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State helping farmers cope with stress of tough industry

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MADISON (WKOW) -- A package of bills Gov. Tony Evers unveiled this month would expand efforts to help farmers cope with an unpredictable industry.

Part of the focus is on reducing stress.

"The reality is that there are parts of this work that are hard and when we're not as financially viable as we would like to be, it creates stress," said Laura Daniels, a dairy farmer from Iowa County.

Daniels grew up on a farm in Wisconsin, so she knew she wanted that for her family. Fifteen years ago, she and her husband Jarred bought a farm from a family near the village of Cobb. Since then, they've seen a lot of ups and downs in a difficult industry.

"There's been some incredibly good times financially and then there's also been really wonderful hopeful times," she said. "To be quite honest, there's also the opposite, especially over the last four years, the milk price has been depressed and at the same time many of our input costs, specifically labor, has continued to increase and so that that really has put the crunch on the owners."

The family shared those experiences with Gov. Evers when he visited their farm earlier this month, as he prepared to introduce his new proposals at his State of the State speech.

Courtesy: Gov. Tony Evers

That insight helped the governor craft his new $8.5 million plan to revitalize the agriculture industry, by increasing exports, helping farmers plan and helping them find ways to cope with stress.

"That was validation, that as a farmer in Wisconsin, I needed to hear him say that he sees that there's struggles but that there's so much hope," Daniels told 27 News.

One of the proposals would add more staff to the state's Farm Center, run by the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP). It would expand access to mental health support and confidential counseling for farmers. It also increases funding for providing training to officials to better identify the warning signs of stress and suicide.

"The motto in the Farm Center is that we keep farmers farming as much as we possibly can, we do everything we can to keep them on the farm," said Angie Sullivan, supervisor of the center.

Trained staff work with farmers by trying to find solutions to stay in business, like help with transitioning a farm to a new generation, financial planning, herd care and a counseling voucher program.

Sullivan says the center has been getting 2,400 calls for help every year.

"Those calls just started becoming more and more desperate because the farmers had fewer and fewer options. They were going on five years of bad prices and trouble getting credit and so it just got to a level that was more desperate," she said.

Last year, calls for counseling vouchers more than doubled. 186 vouchers were issued in 2019, up from 89 the year before and 29 in 2017.

Now, the team is trying something new to reduce stress for farmers. They've created workshops, bringing farmers together to talk about the issues.

The first was held in Mineral Point, focused on couples in farming.

"They just said it really helped them kind of open up the conversation and be able to dialogue with each other better and in a healthier way, and learn a lot about each other that maybe they didn't quite know before," Sullivan told 27 News.

Networking is key for Laura Daniels. She's created a nationwide organization of women farmers, to bounce ideas off and support each other.

Daniels and her husband have been continuously evolving their operation to stay in business. Both work jobs off the farm to supplement their income, but she says it's also a great way to generate new ideas.

She says turning to other farmers has helped keep her farm in business.

"You have to know that you're doing good work in the world. But you also need to have those people supporting you who get it, who are working just as hard for their family and their farm, and it makes all the difference to have that community," she said.

The DATCP Farm Center is hosting couples stress management workshops in other parts of the state, with the next one in the Wausau area. Click here for dates and registration information.

In March and April, the following workshops are open to all farmers:

  • Thursday, March 12, Wausau
  • Thursday, March 26, Green Bay
  • Thursday, April 9, Beaver Dam
  • Thursday, April 16, Dodgeville

Additional workshops will be held in La Crosse and Chippewa Falls in November 2020.

Jennifer Kliese

Weekend Anchor and Reporter, 27 News

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