue Act.  The Wisconsin senator believes the funding will continue at authorized levels.

“So many factors are beyond farmers’ control – the price of what they have to buy things at and the price they get for what they sell,” Baldwin said. “No one should have to work as hard as dairy farmers work and not make a living. I don’t know of any farmers who aren’t undergoing stress.”

Other issues being addressed on the federal level – tariffs, supply chain issues and things as diverse as lock and dam repairs on the Mississippi River so crop farmers can get their grain into international markets –contribute to farmers’ stress levels, Baldwin said.

“There are so many moving parts and we’re doing what we can to address as many of them as possible,” Baldwin said.

Bronaugh added that solutions to the problems of mental health and substance use disorders have been prioritized by the Biden administration. “The conversation is being elevated to the highest levels,” she said.

No return to normal

Joy Kirkpatrick says in the 30 years she has served in the role of UW-Extension’s Farm Succession and Outreach Specialist, she remembers what the 80s did to farm families, how low milk prices of 2008-09 impacted dairymen and the devastation of crops during the 2012 drought.

Joy Kirkpatrict

“We dealt with them as individual events under the concept that when they were over we’d return to ‘normal’,” she told roundtable attendees. “Since 2016 there have been so many challenges everywhere that we now understand we are not going to return to any sort of normal.”

Identifying stressors

Her current work is part of a grant with the FRSAN, bringing together focus groups and farm families to identify stressors farmers are dealing with and what they feel are barriers to getting help for their mental health.

Farmers in the focus groups say not having time away from the farm is a big stressor along with ongoing financial concerns and stress associated with farm succession decisions.

Kirkpatrick has worked closely with the Farm Center at the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection on which families and farmers should be part of the focus group.

A next step in the project will be to bring together people who work with farmers – veterinarians, technicians, milk haulers – to be trained in identifying farmers that are in crisis.

Unfortunately those agribusiness workers and professionals are just as busy and overworked as the farmers, Kirkpatrick said. “Farmers are independent and stoic and do not like to ask for help. Farmers are not going to say they are suicidal."

Another component of the project is to connect with health care providers to help them understand what farmers deal with in their line of work and in their daily lives.

The $400,000 grant under which Kirkpatrick operates is funded through August 2023.

Subject no one wants to talk about

Roecker says depression is a subject that no farmer or farm family wants to talk about. However, he and his family were forced to deal with it head-on in 2008. “We had borrowed all this money and built a new dairy in 2006 and then 2008 happened. There was the worldwide recession and we went down to $9 milk,” he told Wisconsin State Farmer.

The dairy farm, Roecker's Rolling Acres, is run by Roecker, his daughter and son-in-law, and Rocker's parents. Together they milk 275 cows and run 750 acres.

His parents in their 80s didn’t know how to handle their son’s depression. “Dad said ‘go do your chores’ and I did.

Roecker says he was hospitalized three times for depression. Over a period of about seven years he battled it with therapy and antidepressant medications.

"Pretty soon I had a virtual cocktail of drugs in my medicine cabinet.”

He overdosed a couple of times on those drugs – not entirely wanting to kill himself, but using the “farmer logic” that if a little was good then more would be better. “One thing about a lot of those drugs is that they may treat you for depression but the side effect can be suicidal thoughts. And it’s true. My parents made sure to take all the guns away," Roecker said.

MORE: For dairy farmers struggling to hold on, depression can take hold

Farmer’s low point

“My low point was visualizing my funeral with my family standing by my casket.” That was when he decided to help himself. He took himself off all his meds and threw himself into his farm work with all the willpower he could muster.

Early in his battle with depression, Roecker says he could not even make himself walk or shave or comb his hair.  Looking back at photos from that period Roecker and his parents can see how much he was affected by the depression mirrored in his troubled eyes. 

To this day Roecker still doesn’t know how he beat depression but has managed to climb up out of the hole he had been in. Then, in 2018, a neighboring dairy farmer, Leon Statz, killed himself after a long battle with depression. That took Roecker back to the toughest days of his own depression.

"Suicide doesn't just impact that one person; it impacts the whole family," says Brenda Statz, Sauk County Farm Bureau member who lost her husband Leon in 2018 following his third suicide attempt.

He felt moved to put on meetings for other farmers to talk about depression and mental health with Brenda Statz, Leon’s widow, and others in his area who felt it was important to get farmers to talk about these issues.

That led to the formation of the Farmer Angel Network, which was highlighted at the meeting in Arlington. “We do different things around the county, bringing light to this subject,” he said. “It shouldn’t be hidden. It’s okay to talk about it.”

Seymour area farmer and Wisconsin Farmers Union President Rick Adamski admitted to attendees that he also struggled with depression for many years as he operated a family farm with all the stressors that entails.

Roecker says he didn’t set out to become the poster boy for farmer mental health, but somewhere along his journey decided that if other farmers saw him talking about it, they might feel okay voicing their own struggles with depression.

Need help? 24-hour mental health hotlines are available.

Need help?

Farmers needing help can call DATCP’s Wisconsin Farm Center – programs include financial consulting and transition planning and help is available at 800-942-2474 during normal business hours.

Those who are experiencing anxiety, depression or just need someone to talk to, Wisconsin has established a Farmer Wellness Helpline that is available 24/7 at 888-901-2558.