CAMBRIDGE, WI – APRIL 25: Cows walk from a barn after being milked on Hinchley’s Dairy Farm on April 25, 2017 near Cambridge, Wisconsin. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
When national best-selling author and farm kid-turned-adult Michael Perry wrote his latest book, “Forty Acres Deep” about a farmer’s struggles with mental health, he worried the heavy topic might surprise and deter some of his readers, who are used to the homespun humor of his previous works.
“I knew this would be different than a lot of my work,” Perry told me during an interview shortly after the release of his book. “I knew it was a more difficult topic. It’s definitely not an easy book to read, from an emotional standpoint. There aren’t a lot of bright, uplifting moments in there.”
There certainly aren’t. The book’s fictional main character, Harold, faces mental health challenges even deeper than the seemingly never-ending snow that continues to fall throughout the story, ultimately causing the collapse of buildings on Harold’s farm. The snow is not only a literal hazard to Harold’s livelihood but a symbolic piling on of one difficulty after another – including the recent death of his wife – that threatens to melt Harold.
Perry was right to write about the issue of farmers’ mental health in a stark, hardscrabble way, as evidenced by the book’s brisk sales. In fact, based on my conversations and interviews with many farmers during the past two years, Perry’s dark depiction of Harold and his mental health challenges are spot on.
I’ve spoken with farmers – seemingly relatively happy individuals – who have acknowledged pointing loaded guns at their heads, contemplating their seemingly bleak futures and doubting whether it is worth sticking around.
Others have described the soul-searing sense of failure they feel when they lose money year after year, placing their family’s finances and very futures in jeopardy. How do you reconcile working ever harder only to lose ever more money?
Still others tearfully talk about how the never-ending pressures of farming and losing the only way of life they have ever known has led their husband or wife or grandfather or son to kill themselves, leaving an unhappy trail of grief, what-ifs and heartbreak in their wake.
“No matter what I tried, I couldn’t convince him that it would be OK, that we would make it through. Losing the farm just broke him, and he couldn’t live with that,” one wife of a farmer who took his life told me.
‘Didn’t see any way out’
I was at Paul Adams’ farm north of Eleva on the early March day in 2020 when he sold his beloved dairy herd because his once-profitable operation had gone bankrupt. Adams had done everything farmers are supposed to do to remain in business in an increasingly competitive dairy industry. He had purchased more cows to find operational efficiencies. He had transformed his farm into an organic one, and found a profitable market for his milk. For a time he prospered, and he grew his operation some more.
Then the USDA relaxed the rules that organic dairy farms must abide by. Suddenly Adams’ 800-cow herd was competing against farms of 5,000 or more cows, and the numbers no longer worked. His only way to stay solvent was to borrow more money. But banks wouldn’t let him take on more debt. The way of life he had known on this same farm for all of his 68 years, on this same farm that had been in his family since the late 1800s, was finished.
Without farming, Adams didn’t know what to do with himself. He bounced from idea to idea, but all the while, he said, his feelings of helplessness and depression grew worse. As his struggles continued, Adams said he seriously contemplated killing himself in two different ways and became more determined to do so.
“I had just gotten to a point where I didn’t have any hope, and I didn’t see any way out of it,” Adams told me.
Brittany Olson, a farmer and Wisconsin Farmers Union member, previewed Perry’s book to offer feedback about its depiction of farmers’ mental health. She described Perry’s work as “a beautifully grim and accurate depiction of terminal depression.”
“I know a lot of farmers like the protagonist in the book, those strong and stoic and silent types, and it’s that character mold that has contributed to some of the stigma surrounding mental health in agriculture,” Olson said. “It’s a brutal and good reminder to check on each other once in a while.”
Suicides on the rise
Unfortunately, Adams is far from alone. According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS), suicides in the state have climbed substantially in recent years. Between 2010 and 2020, an average of more than 800 people died from suicide annually, a number that rose during those years. That figure has increased another 32% since 2020.
DHS doesn’t track suicides by occupation, but health experts acoss the state say suicide rates in Wisconsin’s rural regions have increased markedly and are of special concern. Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) Secretary Randy Romanski acknowledged those concerns and said his department, along with DHS and others, are working to connect farmers with mental health services.
“Farmers face so many challenges and so much that is beyond their control, and we are trying to reach out to them and get the help that they need,” Romanski said, noting the expansion of farmer mental health initiatives under Gov. Tony Evers’ administration, such as a voucher program linking farmers to mental health services.
Thankfully, some farmers are getting the help they need. Adams is among them and his outlook is much better these days. He is involved in numerous activities, chief among them advocating for changes to the current agriculture structure that makes it difficult for family farmers to compete. He is a Wisconsin Farmers Union member and tells his story at events and to politicians and others across the country in an effort to spur change and help more farmers survive the mental health struggles he endured.
“I feel so fortunate to be in the place I am today,” Adams said. “I know what it’s like to be in a dark place. And there are more farmers out there facing that than I think we realize.”
Perry agrees. He has watched farmers he knows fight the good fight before going out of business. And in whatever ways it can, he said he hopes “Forty Acres Deep” prompts farmers and others to ponder mental health needs and seek help if they need it. As evidence, the last page of his book lists multiple suicide prevention resources.
“There are people all over fighting lonely battles,” Perry said. “If in some way this book can help people reach out, that would be a good outcome.”
This piece was originally written for Wisconsin Farmers Union’s Rural Voices project. Learn more at www.wisconsinfarmersunion.com.
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