COLUMBUS, Ohio—Dairy farmers grapple with slumps in milk prices while the cost of feeding their cows keeps rising.
For crop farmers, prices for corn and soybeans remain low, and many growers couldn’t plant either crop this year.
The persistent spring rain created the state’s worst planting year on record and has contributed to a near-record low level of hay to feed livestock in Ohio and across the Midwest.
So much is out of a farmer’s control. Weather. Commodity and feed prices. A hike in international tariffs on American agricultural goods that has diminished demand for them.
When rain this past spring kept farmers from planting, among the comments that circulated on Facebook was one offering a phone number for a suicide hotline.
Now, perhaps more than ever, farmers might need help with how to keep their businesses afloat, how to find jobs off the farm, how to find clinicians to help deal with mounting frustration or despair that might come with running a business farming the land.
Out of this tremendous need, staff with The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES) hope to offer assistance through their newly formed Rural and Farm Stress Task Force. The task force is made up of people who can help connect farmers and their families with specialists either within Ohio State University Extension or within the community.
CFAES will be collaborating with Ohio State’s College of Social Work to know how to best respond to individuals who might be in need of emotional support, including knowing which mental health providers those individuals can seek out, regardless of where they live in the state.
Across Ohio, some farmers face difficult decisions.
“Nobody wants to be the one in a family to stop farming, especially if it’s been going on for generation after generation,” said Emily Marrison, a member of the task force and an educator with OSU Extension, the outreach arm of CFAES.
“I don’t think we could ever make the assumption that the reason a farm closes down is because of poor management.”
Many farms will be able to weather the financial storm, but some growers are seeking work off the farm or additional sources of income from their farm. The task force and all OSU Extension staff can point farmers toward resources to assist their businesses or to find new work or a counselor. In providing this help, the hope is to reassure and empower farmers.
“Farmers are so resilient, or they wouldn’t be doing the job they’re doing,” said Dee Jepsen, co-chair of the task force and state safety leader for OSU Extension.
For decades, farmers have dealt with weather challenges as well as shifts in markets and prices, and they have persevered. Sometimes with that strong will to persevere comes a resistance to seek help, Jepsen said.
“They’re tough. They may not want to talk about their problems,” Jepsen said.
Some might see their struggles to keep their farm viable as a sign of failure—personal failure.
Even just admitting that or asking for help can be challenging, but that can also lead someone closer to a solution.
In talking to farmers and their families in southeast Ohio, Amanda Bohlen, an OSU Extension educator in Washington County, has noticed a difference recently. She can see the toll on people’s faces. They look tired, worn down. They’re a little abrupt, more pessimistic, distant.
Bohlen can easily empathize with them. Her husband, Kurt, grew up working his family’s dairy farm. This past April, they had to sell off the herd.
“It had gotten to a point that it would have been cheaper for us to buy a gallon of milk from the grocery store, dump it into our tank, and resell it rather than produce our own,” Bohlen said.
Kurt had to find another job, which led to a grieving process of relinquishing a profession that was all he knew.
“It was the last of everything. The last time you were shutting off the milk pump. The last time you were closing the barn door,” she said.
After a stint in excavation work and another on a dairy farm that later closed, Kurt accepted a job as an agriculture teacher. The job will be a change, for sure, so he’s nervous but also tremendously grateful.
For more information on the Rural and Farm Stress Task force as well as a list of resources for those in the agriculture community, visit go.osu.edu/agcrisis.