Earlier this year, I attended an annual conference on bankruptcy, debtor, and creditors’ rights issues – as I have annually for 15 years.
A featured speaker at the conference was Jeff Ditzenberger, a farmer who makes it his mission to assist individuals with their mental health issues. Ditzenberger is founder of the Talking, Understanding, Growing, Supporting (T.U.G.S.) program for mental health.
During his presentation, Ditzenberger talked about the growing need for mental health care – not only for farmers, but for anyone working in an agricultural-related industry. He started the program to provide support for anyone struggling with mental health issues, specifically for men who find it hard to discuss their feelings.1
Given the economic downturn in the farming industry in Wisconsin over the last several years and its effect on the well-being of farmers, Ditzenberger’s presentation was informative and timely. Little did I know how timely that presentation actually was.
COVID-19’s Impact on Farming
Around the same time, news of the COVID-19 pandemic began to dominate the media. It was becoming clear that the pandemic was serious and deadly. Roughly three weeks after the conference, in an effort to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus in Wisconsin, Gov. Tony Evers issued the “safer-at-home” order, which was similar to shelter-in-place orders already issued in other states.
Because representing farmers is a big part of my firm’s practice, I was particularly struck by news reports focusing on the negative effects the pandemic was having specifically on the farming community all across the country. While working from home, I saw the news stories of Wisconsin farmers having to dump milk due to oversupply, COVID-19 outbreaks at meat processing plants, and farmers losing most of their customers due to the shutdown of bars and restaurants.
Another concern was that, in the Midwest, farmers are generally older. According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, the average age of farmers is almost 58, and 26% of farmers are age 65 years and older – precisely the age group most negatively impacted by COVID-19.2 I worried greatly for the farming community.
Not surprisingly, economic losses suffered by Wisconsin farmers due to COVID-19 are staggering, according to the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation: dairy and milk lost $66 million, pork lost $44.4 million, beef up to $200 million, potatoes $100 million, cranberries $31 million, soybeans up to $100 million, and corn $144 million.3
The good news is that the agricultural community has stepped up to provide assistance and resources to Wisconsin farmers during these difficult times.
Resources for Farmers Struggling with Mental Health
To help farmers struggling with their mental health, a new 24/7 counseling hotline was launched in July by the Farm Center at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (DATCP). The hotline is part of the DATCP Wisconsin Farmer Wellness Program.
The hotline is part of a pilot program that connects farmers with licensed mental health professionals, and is a free, confidential service. According to the director of the Farm Center, hotline counselors have training an experience with Wisconsin’s “state-specific challenges,” including the challenges faced by dairy farmers.4
In addition to the hotline, the Farm Center’s Wellness Program offers two further options to help farmers cope with the stresses of farming. The first are Farmer Wellness Tele-Counseling Sessions, offering farmers and their family members free, confidential, and unlimited counseling sessions over the phone or online from a licensed mental health professional for ongoing support.
A section option is the Counseling Voucher Program, which provides farmers and their family members with vouchers by request that allow them to obtain free, confidential, in-person counseling services with participating mental health professionals in their area.5
I was happy to see that Ditzenberger worked with the Farm Center to facilitate a series of mental health webinars sponsored by the Farm Center. The webinars focused on using the Question, Persuade, Refer (QPR) method to engage in discussions about mental health. Ditzenberger also continues his work through T.U.G.S. Information on the program can be found at group's Facebook page.
Economic Assistance for Farmers
On the economic side, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Sept. 17, 2020, that it would expand the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program initially rolled out in May. The expansion – Coronavirus Food Assistance Program 2 or CFAP 2 – provides producers with financial assistance that helps to absorb some of the increased marketing costs associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.
How We Can Help
In addition to helping our farm clients address their economic and financial issues, we as lawyers should be mindful that our clients may be dealing with stress, anxiety, and mental health issues, and may need information on resources to help them address those issues.
I know that Wisconsin farmers are resilient. Ultimately, with the Farm Center, the USDA, and Ditzenberger available to them, they will get through this crisis.
In the meantime, we should be “supportive, understanding that farmers with slow tractors on the road have an important job to do, and ‘have an extra cheese platter – it’s a small thing but it counts,’” as noted by Mark Stephenson, director of dairy policy analysis for the University of Wisconsin, when asked what else we as citizens can do to help farmers.6
This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Agriculture Law and Rural Practice Blog of the Solo/Small Firm & General Practice Section. Visit the State Bar sections or the Solo/Small Firm & General Practice Section web pages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.
1 Mary Hookham, “Ditzenberger: Take Time to Be Kind,” Wisconsin Custom Operators, March 25, 2020.
2 Mark Stephenson and John Shutske, “Six Possible Impacts of COVID-19 on Farming,” UW-Madison Extension, March 19, 2020.
3 Wisconsin Tomorrow – An Economy for All, Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation.
4 See Michelle Baik, “New 24/7 hotline hopes to reach Wisconsin farmers struggling with mental health,” July 16, 2020, WMTV Wisconsin; DATCP, “Farm Center offers 24/7 hotline for struggling farmers,” Wisconsin State Farmer, July 7, 2020.
5 See the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Farmer Wellness Program.
6 Jan Shepel, “Future of farming: Many Wisconsin farmers standing at a crossroad,” Wisconsin State Farmer, March 18, 2020.