Earlier this year, at a loss for what else to do, Keith Ohlinger, a livestock farmer in Howard County, picked up his phone and dialed a friend.
He wasn’t calling to borrow equipment or trouble-shoot a problem on the farm. Instead, he was offering to talk or help, if he could, as he struggled to find anyone or any group willing to address his concerns about rising suicide rates among farmers.
“It has been a rough several years for agriculture,” Ohlinger said on Wednesday. “And this year has been devastating, with rain and wildfires.”
At the end of 2017, he read an article published by The Guardian on skyrocketing suicide rates among farmers. It included data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that were startling — suggesting farmers were committing suicide at a rate five times that of the general population. The CDC has since retracted the study due to errors in the data.
But an updated review of suicide rates among major occupational groups in 2015 found that 7 percent of men in management — which includes farmers and ranchers — had died as a result of suicide.
After reading the article, Ohlinger contacted experts and organizations across the country trying to find someone to address the problem locally. For a while, he couldn’t find anyone willing to take it on; instead, he watched the situation snowball. He heard of dairy co-ops sending out letters with phone numbers for suicide hotlines with milk checks and watched commodity prices fall as wet weather kept farmers off their fields.
“Everyone said, ‘We don’t control prices, we can’t do anything,’” Ohlinger said.
Out of control
As it turns out, 2018 would throw the “perfect storm” at farmers.
Nationally, the prices they received for their goods went down, interest rates climbed, trade adjustments and tariffs introduced new uncertainty and weather events hit everyone from vegetable growers to commodity grain producers, said Shannon Dill, who studies farm business management, economics and marketing at the University of Maryland Extension.
“It’s been quite the perfect storm with what’s affecting farmers,” Dill said.
And much of it has been outside their control.
Maryland farmers struggled to get on their fields this past spring as rain drenched the region. When they finally did plant, a series of floods washed the seeds away. Dill said some farms did multiple plantings this year, adding expenses to already tight budgets.
The extension service can provide farmers advice on crop insurance and spreadsheets to help them make decisions. Faculty also encourages farmers to speak with their lenders before their homes and land are in financial jeopardy, but farmers have a tendency to be optimistic and delay asking for help, she said.
The conversations always get tougher when homes and businesses are on the line.
On Nov. 30, the U.S. Department of Agriculture forecast net farm income — a broad measure of profit — in 2018 to decline $10.8 billion, or 14 percent, from 2017 — in inflation-adjusted 2018 dollars — after increasing $13 billion in 2017.
If realized, net farm income would be 3.3 percent above 2016 levels, which were the lowest since 2002, according to the USDA.
Many of these challenges, however, are cyclical and longtime farmers are used to them, said Denny Remsburg, district manager of the Catoctin and Frederick Soil Conservation Districts.
“When you’re a farmer, you’re used to the good times, you’re used to the bad times,” Remsburg said.
In the last three to four years, however, the financial problems have compounded, and 2018 was certainly a down year, Dill said. Frederick County is not immune and some dairy families, in particular, were forced to close their businesses, sell the cows and leave agriculture, Remsburg said.
Ohlinger went looking for answers, but he was told that nothing could be done. With people’s lives on the line, he wasn’t satisfied with that. The conversation started to turn around only when he sat down with Danielle Bauer, the programs and public relations director at the Maryland Association of Soil Conservation Districts.
The pair serve on multiple boards together in Howard County, and shortly after the legislative session wrapped up in April, Ohlinger vented to Bauer — whose family also farms — about the lack of interest in studying suicide among Maryland farmers, she said.
He spitballed ideas to introduce legislation in 2019 to fund a study, but Bauer recommended the best course of action might be to apply for a grant.
Her hunch paid off, with the Rural Maryland Council awarding $14,500 to put on a series of workshops across the state in 2019 to train people on the early warning signs of severe mental stress and substance abuse. But in the early hours of Sept. 18 — the same day the organization planned to announce the workshops — Bauer’s younger sister Jackie, 21, a senior at Oklahoma State University, killed herself.
“Honestly, we are still unsure to this day [why] ... None of us knew she was struggling with any kind of depression,” said Bauer, 26, the eldest of her parents’ three children.
From the outside, Jackie looked to be fine. She grew up participating in 4-H and was a member of the National Honor Society. She already had a job lined up with John Deere after graduation to put her agricultural communications degree to the test.
In the note she left, she told her family she wished she “could be more,” Bauer said.
Suicide is one of the 10 leading causes of death in the U.S. and is responsible for 14 in every 100,000 deaths, according to the CDC’s most recent Mortality in the United States report. Between 2016 and 2017, the age-adjusted death rate of suicide rose 3.7 percent.
Losing her youngest sibling to suicide underscored the need for training, Bauer said. The goal is to teach farmers, families and agribusiness professionals the signs of mental stress, that it’s OK to talk about stress and that it doesn’t have to be a “dirty little secret.”
“I don’t want anyone to have to feel like this is something they have to deal with themselves,” Bauer said.
Michael Rosmann has seen the increase in suicide rates. As someone with a doctorate in clinical psychology and a background in farming, he’s the person farmers like Ohlinger go to for answers.
Anecdotally, he said, the suicide rate is almost double what it was three years ago. It’s the highest it has been since the 1980s farming crisis, he said. The reasons for such an increase are often economic, he said.
Farmers “look at themselves as people who are needed to feed the world,” Rosmann said. “And if they are not able to do that successfully, the first person they blame are themselves, even though it’s usually factors outside of the farmer’s control that are the major, let’s say, pressures on agricultural markets.”
Rosmann spoke at a dairy conference in Pennsylvania last month. During his talk, two women left and appeared to be overcome with emotion. Rosmann’s talk was hitting too close to home. It was like he was talking about their husbands.
Farmers can often handle two simultaneous stressors, Rosmann said. Adding a third or fourth can make the stress unbearable. In addition to the stress from economic factors, farmers are also asking themselves why they cannot make it farming when their ancestors did, or what happens if they lose the family farm.
Farmers in Maryland are far from alone in facing rising suicide rates. It’s a problem affecting farmers across the United States, even the world. A 2005 study in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry examined increasing suicide rates in farmers in the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States. All saw increased mental health stressors.
The increase has spurred action, including at the Michigan State University Extension, which created two programs to help train farmers, families and agribusiness professionals on seeing signs and symptoms of mounting stress. Director Jeff Dwyer said that they were working on creating the programs when they heard from the current directors of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. People around the state were noticing an increase in suicides and suicide attempts.
“He asked if there was anything we could do,” Dwyer said.
Locally, the University of Maryland Extension pooled resources with its School of Public Health and Family and Consumer Sciences to launch a Farm Stress Management website this year. Farmers and families can find links to financial, mental health and legal resources on the site, which is accessible through the extension’s home page.
“What we’re looking at — I don’t know if solution is the right word, exactly, but — a way to get materials out to the educators who can then get them out to other people,” said Darren Jarboe, assistant director and program leader of agricultural programs at the University of Maryland Extension.
Losing the farm
States are seeing the highest rates of farm foreclosures since the 1980s, Rosmann said. Losing the farm is one of the most stressful events that can happen to a farmer.
“It’s almost like losing a child in the family,” he said.
Though Ohlinger’s family has been in agriculture for over 100 years, there was no farm for him to inherit.
A series of unfortunate events forced his grandparents to close their dairy farm in Pennsylvania before he was born. It started when his grandfather was severely burned in an accident, and while he was in the hospital, the barn caught fire and half the dairy herd died. The family purchased new cows with the insurance money, but disease led to the animals being quarantined and their milk could not be sold.
Ultimately, his grandparents closed the farm in 1961.
Ohlinger has also had to fight, first in Montgomery County and later in Howard County, to maintain his right to farm.
“I deal with all different areas of agriculture, and it’s very hard watching your friends and family struggle,” Ohlinger said. “We’re not ready to go out of business and we’re not in dire straits, but friends have had family members commit suicide.”
Ohlinger estimates there are 300 farms left in Howard County, and the numbers continue to decline as regulations and costs push more families off the farm. A protracted fight over allowing mulch operations on farms in Howard County put farmers in regular confrontation with their suburban and urban neighbors. It was very stressful, Ohlinger said.
Some help may be coming in 2019. Four workshops on identifying severe mental stress and substance abuse will be held between March 5 and 8 on the Eastern Shore and in Bel Air, Charles County and Frederick County. Professionals who work directly with farmers are encouraged to attend.
Ohlinger doesn’t know if it is the answer, but they need to try. Something has to change.
“If we were the spotted owl, people would be trying to protect us,” Ohlinger said. “We’re basically on the edge of extinction.”