As farms struggle, industry consultants open up arms & options

Eric Jenks for Northeast Agribusiness and Feed Alliance

Farmers have free, confidential options available to help them through difficult times

The last few years have been difficult for many in the dairy industry, as profits have plummeted, family farms forced to close, and processing centers shuttered and consolidated. Depression has become an issue that many have been dealing with in the face of such uncertain prospects for the future. Cornell Senior Extension Karl Czymmek recently lost his son Will to depression, and sees parallels that he hopes can help others in the dairy industry in an open letter he wrote to the industry through PRO DAIRY.

“As many of you know by now, my son, Will, lost his battle with depression a few weeks ago. This has been a shocking and utterly heartbreaking situation for me and our family as well as our friends and neighbors here in our community. The outpouring of prayers, love, and kindness not only from friends and colleagues nearby, but from so many of you involved in the NYS dairy industry has served as a reminder to me of just how amazing the people in this industry are, and how lucky I am to be associated with you. Though it will take time to heal, and we will never be the same, the caring we have been shown has been a great help.

Unfortunately, Will’s disease did not allow him to see a pathway out of some of the challenges he was experiencing. With all the stress in the dairy industry now, if you or a family member or a friend are feeling hopeless and having a difficult time, please reach out, talk to someone, get help, do it now. In the dairy industry, we often take pride in being self-reliant. That is fine when a night milker does not show up and you have to milk yourself, or your tractor is stuck in the mud and your phone is dead and you are two miles from home. But if you are having dark thoughts, don’t bear these burdens alone. My son was not able to see how much of a positive impact he had on the lives of the people around him and how much we needed him in our lives. He also did not see that he could rely on us, always, for help. Please know that you are loved and needed by your family. Please reach out and seek help if needed and if you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 immediately.”

Besides the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, farmers have free, confidential options available to them to not only help with mental health during these trying times, but also financial planning for their farms. In New York, Farmnet (https://www.nyfarmnet.org/) is an indispensable aid for family disputes, mental health, farm finances and more. For those in Vermont and New Hampshire, consider reaching out to the Ag Mediation programs run by the Environmental Mediation Center (www.vtamp.orgwww.nhamp.org) for farm finances. “The Northeast Agribusiness and Feed Alliance is an active advocate for continued New York State support of FarmNet”, stated NEAFA Executive Director Rick Zimmerman.  “As a FarmNet Board member, I have witnessed firsthand the tremendous support and assistance FarmNet professionals bring to struggling farm families.  Given the farm economic stress due to continued low commodity prices, FarmNet is needed today more than ever before.”

“If you’re a farmer you need to be self-reliant, you need to wear multiple hats,” said Matt Strassburg of VT and NH Ag Mediation centers. “You can’t go calling someone every time you need help. But that attitude can also be to the detriment of the farm as well – they think they need to fix it themselves and that they’re failing if they have to reach out to someone else for help. Sometimes you need someone to sit down with you and help you navigate how to get out of it.  I work farmer’s hours because I know they’re not sitting behind a desk from 9-5 to answer the phone. I talk to people from 7:00 in the morning to 10:00 at night. I jokingly say that the kitchen table is the board room table.  What I do is get the right people (farmers, creditors, feed companies, etc.) at the table, so that they know what the financial situation is. We act as a negotiation coach. We’re trying to make sure that everyone goes to the meeting with an open mind and prepared to have a constructive conversation.”

For Hal McCabe at NY Farmnet, difficulties in the past several years have changed how farmers reach out to him for help. “In years past, when a farmer was struggling with anxiety or depression, they would call but they would coach the conversation by saying ‘we’re not really profitable, maybe there’s something you can do for us’ but we would quickly realize that they need help with anxiety, substance abuse, depression from a divorce, etc.” said McCabe. “The last two years are the first time that we’ve had farms calling just for our family consultants because of depression or anxiety. It’s something we haven’t seen before but are seeing frequently now because of the current economics of the dairy industry. Often we’re the only mental health service provider that this farm family is going to see. Access to mental health in rural areas is sparse at best, and there’s a stigma involved in seeking services. Since we offer both financial and mental health services, we’re a bit lower profile for farmers. When I speak with a lot of farmers, I tell them that you may think that your neighbors are doing better, but they’re not. Everyone is suffering. No one is doing well right now, even the best farms are squeaking by. It’s ok to admit that you need help keeping things going.”

Both Strassburg and McCabe stressed that these services are free resources for farmers to use. “A lot of times when I’m talking to a farmer that’s thinking about calling us, I say “if you’re thinking that you may need us, you need us,” said McCabe. “It’s free, so what does it cost you to try. Given the amount of financial expertise that our consultants have, they can often find ways to right the ship financially. It just takes a second set of eyes.” Strassburg agreed. “Helping out a farm in need is one of the great pleasures of my life. When we’re working with farms under extreme financial pressure, the last thing they want to hear is ‘here’s how we can help you, and here’s how much it’s going to cost. Our services are free. If a farmer is falling behind with a feed dealer, the interest can add up rather quickly. And it’s hard to catch up without a compromise being made. That’s where we step in, to help both sides come to a mutually beneficial agreement.

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