Dairy herd on pasture on farm (copy)

The organic dairy is where Nathan Kling and his wife, Karen Kling, started their dairy business.

Last month, I led a farm tour for Farm Aid’s extravaganza in southeastern Wisconsin. Our tour recognized that the nation’s farmers are in economic crisis. It’s been worsening for several years, but for three years in a row, more farmers in Wisconsin than any other state have been forced into bankruptcy. Agricultural markets are dynamic and cyclical. But low prices over several years are taking a terrible toll.

I chatted with one farm tour participant who works on farmer suicide prevention. We discussed lessons from her work.

“The single best tool for prevention would be expanding the Agriculture Department’s farmer suicide prevention hotline to be available 24 hours,” she said.

Outreach about its excellent Farm Center could also help more farmers know about its offerings. She encouraged getting family practice doctors and other health care workers to routinely screen for mental health, but the mental health professionals to whom stressed farmers are referred must understand farming, because farm-related mental health issues manifest differently. Counseling needs to be farmer. specific and free.

"The Agriculture Department’s voucher system works well, as you can get a lot of therapy done in five sessions," she said.

After sharing this, this mental health worker paused.

“Really, though,” she said, “the more I do this work, the more I think it’s really the upstream interventions that will make a difference in farmer suicide — helping create reliable and fair markets for farmers.”

I agree. Our farmers have faced challenges before, and we’ve adapted. In fact, our status as a dairy state derived from farmers’ having exhausted land by growing wheat year after year in the 1800s; dairy’s more extensive crop rotation helped heal the soil.

The University of Wisconsin Extension played a crucial role in helping to create cooperatives that built the dairy industry then, and extended periods of farm stress are exactly the right time for the state to help farmers diversify or change their operations. Fifteen years ago, the Dairy Business Innovation Center helped launch our rich artisanal dairy sector; it should be revived today. The Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin program has helped farmers develop new direct marketing and farmer-owned processing systems; it should be funded at higher levels. Farm-to-school grants can and should be funded.

Our farm tour visited Pinn-Oak Ridge farm near Delavan. Steve and Darlene Pinnow and their daughter Jenny have built a successful business, raising rotationally-grazed lambs on their own 140-acre farm and building an on-farm lamb processing facility that serves farmers across southern Wisconsin. Their farm not only processes meat, but delivers to stores throughout Wisconsin and parts of Illinois and Indiana. They are just about to expand their facilities to provide a new office and expand storage for the slaughter facility. As the Pinnows talked about their successes, they gave credit to federal and state grant programs that helped them get started, including Wisconsin’s Agricultural Development and Diversification grant program, which never cost more than $300,000 a year but fostered innovation.

For a meaningful response to the farm crisis, legislators from both parties need to collaborate. Agriculture’s leadership has to acknowledge the crisis and call for remedies. And taxpayers must recognize that, in contrast to the $3 billion Wisconsin was willing to invest in a dubious Foxconn plant, farmers have always been innovators and are a sound investment in rebuilding our state’s number one industry and supporting our rural communities.

Margaret Krome of Madison writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times. She is policy program director for the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute.

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