On January 21, on a cold morning in Copake, New York, Dean Pierson rose before dawn. Just as he did every morning, he went out to the barn of High Low Farm alone and milked each of his 51 milking cows. By the time he finished, it was early afternoon. He went for his rifle and returned to the barn. For a second time, Dean Pierson made his way down the row of cows; this time he shot each one in the head. When all 51 were dead he wrote two notes, sat down in a chair, and shot himself in the chest.
A neighbor discovered the scene. A note on the barn door warned not to go in, but to call the police instead. Inside they found the bodies of Pierson and his cows, along with the second note, in which he explained that, though he loved his family, personal and financial troubles had left him struggling with depression. He had, he wrote, been "overwhelmed."
Last week the National Farm Family Coalition (NFFC) Dairy Subcommittee held a teleconference calling on the USDA and Congress for help. As it turns out, High Low Farm is an all-too fitting name for a dairy, and Pierson was not alone in feeling overwhelmed. In the past year the milk market in the US has taken a turn for the worse, with prices dropping to the lowest they've been since the '70s. Already overworked and in debt, dairy farmers are finding it increasingly difficult to survive. The dairy farmers participating in the teleconference described being barely able to maintain their animals and machinery, or even to feed themselves. "Farmers have their necks between a pair of scissors," dairy farmer Brenda Cochran told the teleconference. Among agricultural communities, the growing concern now is that that US is not only at risk of losing its family farms, but of losing its farmers themselves.
These farmers feel the same burden Pierson did. Pierson's father, a Swedish immigrant, had purchased High Low Farm when Dean was a baby. For his entire adult life Pierson ran the farm single-handedly, working 15 hours or more a day from the first milking before sunrise to the last after sunset. He faced a combination of troubles that farmers of all kinds often face: the pressure to maintain a family legacy passed down through generations, the responsibility of running the business, often with little help, the weight of debts incurred, and the inability to earn enough money. This set of problems is in the nature of family farming, which requires a high investment of labor and capital and offers no guarantee of return. Farms are highly susceptible to both economic and natural disaster. Although exact numbers fluctuate, studies have shown that farmers tend to have a higher incidence of mental health problems as a result. During hard times, rates of depression, substance abuse, familial breakdown, and suicide all increase. Now dairy farms are showing signs of becoming the center of a suicide epidemic.
This is not the first time suicide has broken out in farming communities. The Great Depression is perhaps the best known case. More recently, the Farm Crisis of the 1980s caused an outbreak of mental health problems in the agricultural community. Farmers had invested heavily in new machinery and expansion when the economy went bad. High interest rates and decreased consumer demand left them with debts they couldn't pay. As a result, the suicide rate among farmers in the '80s was roughly double that of the non-farming population. Similarly, during the outbreaks of hoof and mouth and mad cow disease in Great Britain in 2001 and 2002, in which the government mandated that whole herds be slaughtered, farmers' suicide rate rose to nine or ten times the national average. India has seen one of the worst suicide rates of all in the past ten years, where large investments and poor crop yields have led to unpayable debts. According to The Hindu, a national Indian newspaper, the number of farmer suicides has been steadily increasing. Just last year 1,500 Indian farmers committed mass suicide after drought caused their crops to fail.
Much of the evidence that dairy farmers are next comes from AgriWellness, Inc. This nonprofit corporation, based in Iowa, was founded in 2001 to help advocate and provide behavioral health services to agricultural communities. Among other programs, they sponsor Sowing Seeds of Hope, which provides education, healthcare support, and crisis hotlines for seven states in the Midwest. In the past year, says AgriWellness's executive director, Mike Rosmann, the number of calls received from dairy farmers has increased 40 percent. These hotlines have had success in keeping suicide rates down, but right now they exist only in Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, New York, and Tennessee. Though exact numbers are not yet available, "in states without hotlines," Rosmann told me, "the number of newspaper accounts of suicides [among dairy farmers] has increased."
That the suicide rate among male farmers has always been double that of non-farmers is due, Rosmann says, "to what I call the agricultural imperative." Farmers "feel the burden to hang onto the land and be successful" and are driven by "the urge to create the necessities for our life." Furthermore, they are often working in isolation. Rosmann would like to equip farmers with the skills to manage stress. "We can't control weather or government policy," he said, "but we can control ourselves."
Currently there are no federal programs that focus specifically on the behavioral health of the farming population. AgriWellness would like to see this change. "I would like to see the emphasis in the federal government on the people who produce the food, rather than on price support," Rosmann says. AgriWellness is working to establish a National Center for Agricultural Behavioral Health, and has also been vocal in the push for Congress to approve funding for the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN). This program, which is modeled after Sowing Seeds of Hope, was authorized by the 2008 Farm Bill but failed to receive funding then and in 2009. This year Congress will again consider funding for the FRSAN, but for now mental health services for farmers are limited mainly to what Sowing Seeds of Hope programs can provide.
Farmers are also seeking financial help from the government. Right now, according to the New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets, the average New York dairy farm of 100 cows loses about $10,000 a month, and the market doesn't show any signs of improving. After reaching historic highs in 2008, US milk prices plummeted by 27 percent last year, down to around $12 per hundredweight (12 gallons) according to the USDA. This drop was in part due to the end of drought conditions in Australia and New Zealand, and in part due to a decrease in demand for cheese, due to the recession. Meanwhile, prices would have to reach at least $17 per hundredweight just to cover the cost of production in the long run.
In the past few years, consumer demand for certified organic and bovine synthetic growth hormone–free milk has increased significantly, and these products can go for twice the price of conventional milk. In 2007 organic milk production increased by about 40 percent. So while the industry was still booming, farmers invested heavily in expansion and the means to produce organic, hormone-free milk. Now, if farmers are to pay off these debts, milk prices would have to rise even higher.
Last year the USDA announced a new Dairy Economic Loss Assistance Payment program, with $290 million authorized by the 2010 Agricultural Appropriations Bill to go towards loss assistance payments for dairy farmers. Eligible farmers received a one-time payment determined by estimates of how much milk they would produce in a year. This subsidy pushed the price of milk up some in the past year, but the price is still below what most farmers need to stay afloat.
At the teleconference last week, the heads of the NFFC Subcommittee announced that they had sent a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, as has New York State Agriculture Commissioner Patrick Hooker. Both urged him to set a higher price floor for milk, and expressed support for a bill proposed by Senator Arlen Specter, which would do that, as well as simplify the pricing structure to two classes of milk and provide dairy farmers with a living wage. As of now, this bill is still in committee.
High Low Farm, however, has already toppled over the brink. After Pierson's death, neighbors banded together with a backhoe and a bulldozer to bury the 51 cows. A John Deere tractor pulled his coffin to the cemetery. Pierson did leave alive some 50 heifers and calves, which did not require milking. Neighbors speculate that his shooting the milking cows was a mercy killing: he knew they would need to be milked, and with him gone there would be no one there to milk them. And Pierson's wife told the Times Union newspaper of Albany, NY, "[W]e need to figure out how to keep the farm going. It wouldn't be right for all that work he put into it to go to nothing." Still, with the dairy industry as it is, and without the milking cows or Pierson's fifteen-hour work days, it's hard to see how they will manage.
Marguerite Preston B'11 didn't know that exposure to insecticides also increases the risk of suicide.