Dairy farmers get market forecasts ... with suicide hotlines

  • An Uppinngil Farm cow gets milked in Gill in this 2015 file photo. Dairy farmers’ revenue is forecast to fall for the third year in a row, according to the co-op Agri-Mark. Recorder file photo

Combined Sources
Monday, February 12, 2018

With milk prices declining to levels seen 20 years ago, the dairy co-op Agri-Mark last week sent farmers phone numbers for suicide prevention hotlines and other mental health services along with the latest market forecasts.

The regional cooperative, which serves the six New England states plus New York, notified members in a Feb. 1 letter that prices for milk — usually the largest part of dairy farmers’ revenue — were forecast to fall for the third year in a row in 2018.

“We have reached the halfway point of a particularly stressful winter while also facing falling milk prices,” read the letter from Agri-Mark Senior Vice President Bob Wellington.

“Farm families are incredibly resilient, but some members may want to take advantage of helpful programs where they can talk with experts about work and financial stress, depression and anxiety, grief counseling, substance abuse and family relationship issues.”

Headquartered in Methuen, Agri-Mark collects milk from farmers throughout the region and sells it to large processors, among other services to members. Cabot Creamery Cooperative, known for its Cabot cheese, is a subsidiary.

The letter says Agri-Mark is working on a “free, comprehensive” member assistance program. Until that goes online, the co-op offered members information about public resources to deal with stress, whether that be to their finances, family relationships, or mental health.

The letter recommended that Massachusetts farmers could reach out to suicide.org for help and that The Samaritans offer a helpline at 877- 870-4673.

Warren Facey of Leyden, executive director of Massachusetts Association of Dairy Farmers, said he misses FarmNet of the Pioneer Valley, a branch of the Cornell University mental health service that was available in Massachusetts for several years, but is no longer supported here as it had been by Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture.

“Dairy farmers have a great deal more invested than a homeowner, by many thousands of dollars,” Facey said. “Being on a farm is a bad place to be.”

David Gott of Greenfield still brings his social work skills to farmers in New York state through New York Farm Net and in the 1990s had offered counseling to local farmers dealing with financial and personal issues said, “I’ve seen many farmers through the years dealing with economic stress. When it’s bad, it can be really bad. Dairy is one of the most vulnerable sectors because of the economics,” he said.

“It would be wonderful if there could be something in New England,” he added.

The financial problems that dairy farms have coped with for decades are more complex than the farmer-owned co-op can fix, he said. And, Facey added, “It has gotten considerably worse,” with prices now about what they were in 2006, when the cost of grain was particularly high.

Facey said he hasn’t heard directly from farmers who are especially distraught now, but added, “Everybody is at least concerned about that. Because we’re that close” to the edge.

“It was strongly worded,” said Paul Doton, a Barnard, Vt., dairy farmer and member of Agri-Mark’s board of directors, which called for the letter, “but we wanted to make sure that members understood we had those feelings for them. We want to make sure people understand there are resources available for stress — all forms of stress.”

Milk prices last year reached an average of $17.44 per hundredweight in the Boston-area market, with farmers typically receiving about a dollar less than that, Agri-Mark spokesman Doug Dimento said on Wednesday. This year’s estimates are shaping up to be more like $16 per hundredweight, or $15 for farmers, he said.

“That’s below the cost of production for the majority of farmers we know in the Northeast,” he said. “It’s tough.”

These figures are down from an average of $25.49 per hundredweight in 2014, and barely more than the $15.98 farmers were paid in 1998, according to statistics from researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“You’d be stressed, too, if your paycheck got cut by a third,” Tim Angell of White Rock Farm in Randolph, Vt., said. “You have to tighten your belt.”

Around the new year, when price estimates come out, and before the spring, when costs start to mount for planting, farmers have to make difficult decisions about whether to make changes to their business — or stay in it at all.

Angell said he knew of two or three people who recently sold off their herds in response to declining market trends.

Milk prices for the national market are set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The distance between that arrangement and the efforts of farmers of smaller farms in the Northeast is a major contributor to their financial and personal stress, area farmers said.

“We don’t have any control over what we get for our milk,” Angell said. “They give a little bit of a quality premium but they’ve cut back on that.”

Anson Tebbetts, the secretary of agriculture in Vermont, noted that local farmers are increasingly competing in an international market. Fifteen percent of U.S. milk production went abroad last year, he said, making prices more and more dependent on events even farther away.

“When you’re not paid a fair price for your product, you run the risk of not being able to keep up with your bills,” he said.

“If you can’t pay your bills, regardless of any profession, that creates tremendous pressure on you, on your family. Farmers are resilient and they’ve tended to deal with these cycles before, but this appears to be a downward one that hasn’t rebounded.”

Sometimes that stress leads to tragedy.

A 2016 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention across 17 states found that people working in agriculture die by suicide at rates much higher than other occupations. Dimento, the Agri-Mark spokesman, said some co-op members had taken their own lives in recent years.

“People get desperate,” said Steve Taylor, a former New Hampshire agriculture commissioner. “Guys have their lives tied in their farms. They’ve worked for years and years to build their enterprise — and then to see it all melting down because of these collapsing prices.”

In Massachusetts, state Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, says that one of his chief aims in what he plans to be his last year in the Legislature will be to double from $4 million to $8 million the cap on the dairy tax credit, first enacted about a decade ago, to help farmers when the price they receive for milk falls below the cost of making it.

(Rob Wolfe of The Valley News and Richie Davis of The Greenfield Recorder contributed to this report)