Farmer Angel Network highlights farmer mental health efforts at roundtable

Jan Shepel
Governor Tony Evers, center, met with the Sauk County group called Farmers Angel Network, created by local farmers in reaction to farmer suicides. They work toward programs that will help farmers through a crisis.

REEDSBURG, Wis. ‒ In the beautiful rolling hills and valleys of western Sauk County, it would be easy to think that everything is lovely. But the picturesque scenery can hide the fact that farmers are struggling – and some of them even become so desperate that they take their own lives.

Brenda Statz, who farms with her sons, is someone who knows all too well the mental and emotional toll that can befall a farmer. Her husband Leon took his own life after they sold their dairy herd five years ago – he was just 58. “He felt like he was a failure ‒ that he had given up. When we quit dairy farming he looked at is as a personal loss. He was a dairy farmer; that was his identity and then he didn’t know who he was anymore,” she told the Wisconsin State Farmer.

In the wake of her husband’s death, Brenda and a group of friends gathered at a Loganville church to talk about how they could address farmer mental health and prevent more suicides. That gathering included Dorothy Harms and her husband Don, who were also transitioning out of dairy farming to beef – and into a farmstead bed and breakfast. Dorothy was concerned about her husband’s perspective on the changes in the life of their farm, which they call Valley Springs Farm.

MORE: Gov. Evers - Mental health in Wisconsin, a quiet, burgeoning crisis

The concerned group that gathered in the church basement eventually became the Farmer Angel Network, a suicide prevention effort that emphasizes education, resources, outreach and fellowship.

“More has to be done, not only for the person who’s going through the trauma,” Brenda said, “but also for the family. If a farmer has to be hospitalized for mental health, he may feel guilt; that he’s letting the family down and that everyone else in the family has to do his work and pick up the slack.”

Gov. Tony Evers visited the Harms' farm and talked with members of the Farmer Angel Network last week to highlight efforts to improve mental health and prevent suicides. He was joined by Secretary Randy Romanski of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection and his staff members who deal directly with farmers in crisis.

Sitting in a circle at the Harms farm, with local farmers, Farmer Angel Network members and farm group leaders, the Governor said that he is placing special emphasis on mental health, adding that farmers should not be left out of that. “I declared this the year of mental health and I meant it,” he told the group. “If we don’t talk about it we don’t make any progress.”

Governor Tony Evers, center, talked about farmer mental health at the rural Reedsburg farm of Don and Dorothy Harms on May 3. The Governor is making mental health a focus for this year and farmers are an important part of that.

Evers said he was astounded when he learned that from the time someone in America realizes they may need help to the time they actually get that help is 11 years. “I’m a cancer survivor and if I had to wait 11 years for help, I’d be dead,” he said.

With his budget proposals for mental health resources, he hopes to “take it to another level,” Evers said.

Secretary Romanski said the resources at DATCP include the Wisconsin Farmer Wellness Helpline at 888-901-2558 which offers 24/7 help to farmers in crisis. The Farm Center at DATCP – at 800-942-2474 – has been in place for decades and helps farmers find resources for various challenges on their farms.

Romanski said the Farm Center used some money from last year’s budget allocation to create tele-counseling opportunities.

When Evers asked the group how the state could help groups like the Farmer Angel Network, Dorothy Harms said that an important aspect is helping train people who come in contact with those who are in crisis. “It’s not part of their traditional education,” she said. Finding ways for them to bring up the taboo subject of suicide can be a way to help prevent such deaths.

MORE: Farmer aims to dispel stigma surrounding mental health challenges and suicide

Christy Wehler, a farmer who is also a Sauk County health care worker, said there is a crisis with staffing among her co-workers. “Those frontline folks want this kind of training but it’s a challenge.” And it is vitally important – her daughter, who is 19, lost four friends to suicide.

Evers designated money from the federal American Rescue Plan to schools across the state for mental health programs. He had proposed making it permanent with state funding. He visited with students at Delavan/Darien High School who had 40-50 kids in a Mental Health First Aid group. “Without state funding that program probably goes away,” he said.

His budget proposal included $270 million for a “Get Kids Ahead” initiative to bolster school mental health services for kids and a total of $500 million to expand access to mental and behavioral health services for state residents.

“Republicans care about this as much as Democrats. I feel confident we’ll make progress,” he said. However, the day Evers visited the Harms farm, GOP lawmakers who control the Joint Finance Committee, ditched his budget proposal for the “Get Kids Ahead” program. They removed a total of 540 provisions from Evers’ budget proposal with a single budget motion.

More training

Statz told the governor that “the more people we have trained the better it is. When these important things get said, people realize it’s something they need.”

Brenda Statz, a co-founder of the Farmers Angel Network, lost her husband to suicide five years ago. She says he felt like a failure after they sold their cows and quit dairy farming and she and her friends set about finding ways to prevent others from feeling the same way.

Romanski said that one of the things they have found is that they need people all over the state who understand agriculture and rural life who can speak to farmers from that place of knowledge. “At the Farm Center we have lots of people who are well-versed in the concerns of ag, but we are trying to build a network of counselors all over the state who have that kind of knowledge.”

The DATCP Farm Center shows what can be accomplished with a relatively small amount of money allocated from the state, he added. Their $100,000 helps fund a 24/7 helpline and pays for counseling vouchers among other things. “We need for that to continue,” Romanski said.

One thing they hope to do with new state money is to hire two mental health and programming staffers in the northeast and northwest parts of the state. “It’s just a small investment but it’s so important. People might be in need and we don’t even know it,” Romanski said. He hopes that the Farm Center’s value resonates with policy makers – the legislative leaders who are now in the process of hammering out a two-year state budget. “The Farm Center proves every year that it’s a wise investment.”

It’s important to have people who understand farming, said Wehler, because one of the first things an ordinary counselor might tell someone in crisis is that “they need to have more of a work-life balance, but they don’t understand that this just doesn’t work on a farm. Your life is the same as your work.”

Sauk Co. dairy farmer Randy Roecker says financial pressures on the farm triggered a life-changing battle with depression. Roecker now shares his experience with fellow farmers in an effort to educate and encourage others in the same circumstances, and to bring mental health issues out of the shadows.

Randy Roecker, a local dairy farmer who faced his own mental health challenges, said one of the things that keeps people from asking for help is the fact that the first responders may be the police and the first thing that happens is that they get put in the back of a squad car when what they really need is help.

The other deterrent to asking for help is that the first question asked may be “what insurance do you have?” he said. “It also might be six months or more before you get the appointment you need.”

DATCP resources

Karen Endres, the Farmer Wellness Program Coordinator at DATCP is also married to a fourth-generation dairy farmer. She said she has been working to build a network of providers who are ag-specific and connect those counselors to farmers who need them. “It’s such a great feeling when I can tell a farmer that they don’t have to find the counselor themself,” she said.

Dan Bauer, program supervisor for the Wisconsin Farm Center for nearly three years, said all the core services for farmers are at a higher rate than ever before. “We are operating at the highest level I’ve seen in the time I’ve been at the agency.” He said the fact that his people can relate to farmers is so important. “We have to invest in our talent and reward people for staying.”

They are currently getting from four to seven calls per day, fielded by two or three staffers in Madison at DATCP, he said.

Farmers Union President Darin von Ruden told the roundtable that he came of age during the farm crisis of the 1980s and two of his classmates died by suicide in their senior year of high school. “We continue to see more and more stress at the farm level. We need more resources. I get way too many phone calls that worry me about what’s going to happen at the other end of the line after we hang up,” he said.

Kevin Krentz, president of Wisconsin Farm Bureau, said his organization has been connecting and networking with others, including Farmers Union, to give people the message that “you’re not in this boat alone,” he told the roundtable group.

Romanski said it has been fortunate that farm groups have been working with his department on these issues.

Need help?

988 Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential crisis resources for you and loved ones. Call or text.

Wisconsin Farmer Wellness Helpline 24/7: 888-901-2558

Wisconsin Farm Center at DATCP: 800-942-2474

Sauk County Crisis Line: 608-355-4200 (business hours) or 800-533-5692 (after hours)