News Article Details

Dairy crisis prompts groups in Lancaster County, state to help families with mental stress

Grand Rapids Herald-Review - 3/31/2018

When a New England dairy cooperative recently sent out suicide prevention letters along with milk checks because three farmers had killed themselves in the last three years, some dairy farmers in Lancaster County felt the message was too blunt.

But dairy groups in the county and statewide are already following suit to address stress among farm families, though in a slightly less in-your-face way.

"I think there's a little feeling of desperation out there - what do you do?" says Lisa Graybeal, who helps run her family's largescale dairy operation in Fulton Township.

"Farmers tend to hold out and say it's going to get better, but we've been saying that for years and it's not happening."

Spurred by the depth of the current dairy crisis, the Lancaster County Agriculture Council that Graybeal chairs is weighing publication of a pamphlet for local dairy farmers and families listing local counselors and church leaders they can contact for stress management and financial counseling.

The pamphlets would be distributed to local feed companies, milk haulers, equipment dealers and others regularly in contact with dairy farmers and whom farmers trust.

Graybeal said Friday that the council will meet with representatives of other local ag groups this week to coordinate a unified plan and avoid duplication.

"Everybody wants to do something but we don't need 10 pamphlets saying the same thing," she said.

Deepening dairy crisis

Dairy farmers across the county and Pennsylvania have been belt-tightening during four unrelenting years of low milk prices. But cutting expenses has not been enough.

Since January, the prices paid to dairy farmers for fluid milk has dropped even more significantly. Milk brings about half as much as it did only four years ago.

And, within the past two weeks, a Lebanon County milk processor owned by the nation's largest milk producer informed 26 Lancaster and Lebanon dairy farmers that their milk contracts will be canceled.

More cancellations are feared as the milk industry constricts, with increasing milk production even as consumer demand for fluid milk fades.

Small dairy farms that are the staple of Lancaster County will be especially vulnerable.

Another group worried about the mental and emotional stress being placed on dairy farmers, the statewide Center for Dairy Excellence, which on Tuesday sent out an appeal to counselors and trained church leaders. It asked them to join a new network that will focus on helping farmers cope with "overwhelming stress and protecting their well-being," says Jayne Sebright, the nonprofit group's executive director.

Adds Don Risser, the group's board chair and a dairy farmer from Bainbridge, "I encourage people to reach out to their friends and family and not keep it to themselves. It's more than they can handle themselves."

'Tremendous' stress

Charles Gardner, a retired veterinarian who talks to stressed farmers around the state for the center, says dairy farmers are struggling, both financially and mentally.

"There's a tremendous amount of stress. There's a general sense of gloom and doom on many farms. There are some farms that are kind of at the end of it."

Observes Graybeal, "It's continuing to escalate to the point where we have agribusiness representatives saying, 'I'm not equipped to handle the situation I'm getting into when I visit these farms.'"

Those agribusiness representatives in Lancaster County agree.

"This is a stressful time," says Brian Reed, a Manheim veterinarian who has visited some of the farmers who recently lost buyers for their milk.

"I will say, in this area, there is a strong faith and strong infrastructure."

Communal aid

Indeed, among Plain Sect communities, which account for about half of Lancaster County dairy farmers, there is a communal financial aid structure.

And faith is a bedrock in both good and bad times.

"Our people don't like to worry too much about things because we believe something good will come out of something and we will have a way of pulling through this," says John K. King, owner of a milk company near Pequea.

Still, King, who sold his farm and dairy cows in 2015, adds, "There's a lot of frustration out there, a lot of not knowing what to do."

Faith also is a valuable tool for many non-Plain Sect dairy farmers in Lancaster County to handle the pressure of tight times.

Since December, Lititiz ag equipment dealer Binkley and Hurst has being meeting with farmers in informal sessions throughout the region.

After a discussion of opportunities and threats in the industry, company president Don Hoover unabashedly brings up the importance of faith.

"It's amazing how He sustains us to get us through," says Hoover. "There is life after dairy farming, so when you get to the point where answers are very tough to come by, for some of us it's really a blessing to draw on our faith."

Penn State Extension

The Penn State Extension office in Lancaster County also is planning to expand the resources it makes available for farmers to handle financial problems and how best to exit the industry, if necessary.

"We hear almost every week that someone is going out of the business or selling their cows," says Mauricio Rosales, dairy educator in the local Extension office.

"We feel very sorry and sympathetic of what our farmers are dealing with."

According to a study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, farming, along with commercial fishing and forestry, have the highest rates of suicides among various occupations.

Among the possible causes cited in the study: potential for financial losses, social isolation, unwillingness to seek mental health services and chronic exposure to pesticides.


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