ADDISON COUNTY — First comes the milk check, smaller than expected, followed by the mounting bills that just can’t seem to be met. Emotions are running high on dairy farms throughout Vermont, where many farmers continue to earn less for their milk than it costs to produce it.
It’s with those concerns in mind that a new statewide mental health hotline is reaching out to farmers struggling to make sense of catastrophically low milk prices and the stress that accompanies prolonged economic downturns.
The “Farm First” program puts licensed mental health clinicians and social workers just a phone call away for Vermont’s farmers. The 24-hour hotline matches farmers dealing with problems ranging from depression to anxiety about relationships, debt or isolation with professionals in their communities who can help them make sense of their problems.
“Depression is a highly treatable situation and issue,” said Myra Handy, the account manager for Farm First. Handy is the manager of clinical and account services for Invest Employee Assistance Program, a company that already matches Vermont state employees with health and well-being services.
Though Handy said individuals are sometimes reticent to call a hotline for help, she urged farmers who are struggling with interrupted sleep, anxiety, insomnia, persistent worries or the beginnings of depression to give the hotline a try.
“Those are all reasons to call us,” she said. “What we want to really do is help (farmers) enhance their lives.”
Cornwall dairy farmer John Roberts agreed that the hotline is a good idea for Vermont farmers.
“I’m absolutely certain there are farmers out there who need it,” Roberts said. “The trick will be getting those stoic farmers who have relied on themselves for so long to come in and basically ask for some assistance. It is a very private thing, and I just don’t know what it would take.”
Counseling hotlines aren’t new. Amid a national farm crisis in the 1980s, reports of farmer suicides made front-page news across the country, and a few states in the Midwest developed crisis hotlines for struggling farmers.
Today, the nation’s largest hotline for agricultural workers remains in the Midwest, where the Iowa State University Extension and the nonprofit organization AgriWellness jointly sponsored a hotline called “Sowing the Seeds of Hope” that’s been up and running for nearly 20 years.
According to AgriWellness, farmers commit suicide at a rate twice the national average. Agricultural workers also experience a higher incidence of depression related to stress than the non-agricultural population, and that can have serious implications: Farmers experiencing high stress levels, particularly related to economic concerns, are two to three times more likely to have a serious injury than farmers with lower stress levels.
“We’ve all heard about suicides that have happened in other states (on farms),” Handy said. “We can prevent that. A suicide is highly preventable.”
But Farm First isn’t just a suicide hotline. What makes the program unique — the only one of its kind in the country, the program directors believe — is that farmers can come to Farm First with anything from a financial problem to concerns about managing employees on the farm, and the hotline will match the farmer with the right health care or social work professional.
Some of those professionals can even consult on issues like legal concerns or land transfers.
“We are a clearinghouse for getting them in touch with the right person for the right problem,” Handy said.
While the University of Vermont Extension has offered some of these services in the past, Handy said this the first time Vermont has made a comprehensive push to make many kinds of help for farmers available in one place. The hotline grew out of a suggestion from the state’s Farm Health Task Force, and was funded this year by donations from businesses in the farm services sector.
Farm First partners with more than 100 licensed clinicians throughout the state, so when a farmer calls, the hotline can connect that person to someone in their community for a face-to-face meeting. The service is completely confidential, and available to farmers and members of their families.
“It’s designed specifically for the dairy producers. We’re catering to them, we’re reaching out to them,” Handy said.
In the three months that Farm First has been up and running, around 20 farmers have called the hotline. The bulk of their concerns focused on family or relationship problems or mental health concerns.
Handy admitted that it can sometimes be difficult for a person to make the initial call.
“Dairy producers are very proud and independent and intelligent people. I think they’re screening us to make sure that we’re skilled,” she said. “We’re getting calls from people who are really experiencing high stress right now, and I think the word will get out. More people will call by word of mouth.”
In Middlebury, Farm Service Agency County Executive Craig Miner said that farmers are already talking to loan officers and FSA employees about the financial struggles they face on the farm.
But he acknowledged that deeper concerns — ranging from feelings of depression to concerns about the future — can be difficult for farmers to broach. Meanwhile, Miner said that low milk prices are having a devastating effect on dairy farms in the region.
“It’s a good opportunity, if they’re having some challenges, to reach out and get some help if they need it,” Miner said.
Reporter Kathryn Flagg is at firstname.lastname@example.org.