Organic dairy farmer Kevin Stuedemann knows how it feels to be on the verge of calling it quits.
After several producers in his area went out of business, Stuedemann’s milk buyer ended its contract with him on 30 days’ notice because there were no longer enough organic dairies nearby to justify sending a truck. With 70 cows producing milk, no customers and zero income, Stuedemann searched frantically for a new buyer and took an off-farm job to make ends meet.
“It was a terrible time,” said Stuedemann, 54, who farms about 60 miles southwest of Minneapolis near Belle Plaine. “There was a lot of anxiety, and you wonder why this is happening to me. I had two months of throwing away milk, and I couldn’t continue to do that.”
Minnesota’s farmers are worn down, both financially and emotionally, after nearly half a decade of soft prices that have upended the economics of one of the most important segments of the state’s economy. Many have done their best to cut costs, rebalance debt and stretch out loan payments, but they have also burned through savings and are running on empty.
A recent state survey of bankers, veterinarians and others who work with farmers found that 80 percent had observed an increase in financial worries, more than half noticed higher anxiety levels and more than a third saw higher levels of burnout and depression.
There is no indication that things will get better soon, with commodity prices remaining below what it would take for most farmers to cover their costs. Soybean prices are a third lower than they were in 2013, and corn prices are down by nearly half.
“We’re seeing some producers that are looking at their fourth or fifth year of losses, and that just takes a significant toll,” said Matt Ginder, chief core markets officer for Compeer Financial, a credit cooperative that works with farmers.
Farmers are no strangers to stress. They cope with unpredictable weather, physically demanding work, soaring health insurance costs and other pressures. But four consecutive years of stagnant prices and barely making a profit — or losing money — is difficult to endure.
Stress from economic hardship has caused at least two farmer suicides this year and an unknown number of attempts. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture launched a free and confidential helpline last month for farmers and others who need support. Officials are also preparing a mental health training program for sheriffs’ deputies, extension agents and others to watch for warning signs when they deal with producers and their families.
Ted Matthews, a psychologist and mental health coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, said below-cost crop prices have pushed producers’ anxiety levels off the charts, and he regularly counsels farmers who feel angry, depressed or hopeless.
“It’s definitely getting worse,” said Matthews, who has worked under contract with the state since 1993. “It takes time for people’s stress levels to get to the point of [thinking about] suicide, but we’re getting closer and closer to that point, and when people lose all hope, those types of things happen.”
Matthews said that losing a job is a lot different for a farmer than for people who work in cities.
“A lot of farmers have never done anything else, and they truly don’t believe that there’s life outside farming,” he said. “Dairy farmers work seven days a week and if they lose the dairy, they lose themselves. They lose who they are.”
Farmers he has counseled need at least two years to adjust emotionally if they lose their farms, Matthews said. Many are hard workers with budgetary and mechanical skills, he said, and eventually succeed in finding new occupations.
Also complicating matters is family legacy, said Adam Birr, executive director of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association. “One of the first things a farmer will tell you about their operation is how many generations it’s been in his family,” he said.
Birr said he hopes that farmers help others realize they are not alone in facing the challenges. “There’s a stigma around reaching out for help because farmers are independent, problem solvers, with a get-’er-done mentality,” he said.
Meg Moynihan, a senior adviser at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture who is married to Stuedemann, said farmers and other rural Minnesotans are great about talking about conservation issues, animal production and how to grow crops effectively, but they traditionally haven’t paid much attention to the human toll of the work.
“This helpline is maybe making up for that a little bit,” she said.
For Stuedemann, things seem to have turned around.
After two months of dumping milk and several more months of selling his organic milk for less than half its worth at conventional prices, he was able to sign on last December and sell to Organic Valley, the Wisconsin-based cooperative.
Stuedemann said he was able to pull through the tough times largely because he owns his 170-acre farm, carries little debt and had previous job experience as a professional mover that allowed him to pivot to a different source of income on short notice.
But some of his neighbors are not so fortunate, he said. “When you see your peers or your family that went to the city and were successful and you’re trying to make a living and can’t, I mean depression is a very real thing out here,” he said.
Ginder, of Compeer Financial, said projections show little rebound in grain prices in the next few years, and some farmers could be forced to make tough decisions on retiring or selling some assets.
Extension educator Dave Bau has been meeting for nearly 20 years with crop producers in southern Minnesota and discussing their farm financials that are part of a state database, and he said he’s never seen farmers more melancholy and disheartened.
“They just haven’t been able to sell crops for a price that’ll cover their expenses,” he said.
While every farm situation is different and some producers are surviving, Bau said, most are struggling. Even figuring in payments from federal farm programs, he said, corn producers who rent land in southern Minnesota lost an average of $69 per acre for each of the past four years, and soybean growers made about $30 per acre. The greatest losses were in 2015, he said, and 2017 could be worse.
Bob Worth, a 65-year-old soybean farmer in Lincoln County in southwest Minnesota, said that even for producers like him with plenty of equity, the past four years have been difficult financially. “It’s hurting me big-time, but it’s not the case where I’m in dire straits,” he said.
The stress of farming is really high, and the profitability is really low, Worth said.
Faculty at farm business management programs offered in eight colleges across Minnesota are also aware of the distress, said Keith Olander, director of AgCentric at Central Lakes College in Staples.
“From what we’re hearing on the outside, the obvious stories, you can rest assured that there’s two to three stories we’re not hearing about where the stress levels are very high,” he said. “That affects the whole family — marriages, children, even some community situations.”
That’s why farmers and their spouses need to reach out for help if they’re depressed or don’t know what to do, said Worth, who said he’s known two farmers who died by suicide this year because of financial problems. “I don’t want anything to happen to any more farmers,” he said. “I don’t want to have another funeral or something to go to.”