In Wisconsin and throughout the Midwest, we celebrate our farmers in ways not every region of the country does. Many of us even go out of our way to purchase meat and produce from farms whose practices align with our morals and values. But no matter how much we try to speak with our wallets or celebrate those who’ve fallen in love with a rigorous and demanding lifestyle, there’s one truth that many of us overlook or just aren’t aware of: the farmers aren’t alright.
A study conducted in 2017 by the University of Iowa found that between 1992 and 2010, farmer suicide rates were over triple that of the general population. Shawn Monson, program coordinator of Farm Well Wisconsin, says, “It’s really hard not to attach your worth to something you give so much of yourself to. That’s one of the toughest things with farming. There’s just a lot of opportunity for things to go wrong, and it seems like they often do.”
It’s not just the weather Shawn’s talking about. Between 2012 and 2020, the value of soybean, corn, milk, meat, and similar commodities dropped by around 50 percent. Fourth-generation farmers are finding that they won’t be able to pass the family farm on to their kids as their parents and grandparents had. There aren’t a lot of professions where you work 280 hours a month only to come out $30,000 behind time and time again.
Growing up on a dairy farm north of Barneveld, Shawn joined Farm Well to address what was going on in our backyards. “Nationally, research has found that rural populations have a significantly higher suicide rate than urban areas, and the suicide rate among farmers is 3.5 times higher than the general population, which is true for Southwest Wisconsin too.
“Farm Well’s mission is to improve the mental health and overall well-being of farmers, farm workers, and their families. We do this by trying to build community capacity and empowerment. We try to shift narratives on outcomes with education and outreach. We also work to improve health equity capacity building for providers. We educate providers that aren’t from rural communities and that are practicing medicine that farmers can’t take a two-week vacation. It’s really difficult to find somebody to cover your farm, go do your chores and everything, so you can take a break.”
The first step is addressing the pervading culture of stoicism surrounding farming compounded by Midwest nice. By stoicism, Shawn is talking about individuals who see it as a virtue to endure adversity without complaint. You don’t talk about the things that are bothering you because they’re your problems, and you have to be the one to fix them. The Midwest nice component comes in when someone asks how your day is, and you instinctively respond “fine,” “okay,” or even “great.” To combat this, Farm Well has several workshops and tools they’re using to get communities to create places where farmers and their neighbors work together to have genuine conversations surrounding the oft-ignored hardships of farming.
“We have a training called COMET (Changing Our Mental & Emotional Trajectory) that’s focused on empathetic listening. How to engage in a conversation with someone you are concerned about, so they know that you really want to hear how they’re doing. One of the things that COMET teaches, for example, is if I say, ‘How are you doing.’
“You might say, ‘Fine’ or ‘Good.’
“I say, ‘No, really, how are you doing. I know your mom is in the hospital’ or ‘I know this happened.’ The conversations that have come from this technique have yielded a lot of good and helpful conversations where, even though we’re not taking away any problems people have—we can’t take away their debt or the current situation they’re in—we can support them by listening and validating what they’re going through.”
There are certainly those in farming who fare better than others in these situations, but when each day’s challenges start piling up, it’s helpful to have someone remind you that what you’re going through might just plain stink. It’s not about providing a solution, just an ear. Shawn says, “If somebody says, ‘Oh, I had a cow that went down. She was a good producer, and we had to put her down.’ It’s not going to help them to say, ‘Oh, that’s okay. You’ll have more cows. You’re such a good farmer.’ It’s good to say, ‘That sucks. I’m sorry it happened.’”
This gets into what Shawn calls being helpfully nosy. Check on your neighbors when they’re not at a meeting or event you’d expect them to attend. It’s a great way to show someone that their absence doesn’t go unnoticed. “That’s opening the door to a supportive conversation. Then you can hold that space for them. It seems so simple, and it is.”
Providing social networks individuals can connect with before things get too dark is a great starting point when addressing suicide rates, but depression and isolation don’t affect everyone the same, which is where CALM (Conversations on Access to Lethal Means) might come in.
“It focuses on if you have a family member, community member, or somebody you come into contact with that you’re worried about that in their current state of mind might be suicidal. It teaches you how to have the conversation on securing firearms, if possible, at a different location than their house. It’s research driven and focused on creating time and distance between firearms since there’s such a high degree of lethality. When people attempt suicide, it’s typically with the first 10 minutes of having the impulsive thought that they want to die.”
If you’re a nonfarmer reading this, Shawn encourages you to ask questions when you meet farmers. It’s a great way to let farmers know you consider them a vital part of the community. If you’re a farmer, Shawn wants to remind you that “you’re the most important piece of your farm. If you’re not in good working operation—mental health, physical health—your farm is going to hurt from it.”
There aren’t many professions where you can do everything right and fail, but that doesn’t mean it’s something you have to deal with alone simply because you chose or were born into the profession. “The times of being able to work harder to make up a difference are gone,” says Shawn. “But if you talk to farmers, there’s nothing else they’d rather be doing.”
Farm Well Wisconsin operates primarily in Grant, Green, Iowa, Lafayette, and Richland Counties as well as online. For more information on any of their programs and workshops, visit farmwellwi.org.