DURAND — With a viral video released in early April, a 26-year-old dairy farmer from southeastern Minnesota brought a renewed focus to the mental health struggles farmers are facing.
Mark Berg, the son of Tom and Penny Berg, the owners of the 200-cow Trailside Dairy near Pine Island, Minn., recently went viral with a video recounting an argument he had with his father and about the plight of dairy farmers.
“The comment that he ended with was, ‘I’ve worked here 40 (expletive) years, and I have less than what I started with,’” Berg recounted his father saying.
In the video, Berg explains that farmers aren’t looking to get rich, just make a living, but they’re not able to and are having to take out loans to pay bills.
“We’ve got farmers committing suicide all the time,” he said. “Wives coming home to their husband dead in the house because they lost everything they had and they feel like they’ve failed every generation before them.
“It isn’t fair.”
The video has been viewed on Facebook more than half a million times since early April.
“It was a very heartbreaking video,” said Brian Winnekins of WRDN Radio in Durand.
The video was part of what inspired Winnekins to organize a May 29 Farm Crisis Town Hall intended to allow farmers and those involved in agriculture to talk about the downturn in the industry and how it is affecting their operations. Speakers at the meeting included area legislative leaders and their aides, along with UW-Extension, Pepin County Health Department and Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection officials, who discussed programs available to help farmers during difficult times.
The event drew nearly 100 people to Weiss Family Farms northeast of Durand.
Nearly 700 Wisconsin dairy farms stopped milking in 2018, and another 388 dairy farms shut their doors between January and June of this year, according to the most recent statistics from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. The number of milking herds in the state dropped to below 8,000 in March, down from 16,264 in August 2003, according to DATCP.
“We’re in the midst of a crisis that is worse than anything most of us have ever experienced,” said Julie Keown-Bomar, executive director of Wisconsin Farmers Union. “Many folks are hearkening back to the 1920s and 1930s in terms of the severity of what we are facing.
“When you have a crisis like this, it’s because the forces are bigger than you. The structural forces that are operating out there today are some of the most severe that we’ve seen in many decades.”
Randy Roecker, a dairy farmer near Loganville in Sauk County, recounted his battle with depression and thoughts of suicide a decade ago. Following a neighbor’s recent suicide, Roecker decided he needed to do something to help farmers struggling with mental health issues.
Roecker helped create a series of meetings in his area that allow farmers to get together to talk about their issues. He said the meetings have been drawing 30 to 50 people.
“When farmers are depressed, like in my situation, they don’t leave the farm,” Roecker said. “What we’re doing is training milk haulers and nutritionists, vets, bankers, people who go out to farms to know what to do when a farmer is showing signs of depression and suicidal tendencies.”
Winnekins said it is important to be able to recognize when someone is struggling, but that sometimes the best thing a person can do is listen.
“When you know a friend has a problem, has an issue, you want to help solve it,” Winnekins said. “When Randy was telling me his story, I said, ‘Randy, I don’t know what to say.’ I heard this heartbreaking story, but how do you help.
“Randy said, ‘Brian, just by listening, you’ve done a lot.’”
“This is a serious situation that is not dependent on size or on commodity. It’s across the board, and we need to help each other out,” said Jim Holte, a cash grain and beef farmer in Dunn County and president of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation. “We need to realize that ourselves, as neighbors, family members and friends, have the most opportunity to do the listening.”
Dr. Josie Rudolphi of the the National Farm Medicine Center, Marshfield Clinic Research Institute, said her program has been working with UW-Extension in several central Wisconsin counties on mental health first aid training.
“Mental health first aid teaches participants how to identify signs and symptoms of anxiety or depression and a myriad of other mental health disorders in their friends and families and co-workers,” Rudolphi said. “And it helps develop action plans for how to assist somebody in crisis, get them to care, or help them manage their own situation.
“What I like about it is it really focuses on reducing stigmatizing attitudes towards mental health disorders. It’s an opportunity for the agricultural community to say, ‘We’re not judging anybody for this, we’re human, and this is natural, and we as a community are going to support one another.’”
Frank Friar of DATCP’s Wisconsin Farm Center said his organization is available to help farmers with everything from transition planning and beginning farmer assistance and financial analysis and planning to crop consulting and herd diagnostics to mediation and counseling.
He said the Farm Center can provide farmers with an objective, independent third-party viewpoint that can often help mediate problems. The Farm Center fields about 2,000 calls a year.
“Don’t be afraid to talk to people,” Friar said. “I tell people we care. We care about them.
“I don’t enjoy sitting around a farm table with a family and telling them they aren’t going to be able to farm anymore, and they don’t enjoy hearing it. But I tell them, ‘You’re good people, and we’re going to help you get through this.’”