Sunday, April 19, 2015

Experts Concerned About Farmer Suicides

Farmer suicides tend to increase when farm economics falter. The 1970s were a prosperous decade for American farmers: Exports more than doubled and gross farm income rose about 4 percent each year. Riding the wave of financial success, many farmers took out new loans to fund their expanding businesses. But farm prices dropped dramatically in the ’80s. President Carter embargoed grain exports to the Soviet Union in 1980, resulting in surpluses. Drought struck in 1983. By 1984, the country’s agricultural debt topped $216 billion. In just five years, between 1981 and 1986, more than 60,000 farmers were left homeless due to foreclosures.
In turn, many American farmers took the financial hardship out on themselves. Throughout the 1980s, more than 900 farmers died by suicide in the Upper Midwest alone, in states like Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana. The Oklahoma farm Brock visited on that tragic morning was one of hundreds she visited during her decades-long career as a crisis counselor for a Farm Aid-sponsored line. Sometimes she averaged 48 calls a day....
Today, some experts worry the issue of farmer suicide is far from over. "In California and southeastern Colorado, where the drought is still pronounced and other places where there is severe drought, yes, there are parallels," says Robert Fetsch, who counsels farm and ranch families as co-project director of the Colorado AgrAbility Project at Colorado State University. Last year alone, California was predicted to lose more than $800 million in crop revenue and more than $200 million in dairy and livestock — and the state’s megadrought shows no signs of ending anytime soon.
Even within the last 10 years, high-profile farmer suicides have made national news. Take Dean Pierson — a dairy farmer from Copake, New York — who shot his 51 milking cows in their heads one January morning in 2010 before taking his own life with a rifle shot to the chest. Or Jelle Hans Reitsma, a California farmer, who at 37 and millions of dollars in debt for his two dairies, shot himself in a walnut orchard in 2008. A note left for the manager of his local bank branch read, "Welcome to the kill." Theirs are just two of many untold stories.
In New York state, a brutal winter has taken its toll on dairy farmers in particular (about 60 percent of New York’s farms are dairy operations). Edward Staehr, the executive director of NY FarmNet, a crisis hotline center, says call volumes have spiked of late — over 50 a week in some cases. That’s because wind and heavy snow have lead to a lot of structural damage on farms, like roof collapses. At the same time milk prices have nosedived, leading to lower profits. (New York dairymen aren’t alone: In September, I wrote about how California’s dairy industry is also teetering on the edge of collapse). Staehr says his hotline now receives 6,000 calls a year.
We've had seven financially very good years in a row in the Corn Belt, and it looks like things are going to get pretty tough for the next several.  Farms have sold during this boom at record high prices, and I don't think the land market can stay that high with grain prices going down.  I would anticipate that financial stresses will increase mental health issues amongst farmers.  Hopefully, I'll be wrong about these things.

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