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Support network helps farmers going through difficult times

Nick Lippa

Stress levels for farmers in America have skyrocketed in recent years. With dairy prices low, many farmers are looking not just for financial support, but emotional support as well. Programs like New York State FarmNet have become integral for agricultural professionals in rural communities who may be suffering from depression.

There may not be a prouder, more hands on profession in America than farming. They identify as problem-solvers. They pride themselves on overcoming adversity, but there are some problems you can’t fix on your own.

“I have a farmer right now with cancer. And he still has to go out and do his barn chores.”

That’s Patrick O’Hara, Clinical Case Manager for the New York Center for Agriculture Medicine and Health. For his client, fighting through a disease like cancer is something that won’t get in the way of getting the job done.

“He’s incredibly tired. He doesn’t have a lot of energy. His appetite is off, but he’s going out there and milking the cows every day. He has to get the job done or he’ll have to sell the cows as he’ll no longer have an income,” O'Hara said.

For many farmers, it’s almost impossible to imagine a life off the land.

“When they are going to lose the farm, if they have to file for bankruptcy or have to file for foreclosure, there’s a loss of identity. They’re no longer a farmer. Most of these people, that’s the only occupation they’ve ever had,” O’Hara said.

That is where New York State FarmNet can help. It has been around since 1986 and provides free confidential consulting to farm families. It was founded during the agricultural crisis, and it’s been a valuable resource during another difficult stretch for farmers.

Executive Director Ed Staehr said people trust FarmNet because they are not just talking to financial or personal consultants, they are talking to fellow farmers.

Credit Cornell
Ed Staehr, Executive Director of New York State FarmNet

“It’s the stigma that mental health issues have and the way that farmers have been traditionally taught to pull themselves up. They’re very independent. Reaching out to someone is difficult for them in many instances,” Staehr said. 

Earlier this year, David Chamberlain sold his 800 cow farm to his younger brother. Now, he works as a financial consultant for FarmNet.

“There comes to a point where you are unable to pay your bills. You have to go to the bank for refinancing and that’s always a stressful situation,” said Chamberlain.

“It starts to wear on the family. Farmers are a very proud group. They tend not to share things. They tend to keep things in and that can build personal stress… A lot of these (FarmNet) consultants end up being personal family friends after they’ve gone through this experience.”

Chamberlain emphasizes the importance of socializing with his clients.

"I think one of the biggest things is you find out that other people are struggling the same as you are and that in itself helps the situation,” he said.

FarmNet staff consultants are provided training throughout the year to remain current in agricultural, economic and social conditions and services, but now, Staehr said, even they are starting to get stressed out.

“They have more stress related to them, to the point where some of our consultants are feeling stressed about working with farm families undergoing intensive stress,” said Staehr. “So we’re providing training to our consultants to help manage that. I’ve been with the program for a little over 12 years and I’ve never seen this in our consultants.”

There is a generational aspect to this too. Many farmers don’t want to be the family member that had to sell the farm.

Wyoming County Farm Bureau President Russell Klein said farmers need to know there is life after farming.

“You have to feel for those families that have farmed for over 100 years,” said Klein, “but each generation somebody has got to analyze the situation and decide whether they want to do that continuing on forward.”

So what advice does somebody like Klein have for future farmers?

“I had an FFA (Future Farmers of America) student say a couple of years ago say, addressing the farm bureau board, and ask what are you doing to ensure that I’m going to have a future in agriculture? I don’t know how I answered at the time and I thought about that for a long while afterwards. I thought, I’m not doing anything,” said Klein.

“We’re worried about being a business for next year. We’re worried about trying to substantiate our own business much less the next generation. The next generation is going to have to fight for themselves. I wanted to go back and tell her that.  And it’s got to start with the FFA and you’ve got to voice your opinion with your politicians and it’s got to start with the college kids. They are going to have to fight their way if they want to produce food in America, be it dairy or whatever agriculture they want to get in to,” he said.

Klein said there isn’t a clear solution to helping farmers in today’s climate. Many are looking for relief through legislation.

O’Hara said some farmers can’t even get aid to put food on their table. 

“I’m looking at a 1040 right now from a farm family (of three) I've worked with. Last year they lost $108,000,” O’Hara said.

“Now the Department of Social Service does not look at that as a negative. They look at that as zero income. What they will do next is they will look at profit and loss from farming and they will add any depreciation to that zero farm income.”

“They had capital gains. A sale of cows. A sale of timber, which was minimal--$20, 391. And they had depreciation of $15,473. Which out them over the amount for HEAP and food stamps, which is ridiculous actually. It’s a farm family who is undoubtedly going bankrupt, they can’t pay their bills, and it’s difficult to buy groceries. Yet, they don’t qualify for food stamps and farmers are the one that put food on our table. It’s a pretty sad situation.”

O’Hara said quite often there is nothing you can do to help.

“I equate it to being on the shore and shouting words of encouragement to somebody while they slip under the waves and drown. There’s not much you can do other than just be there for them. The end… it’s not going to end well,” he said.

For now, all farmers can do is weather the storm.

FarmNet services are available to all farms in New York State, large and small. For assistance, call 1-800-547-3276.

Credit NY FarmNet

Nick Lippa leads our Arts & Culture Coverage, and is also the lead reporter for the station's Mental Health Initiative, profiling the struggles and triumphs of those who battle mental health issues and the related stigma that can come from it.
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