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In Kentucky, Montana and Florida, operators at Farm Aid’s hotline have seen a doubling of contacts for everything from financial counseling to crisis assistance. In Wisconsin, Dale Meyer has started holding monthly forums in the basement of his Loganville church following the suicide of a fellow parishioner, a farmer who’d fallen on hard times. In Minnesota, rural counselor Ted Matthews says he’s getting more and more calls.
“Can you imagine doing your job and having your boss say ‘well you know things are bad this year, so not only are we not going to pay you, but you owe us’,” Matthews said by telephone. “That’s what’s happened with farmers.’
Glutted grain markets have sparked a years-long price slump made worse by a trade war with top buyer China. As their revenues decline, farmers have piled on record debt — to the tune of $427 billion. The industry’s debt-to-income ratio is the highest since the mid 1980s, when Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp organized the first Farm Aid concert.
So dire are conditions in farm country that Senator Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican, and Senator Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat, pushed for mental-health provisions to be included in the 2018 Farm Bill. The legislation allocated $50 million over five years to address the shortfall of such services in rural areas.
Ernst said she spoke with a woman whose farmer husband died by suicide. While there’s been progress on a trade resolution, the ruckus “has been very, very hard on our farmers,” she said in a telephone interview. “We’ve had such a depressed farm economy.”