Natalie's Everyday Heroes: Farmer Angel Network addresses mental health for farmers

NOW: Natalie’s Everyday Heroes: Farmer Angel Network addresses mental health for farmers

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Farming is a way of life here in Wisconsin. The state is home to more than 64,000 farms.

It's a big industry -- but it's not easy. The National Rural Health Association finds the suicide rate among farmers is 3.5% that of the general public.

Now, an organization in Wisconsin is working to make sure farmers don't struggle in silence.

"Cows, steers, heifers, and calves," said Don Harms, looking over the cattle on his farm.

Harms is a fourth-generation farmer.

"Come on you guys," he yelled out to the herd as they came running.

These days, he's tending to 120 curious cattle.

"They want to check it out, see who's here," he said with a chuckle.

They're mostly grass fed, red angus beef here at Valley Springs Farm in Reedsburg, which he raises with his wife of 41 years, Dorothy.

"We've always kind of joked that my husband is the production manager and I'm the business manager here," Dorothy Harms said with a good-natured laugh.

That business used to be dairy farming.

"I was probably putting in 80 hours a week," Don Harms said.

But something had to change.

"I tried to be such a good dairy man, that I kind of burnt myself out," he explained.

"As we aged, we felt that was not something we could continue and our children have decided to get careers off the farm," said Dorothy Harms.

Harms worried about her husband keeping his identity through the struggles and changes of carrying on his family's legacy.

"And that's one thing my husband always said, too, it isn't a choice to be a farmer, it's who you are," their friend, Brenda Statz said.

Statz knows how strong that identity is.

"It was October 8, 2018," Statz said.

That is the date her husband, Leon, a third-generation farmer, died by suicide.

"Farmers are known, strong, independent. They're used to fixing their own problems. They're used to being masters of everything," Statz said.

The pressures of running the family farm weighed on him.

"Things are just so out of your control. You still know the job, you still do the same things every day. And you either have to, like the saying always goes, get big or get out," she added.

Statz said farmers often suffer in silence.

"Nobody talked about it. It would be the rumor mill, if someone was sick or if somebody was selling out their farm, or what was going on, but if it came to mental illness, you never heard," she said.

That self-reliance can make it hard to seek help for depression and mental illness.

"I visualized my own funeral with my kids standing next to my casket," said farmer Randy Roecker.

Roecker's family started farming in the 1930's.

"We milk like 300 cows and 750 acres and I farm with my parents. They're 83 and 84 years old and then also my daughter and her husband, too," he said.

He said financial stresses caused him to go into severe depression.

"Back in 2006 is when I expanded my dairy operation. And I'll be honest, I borrowed millions of dollars to modernize and improve my dairy operation. Well, then 2008 happened and the worldwide recession," he remembered. "And my family, we had never had anything like that before, so nobody recognized the signs."

When Leon Statz died, Roecker, Statz and others started Farmer Angel Network -- providing education, resources and outreach to farmers.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Senator Tammy Baldwin is pushing for $10 million in this year's Farm Bill to fund mental health services in rural communities.

"I think mainly just make it ok to talk about mental health, and recognize that there is a problem out there," Roecker said.

"The old saying was, if you took care of your cows, they'll take care of you," Don Harms said. 

For farmers like Harms, it's knowing people are there to take care of each other.

"Sometimes you just have to take that 15 minutes and just sit and listen, when somebody you notice that they're quiet or just not quite themselves," Statz said.

For more information on Farmer Angel Network, you can visit their website.

The Wisconsin Farm Center (DATCP) is also a resource. You can find it here.

If you'd like to nominate an Everyday Hero, send Natalie a message at [email protected].

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