Stress on the farm: A renewed effort to address the mental health of Michigan farmers

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GENESEE CO. (WJRT) - Next to California, Michigan has the most diverse agriculture in the United States.

There is a renewed effort in Michigan to address the mental health of farmers, who work hard to provide food for the country, as well as their own families.

"If we just keep grinding through this, we'll get through it," says Greg Mischel, owner of DeBuck's Sod Farm.

"It's just been a very trying year," says Dan Weil, a dairy farmer in Goodrich.

"I didn't realize it'd be quite so stressful as it is," says farmer Bill Hunt.

Three different Genesee County farmers facing the tough realities of a rainy spring and the aftermath.

"Our biggest fear is now, is we're not sure how much revenue we're going to generate because we've got about half the crop in," says Hunt.

Bill Hunt has run Hunt Farms in Davison for 46 years, planting 6,000 acres of corn and 5,000 acres of soybeans.

It is the first time he hasn't gotten all of his crops in.

"We make up about one and half percent of the total population in the U.S. And we produce all the food for us," Hunt said.

He faces that pressure every day.

Hunt says his income has dropped steadily over the past five years, with weather, tariffs, and commodity prices affecting his bottom line.

"I can borrow the money to probably get by this year," Hunt said. "But can I pay off the obligations in future crop years?"

"Farming has always been a physically and emotionally risky occupation," said Dr. Jeff Dwyer, director of Michigan State University's Extension Office.

"What we're seeing right now is almost a perfect storm of challenges," he said.

Three years ago, an even darker cloud started to loom for those who work in agriculture.

"We thought we were seeing an uptick in attempted suicides and completed suicides, an uptick in substance abuse and other things," Dwyer said.

According to an MSU study, three farmers in Michigan died by suicide in 2014. One died the next year, two in 2016.

That number jumped to four in 2017, three farmers and one farm hand.

"We believe that that stress is causing people to make choices that we wish they didn't at a greater rate that has been true in the past," Dwyer said.

Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report claiming farmers had the highest suicide rate in the country.

It turns out, they were "misclassified" in the study. Even so, the risk is still high.

Dwyer says it brought attention to the important issue of the mental stress farmers face.

"This has always been true. maybe you could argue we're all late in the game in recognizing it," he said.

The day we stopped by DeBuck's Sod Farm in Davison, more unwelcome rain fell as workers scramble to mow the fields.

For every day Greg Mischel does not harvest, he can lose 10 to $20,000 a day. He has already missed out on 30 harvest days.

"Mental health and depression is a major issue with farmers," says Mischel.

He says it helps to talk with other farmers.

Once a month, farmers from several counties in Mid-Michigan get together to compare notes and support each other.

Mischel said talking about mental health helps remove the stigma.

"Talking with a professional can be very helpful as well," Mischel said.

Dwyer agrees.

"If there is a group that might be a bit reticent to talk about these issues, many people would say it's farmers," Dwyer said.

Dairy farmer Dan Weil is not too worried about upholding a "tough farmer" stereotype.

"My daughter wants to take over so I want to be a good example for her," Weil said.

"Even though there are stressors that come with it, it's what I want to do," his daughter Stephanie said.

Stephanie knows the challenges, like having to tap into corn reserves this year to keep the cows fed.

She wants to face those challenges head-on at time when many younger generations do not want to take on the stress of the farming business.

"I want to just continue the family legacy, be a good third-generation farmer and make everyone proud," she said.

"Farmers do what they do because they love it," Dwyer said.

Seeing them succeed is Dwyer's mission.

MSU Extension offers a variety of resources, helping farmers navigate everything from finances to mental health.

"We've had well over 1,000 people in the agriculture industry take our 'communicating with farmers in distress' courses," Dwyer said.

Dwyer says there is even more work to be done on making sure farmers get the help they need.

He says supporting the backbone of America is a collective effort.

"I think we all have an obligation to farmers and farm families," Dwyer said.

For more on the resources offered by MSU Extension, click here.

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