EP 13: Mental Health Crisis in Farming Today
Saving America’s Farmers with Randy Roecker
In Episode 13, we cover a topic that is very near and dear to my heart having grown up on a dairy farm, the one that my great-grandfather, grandpa, father and brother all worked. If you didn’t grow up on a farm, you may not be able to relate so maybe this comparison will help:
Let’s pretend it’s the 1920s. Your entrepreneurial great-grandparents start a company and through decades of blood, sweat, and tears, day in and day out, it grows to be quite successful. When they’re too old to continue, your grandpa buys the company and takes it over. This company is no stranger to your grandpa because from before he can even remember, his own blood, sweat, and tears were poured into the company and will continue to do so to keep it successful. It even makes it through the Great Depression, barely, but it does. Then, when he’s too old to keep working, your dad buys the company from him and the process is repeated and repeated again when he’s too old to keep running it. It’s now the late 1980s/early 1990s and you buy the company from your dad and take it over. You are excited to carry on the family legacy in hopes that someday your kids will take over the farm from you. Like your dad, your grandparents, and your great-grandparents you are no stranger to hard work; up before dawn in bed long after dusk. Your blood, sweat, and tears have gone into this company since before you can remember and will continue to do so every day to keep it successful.
Every day. Now, let’s get back to reality and let me remind you that this company is a family farm. A farm that supplies the milk you drink with every bowl of cereal, the vegetables your kids refuse to eat, the grain for the bread from which you make avocado toast, the whey isolate you mix with your post-workout recovery drink on your way home from the gym, the cheese you put on… let’s be honest, everything.
Like those who’ve gone before you, you experience no breaks because cows don’t milk themselves and they don’t wait for you to be ready. I take that back – maybe a slight break on a rainy day but more often than not that is when you catch up on paying bills or fixing whats broken. But you do it because it’s all you know and it’s what you love doing. Not only that, it’s your families legacy and you take great pride in feeding America. You often think about how proud your great-grandfather, your grandparents would be if he could see you today.
However, unfortunately for you, about the time you bought the your families business, the industry (aka the government) decided that even though your costs of production would increase annually, they weren’t going to increase your costs of goods sold. In simple terms, farmers were paying more and more each year for costs like grain, machinery, seeds, fertilizer but the government didn’t increase milk prices. In turn, you start losing money.
In fact, over the next two decades, you’ll rarely have a profitable year. You try to work harder, you try to work smarter but you realize that it’s not because you haven’t worked your ass off. It’s not because you’re inefficient. It’s because for two decades the dairy industry hasn’t been loyal and it hasn’t increased prices to a level that’s sustainable for a farmer. So, you take out loans again and again hoping for better prices next year. It feels wrong to do but what other options do you have? Sell the farm that’s been in your family for a century? Get another job? With the free time you have never had?
This is the business your great-grandparents created, caressed, with their own hands. It’s where so many of your family memories took place. It’s where you grew up. It’s where your dad grew up. It’s where your kids will grow up and even their kids. It’s where generations of your family have done everything. This company isn’t just a brick and mortar building with investors deciding what happens, it’s your heart and soul.
It’s literally your everything. And to walk away or to declare bankruptcy and walk away because there’s just NO way in hell any farmer can pay back the loans they owe the bank after six or seven straight years of zero profit… is not an option. You are a farmer. Your mindset is “Life is what you make it and nobody owes you nothing” and to walk away from this feels like you’ve failed generations before you. And even today, to try to sell the land and the cows is near impossible because who wants to enter a failing business? So, you’re stuck. You’re stuck with hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars in debt. You’re stuck with defeat following you around like a black cloud. Your stuck feeling like you’ve failed as a son or daughter, a husband or wife… You feel like you are nothing more than a failure.
When in all actuality, you’re anything but that.
You, America’s farmer, are everything everyone in this country should strive to be. You’re disciplined, devoted, nurturing… you are the definition of grit and humility. You know how important life’s simple pleasures are and you take pride in all that is honorable; time with family and friends and giving back to your community and your country.
But that’s not how you feel. You feel the stress of reality and the reality is, in your mind, that there is no way off of this sinking ship. So, for many farmers today, they believe that down with it they must go.
I hope that painted a picture for you as to what it’s like to be a dairy farmer today and why there’s a mental health crisis amongst farmers in America.
In Episode 13, we hear from someone who can relate to this all too well and who is courageous enough to share his story, a family friend of mine, Randy Roecker. Randy is a lifelong dairy farmer who operates a multi-generational family farm in the rolling hills of South-Central Wisconsin with his 80 year old parents and his daughter and son-in-law. He serves on two boards representing dairy farmers across the country: National Dairy Board which is a position appointed by the US Secretary of Agriculture on which he’s served under three presidencies and the second board is on a local level for Foremost Farms USA. Needless to say he’s involved in dairy farming on many levels.
Unfortunately, another level of farming he relates to is the mental health crisis amongst farms in America. In 2008 the financial crisis devastated farms across the country. Today it’s even worse.
In this episode, Randy opens up about his own personal story of depression and suicidal thoughts, how he watched his grandfather and parents successfully run the business and how when just after they expanded their farm in 2006, the economic downfall of 2008 destroyed everything.
The physical and emotional toll became too much to carry and on the day he wanted to end it all, he had a vision of his family at his funeral. Unable to put his family through that level of pain, he thankfully decided to seek professional help.
Randy has taken his pain and turned it into a purpose. Randy along with Brenda Statz and Dale Meyer, have organized a group called Farmer Angel Network that meets and encourages farmers to talk openly about their struggles. Something most farmers find very difficult and humiliating to do. This group provides more that Randy will elaborate on in the podcast.
“It’s ok to talk about this. We need to remove the stigma. Talking about mental health is as important as focusing on your physical health, emotional health, and spiritual health.”
Randy shares a harsh reality of the dairy industry today and his own personal story battling depression and suicidal thoughts. Recording this podcast, from his car outside the milking parlor where he has to return to after recording this podcast, was no surprise to me. The work never ends. Randy I am honored to share your story and I thank you for boldly, vulnerably sharing your story in hopes that it will inspire other farmers to share their story and to know they’re not alone.
Click on the link below to listen to EP:13
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