In Maine and the nation, economic strife in farming communities leads some to tragic ends
By Sharon Kiley Mack of the BDN Staff: AUGUSTA, Maine — It's the one topic a lot of farmers are keenly aware of but won't talk about.
They'll discuss weather, milk prices, the cost of equipment, cow genetics and bull semen, but they never talk to each other about suicide.
Increased suicide among farmers is a national trend and Maine is not exempt. "They don't call it a depression for nothin'," one Maine farmer, who asked not to be identified, said recently.
Earlier this year, a farmer in southern Maine hanged himself in his barn. Recently, two central Maine farmers in separate communities — one an organic milk producer — shot and killed themselves.
Fellow farmers are blaming the economic crisis in agriculture — particularly in dairy — for the tragedies. Expansions were made, equipment purchased and loans taken out. Then the price farmers were paid for their milk crashed. Credit was cut off and some farmers just couldn't see a way out.
Martin Lane of Shady Lane Farms in New Vineyard said he believes most farmers are struggling with depression but that they keep it to themselves. He said he has been on anti-depression medication for two years.
"I have to get up in the morning and look my kids in the eye and know that I'll not be able to help them out like I said I would," Lane said. "It certainly is a problem when I can't come through on my promises to my children."
In 2008, 14 Colorado farmers killed themselves, according to the Denver Post, double the number the previous year. In California, the nation's No. 1 dairy state, two dairy farmers have killed themselves in the past six months.
The U.S. is not alone in this trend. In April 2009, 1,500 farmers in India committed suicide after their crops failed. Tomato farmers in Ghana and drought-ridden farmers in Australia are also taking their lives, according to news accounts.
The problem is so severe that the National Farmers Union and others are lobbying federal officials to provide funding for the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network, adopted by Congress last year, which mandates a national hot line network for farmers in serious trouble.
"If you had time to go and visit, one on one, with every farmer in Maine, they'd all say the same thing. Farmers want to talk honestly about how bad it is but they are too full of pride," Lane said.
Speaking reverently of one of the deceased Maine farmers, who are not being identified in this article out of respect for their families, Clinton dairy farmer Richard Lary said recently, "He milked 380 cows and has gone through a lot of expansion over the past couple of years."
Lary said he knew the farmer well and that the man just couldn't take the volatility of the milk pricing market.
"It just goes to show you, this economic pressure is hitting the big guys just as hard as the little ones," Lary said. "I am absolutely sick over this."
Farmers aren't the only ones who know about the trend.
"We are absolutely aware of these types of situations and they are a grave concern for us," state Agriculture Commissioner Seth Bradstreet said last month.
"We had a conference call yesterday with the undersecretary of agriculture and other states' commissioners and, in fact, these tragedies are being reported elsewhere too. The New Hampshire commissioner said there were several [farmer suicides] over there this year."
Bradstreet said his department has had numerous discussions with Gov. John Baldacci's Office, banks and other lenders, trying to solve the credit crunch that is bringing Maine's agriculture community to its knees, particularly the organic dairy industry.
Field representatives for dairy giant H.P. Hood have been talking to Maine's organic milk farmers over the past few weeks, trying to come up with a solution for an unprecedented oversupply of organic milk.
The situation is being blamed on the economy. The demand for organic milk — which can cost twice as much as conventional milk in stores — has plummeted over the past year as consumers pinch pennies.
In March, Hood told eight Maine organic dairy farms their milk contracts would not be renewed. There are 72 farms in Maine producing organic milk. Some sell in bulk to other processors such as Organic Valley and Horizon Cooperative.
In its next move, Hood notified most of its remaining 14 organic milk producers in the state under contract to the company that they should cut their production this year by 15 percent.
A Hood spokeswoman, Lynne Bohan, said the reduction plan fell flat. Not one farmer volunteered to cut production.
The new proposal would establish an organic pay price, which would be adjusted month to month based on how much organic milk is sold.
"We are, in effect, asking our farmers to share the cost," Bohan said. She said farmers would be paid a percentage of their yield at the higher organic price and a percentage of the balance at the lower conventional price. She said it is expected that a higher percentage of each milk check will reflect the higher price.
"We have to work together with the farmers," Bohan said. "Sales continue to drop. There has been no increase. We have an unprecedented oversupply."
Lary, however, said he does not believe there is an oversupply. "It's a power play," he said. "Hood knows they are the only market for us. We have no option but to accept their plan. But let me say, we farmers are a lot more than just upset."
Lary said that he will be losing $3 per hundredweight of milk he produces, and he ships 10,400 pounds of milk every other day.
"That means I will lose $4,680 a month," he said.
In the retail market, organic milk can easily cost twice as much as conventional milk and, for the farmer, this translated into premiums and bonuses that lured many conventional dairy farmers in Maine to switch to organic, which they believed would be more profitable.
Organic dairies grew by leaps and bounds throughout New England over the past 15 years. By 2006, organic dairy farming had become the fastest-growing agricultural sector in New England, and Maine had the highest percentage of organic dairy farms compared with conventional farms in the country — 16 percent.
But it takes three years to switch from conventional to organic production and, for many of the Maine producers, the market took a drastic slide backward during that time.
As the economy collapsed, so did consumers' shopping habits. Organic milk purchases plummeted; even conventional milk sales slipped.
"The result is not just a loss of farms," Lary said. "Now it's a loss of farmers."
For those who need assistance: The 24-hour Maine Suicide and Crisis Hotline is 888-568-1112, and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273-TALK (8255).
"This content originally appeared as a copyrighted article in the Saturday, July 11, 2009 edition of the Bangor Daily NEWS and is used here with permission."