Editor’s note: The tragic news last week of suicides by creative celebrities Kate Spade and Andrew Bourdain captured headlines and emotions. But despair does not discriminate. Storyboard contributor Julia Shipley offers this view into the tragedy that stalks an everyday world we all depend on but sometimes take for granted.
In 2013, journalist Debbie Weingarten was in a dark place. She was a new mother and a farmer, living in an isolated rural area, doing taxing physical work and struggling with both her marriage and family finances. These stressors, compounded by the constant needs of her baby and her crops, fueled a deepening depression. But when Weingarten googled “free counseling for farmers”— her search came up blank. She kept hunting, and stumbled across a website for a defunct agricultural mental health program. With nothing to lose, she dialed the number listed on the site. Someone answered.
On the other end of the line was psychologist Dr. Mike Rosmann, who for the past 40 years has been fielding calls from thousands of farmers in duress.
What started with one farmer’s frantic search for help became a multi-year investigative project for Weingarten, who eventually left her marriage and her farm and began writing. In December 2017, the Guardian US published “Why Farmers Are Killing Themselves in Record Numbers” – an intimate feature that exposes the global prevalence of farmer suicides. The story prompted an outpouring of comments, which led to a follow-up story about the widespread response and to new legislation to support mental health services for farmers in crisis.
Recently Weingarten and her collaborator, photographer Audra Mulkern, founder of the Female Farmer project, received honorable mention from the National Press Foundation for this story.
“My personal experience of depression and anxiety while farming was the spark that led to, frankly, an obsession.”
Despite the embrace of the published story, Weingarten had trouble interesting editors in the idea. The local food movement was booming – and along with it, apparent interest in the world of farming and farmers. Yet Weingarten pitched her story to multiple outlets for more than two years, with no success, until it was championed by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a nonprofit founded by activist and modern muckracking journalist Barbara Ehrenreich.
The nonprofit funded Weingarten’s reporting trips to Kansas and Iowa, and helped place the story with the Guardian for their co-published “On the Ground” series.
“I spent five years interviewing farmers and advocates and obsessing over behavioral health statistics,” Weingarten told Storyboard. “I was completely baffled that the issue of farmer suicide was so underreported. Many of my friends farm as a livelihood. And just about every farmer I know struggles with stress, occasional depression or other mental health issues, and financial precariousness.”
Weingarten currently serves as a writing fellow with TalkPoverty, to discuss the process of bringing troubling topics out of the shadows and into the light. “My personal experience of depression and anxiety while farming was the spark that led to, frankly, an obsession, “ she said. “At some point I realized that writing was a tool I could use to bring attention to issues facing farmers.”
The annotation: Storyboard’s questions are in red; Weingarten’s responses in blue. To read the story without annotations, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button, which you’ll find just below the social media buttons in the top right-hand menu.
By Debbie Weingarten
On the Ground, the Guardian US, December 6, 2017It is dark in the workshop, but what light there is streams in patches through the windows. Cobwebs coat the wrenches, the cans of spray paint and the rungs of an old wooden chair where Matt Peters used to sit. A stereo plays country music, left on by the renter who now uses the shop. You begin the story in a dark place, literally and figuratively, with tiny slivers of light coming in. How did you decide to launch the story with this setting? Did you sense this was the story’s starting point during your reporting, or after you began drafting? I was originally working with a different beginning—perhaps a more traditional opening, journalistically speaking—but kept being drawn back to this scene. I can’t describe how emotional it was to walk into that workshop with Ginnie. We soaked up that space—Matt’s posters still on the walls, his handwritten notes taped to the wall, tools and furniture collecting dust. Ginnie hadn’t been in the workshop for a long time, she said, and being there with her was like watching someone step into a box of memories. So when I was writing, I kept trying to move this scene down in the piece, but it kept wanting to be the beginning. I think I intuitively knew it was the beginning, the “way in” for both myself and the reader, but it took some time for me to fully commit to it.
“It smells so good in here,” I say. “Like …”
“Men, working,” finishes Ginnie Peters.
We inhale. “Yes.”
Ginnie pauses at the desk where she found her husband Matt’s letter on the night he died.
“My dearest love,” it began, and continued for pages. “I have torment in my head.” You’ve incorporated some text from one of the most intimate documents–one Matt Peters wrote to his wife, to share with thousands of readers. Was Mrs. Peters initially reluctant to include an excerpt? I agree that this was a brave, intimate detail for Ginnie to share. I’m not sure if she felt reluctant, but she volunteered this quote from Matt’s letter on her own. Recently Audra and I were talking to her on the phone, and she told us she had been prepared to stop the interview if she had any reservations about our intentions, or if she had a bad feeling or things felt “off.” We built a lot of trust right there at her kitchen table, and she opened up to us. She shared journal entries, photos, and many personal details with us—many of which did not end up in the final piece. Ultimately, I think she felt an obligation to speak out about suicide for those who could not, including her husband.
On the morning of his last day, 12 May 2011, Matt stood in the kitchen of their farmhouse.
“I can’t think,” he told Ginnie. “I feel paralyzed.”
“Who can help me with this? I felt so alone.”
It was planting season, and stress was high. Matt worried about the weather and worked around the clock to get his crop in the ground on time. He hadn’t slept in three nights and was struggling to make decisions.
“I remember thinking ‘I wish I could pick you up and put you in the car like you do with a child,’” Ginnie says. “And then I remember thinking … ‘and take you where? Who can help me with this?’ I felt so alone.”
Ginnie felt an “oppressive sense of dread” that intensified as the day wore on. At dinnertime, his truck was gone and Matt wasn’t answering his phone. It was dark when she found the letter. “I just knew,” Ginnie says. She called 911 immediately, but by the time the authorities located his truck, Matt had taken his life.
Ginnie describes her husband as strong and determined, funny and loving. They raised two children together. He would burst through the door singing the Mighty Mouse song – “Here I come to save the day!” – and make everyone laugh. He embraced new ideas and was progressive in his farming practices, one of the first in his county to practice no-till, a farming method that does not disturb the soil. “In everything he did, he wanted to be a giver and not a taker,” she says.
After his death, Ginnie began combing through Matt’s things. “Every scrap of paper, everything I could find that would make sense of what had happened.” His phone records showed a 20-minute phone call to an unfamiliar number on the afternoon he died. How did you learn of Matt Peters’ death and how did you approach his widow? Through Dr Rosmann. But I had to establish trust with him first before he would connect me with anyone else. And once he did, I met John, [Blaske,] [also profiled in this article] who was actively struggling with behavioral health issues. We spoke on the phone for nearly a year before we met in person. Dr. Rosmann also connected me with two widows, Ginnie and Lynette.
When she dialed the number, Dr. Mike Rosmann answered.
“My name is Virginia Peters,” she said. “My husband died of suicide on May 12th.”
There was a pause on the line.
“I have been so worried,” said Rosmann. “Mrs. Peters, I am so glad you called me.”
Rosmann, an Iowa farmer, is a psychologist and one of the nation’s leading farmer behavioral health experts. He often answers phone calls from those in crisis. And for 40 years, he has worked to understand why farmers take their lives at such alarming rates – currently, higher rates than any other occupation in the United States. This story is going to shift and largely stay with Rosmann and his work for the rest of the article, how did you determine the streambed of this piece? I struggled to figure out where to anchor the story. I had interviewed farmers in Pennsylvania, California, New York, and so on. For awhile, I thought I would focus on dairy farmers. But at some point, I realized that it made sense, especially if I was going to acknowledge my own experience as a farmer reaching out for help, that Dr. Rosmann be a kind of central “hub.” So that focused the piece on Iowa and Kansas, and it made sense to me to structure the piece in threads that all connected back to Dr. Rosmann.
Once upon a time, I was a vegetable farmer in Arizona. And I, too, called Rosmann. I was depressed, unhappily married, a new mom, overwhelmed by the kind of large debt typical for a farm operation. We were growing food, but couldn’t afford to buy it. We worked 80 hours a week, but we couldn’t afford to see a dentist, let alone a therapist. I remember panic when a late freeze threatened our crop, the constant fights about money, the way light swept across the walls on the days I could not force myself to get out of bed. How did you discover Rosmann’s services? In 2013, I was farming, had just become a mom, and was in an abusive marriage. I was struggling with depression and anxiety, due in part to the challenges I just mentioned, but also the isolation and economic pressures of the farm. I remember googling “free counseling for farmers” and finding nothing. Finally I found a program called Sowing Seeds of Hope, based in the Midwest. The website said the program had been shuttered due to a loss in funding, but I figured I’d try the number anyway. And despite being de-funded, Dr Rosmann was still picking up the phone for farmers.
“Farming has always been a stressful occupation because many of the factors that affect agricultural production are largely beyond the control of the producers,” wrote Rosmann in the journal Behavioral Healthcare. “The emotional wellbeing of family farmers and ranchers is intimately intertwined with these changes.”
…the suicide death rate for farmers was more than double that of military veterans.
Last year, a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that people working in agriculture – including farmers, farm laborers, ranchers, fishers, and lumber harvesters – take their lives at a rate higher than any other occupation. The data suggested that the suicide rate for agricultural workers in 17 states was nearly five times higher compared with that in the general population.
After the study was released, Newsweek reported that the suicide death rate for farmers was more than double that of military veterans. This, however, could be an underestimate, as the data collected skipped several major agricultural states, including Iowa. Rosmann and other experts add that the farmer suicide rate might be higher, because an unknown number of farmers disguise their suicides as farm accidents.
The US farmer suicide crisis echoes a much larger farmer suicide crisis happening globally: an Australian farmer dies by suicide every four days; in the UK, one farmer a week takes his or her own life; in France, one farmer dies by suicide every two days; in India, more than 270,000 farmers have died by suicide since 1995.
In 2014, I left my marriage and my farm, and I began to write. The previous sentence begins with nine simple words that are possibly colossal and complex when lived. Were your conversations with Rossmann integral to this decision? I only spoke with Dr. Rosmann twice, I think, so no. But I would say that the strength that I gathered to pick up the phone and call Dr Rosmann was similar to the strength I mustered when I finally left my marriage. It came from the same place. There seemed to be no other choice. I aimed to explore our country’s fervent celebration of the agrarian, and yet how, despite the fact that we so desperately need farmers for our survival, we often forget about their wellbeing. Given your agricultural background, you’re the perfect journalist to cover this story, and at the same time, your strong feelings could have potentially interfered with reporting. How did you balance objectivity with your lived experience? Yes, that’s true. I worried about that. I honestly wasn’t sure that my own experience would come into play at all. Some versions of the piece I imagined writing were completely removed from my own experience, and 100 percent reported. And yet, there was something missing when I tried to remove myself. In a way, I was part of the story whether I liked it or not, because I was part of the web of people connected to Dr Rosmann. And I knew that if I told the story without acknowledging that, it would have been hollow. As far as making those tough decisions about balance and what to leave in and take out, I say thank goodness for good, kind, smart-as-hell editors.
Four years after contacting Rosmann as a farmer, I am traveling across Iowa with a photographer in an attempt to understand the suicide crisis on America’s farms. Can you remember the moment you realized your personal crisis as a farmer was in fact a global issue? Can you remember how you decided you wanted to thoroughly investigate this issue? Around the time I called Dr Rosmann, I wrote a story for Edible Baja Arizona about the challenges of small-scale farmers. In part, I called Dr[pq]…in part, I was hiding behind a story I was writing…[/pq]Rosmann because I was struggling, and in part, I was hiding behind a story I was writing, which is perhaps how I’ve always made sense of my experiences. I figure them out by writing. Anyway, I tracked down a man named Bob Fetsch, who works on farmer behavioral health issues in Colorado. And he gave me a farmer suicide statistic from Colorado, and I was completely floored. After that, it was on my radar to an obsessive level. I began researching farmer suicide all over the world. It’s been raining all morning – big gray swaths – and we are standing in the entryway of the Rosmanns’ house.
“Should we take off our shoes?” we ask. Mike’s wife, Marilyn, waves us off. “It’s a farmhouse,” she says. On this overcast day, the farmhouse is warm and immaculately decorated. Marilyn is baking cranberry bars in the brightly lit kitchen.
Mike appears a midwestern Santa Claus – glasses perched on a kind, round face; a head of white hair and a bushy white moustache. In 1979, Mike and Marilyn left their teaching positions at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and bought 190 acres in Harlan, Iowa – near Mike’s boyhood farm. When he told his colleagues that he was trading academia for farm life, they were incredulous.
“I told them farmers are an endangered species, and we need them for our sustenance. I need to go take care of farmers, because nobody else does,” says Rosmann. Once back in Iowa, the Rosmanns farmed corn, soybeans, oats, hay, purebred cattle, chickens and turkeys. Mike opened a psychology practice, Marilyn worked as a nurse, and they raised two children.
When the rain breaks, Mike pulls on muck boots over his pants, and we go outside. He has the slightest limp; in 1990, during the oat harvest, he lost four of his toes “in a moment of carelessness” with the grain combine, an event he describes as life-changing. We are walking through the wet grass toward the cornfield behind his house, when he cranes his head. “Hear the calves bellering?” he asks. “They’ve just been weaned.” We stop and listen; the calves sound out in distressed notes, their off-key voices like prepubescent boys crying out across the field.
In the 1980s, America’s continuing family farm crisis began. A wrecking ball for rural America, it was the worst agricultural economic crisis since the Great Depression. Market prices crashed. Loans were called in. Interest rates doubled overnight. Farmers were forced to liquidate their operations and evicted from their land. There were fights at grain elevators, shootings in local banks. The suicide rate soared.
“What we went through in the 1980s farm crisis was hell,” says Donn Teske, a farmer and president of the Kansas Farmers Union. “I mean, it was ungodly hell.”
In the spring of 1985, farmers descended on Washington DC by the thousands, including David Senter, president of the American Agriculture Movement (AAM) and a historian for FarmAid. For weeks, the protesting farmers occupied a tent on the Mall, surrounded the White House, marched along Pennsylvania Avenue. Farmers marched hundreds of black crosses – each with the name of a foreclosure or suicide victim – to the USDA building and drove them into the ground. “It looked like a cemetery,” recalls Senter. This is a political story, a mental health story, a personal story, an agricultural story, a national story and an international story. How did you confine this piece to just over 3,000 words? Well, it was originally assigned at something like 2000 words. And then, in a back-and-forth with the editors, we decided it needed to be longer. I turned in 4,000 words, and we cut it down to 3,200. And there were hard cuts, entire stories left out, entire people left out. It was difficult because I wanted to put everything in, but there’s a cap to how long readers will pay attention, and I trusted my editors on that.
Rosmann worked on providing free counseling, referrals for services, and community events to break down stigmas of mental health issues among farmers. “People just did not deal with revealing their tender feelings. They felt like failures,” says Rosmann.
During the height of the farm crisis, telephone hotlines were started in most agricultural states.
“And what was the impact?”
“We stopped the suicides here,” he says of his community in Iowa. “And every state that had a telephone hotline reduced the number of farming related suicides.”
In 1999, Rosmann joined an effort called Sowing Seeds of Hope (SSOH), which began in Wisconsin, and connected uninsured and underinsured farmers in seven midwestern states to affordable behavioral health services. In 2001, Rosmann became the executive director. For 14 years, the organization fielded approximately a half-million telephone calls from farmers, trained over 10,000 rural behavioral health professionals, and provided subsidized behavioral health resources to over 100,000 farm families.
Rosmann’s program proved so successful that it became the model for a nationwide program called the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN). Rosmann and his colleagues were hopeful that farmers would get the federal support they so desperately needed – but though the program was approved as part of the 2008 US Farm Bill, it was not funded.
While Senator Tom Harkin and other sympathetic legislators tried to earmark money for the FRSAN, they were outvoted. Rosmann says that several members of the House and Senate – most of them Republicans – “were disingenuous”. In an email, Rosmann wrote, “They promised support to my face and to others who approached them to support the FRSAN, but when it came time to vote … they did not support appropriating money … Often they claimed it was an unnecessary expenditure which would increase the national debt, while also saying healthy farmers are the most important asset to agricultural production.”
Since 2013, net farm income for US farmers has declined 50 percent.
The program, which would have created regional and national helplines and provided counseling for farmers, was estimated to cost the government $18m annually. Rosmann argues that US farmers lost by suicide totals much more than this – in dollars, farmland, national security in the form of food, and the emotional and financial toll on families and entire communities. In 2014, the federal funding that supported Rosmann’s Sowing Seeds of Hope came to an end, and the program was shuttered. Since this article was published last December, Rosmann’s been receiving hundreds of comments and requests, many from farmers reaching out for support. Also as a direct result, Washington State Rep. JT Wilcox has crafted House Bill 2671 to provide more free counseling services for farmers. What are your feelings about this response? I think it’s amazing. And, to provide an update, the Washington state bill was signed into law by Governor (Jay) Inslee in March. And the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate have each introduced farmer suicide prevention legislation in the last month. The Senate version, The FARMERS FIRST Act, has $50 million attached to programming. Funding is absolutely critical for providing life-saving mental health resources to farmers. Additionally, there are some tireless, badass advocates, farmers, and legislators working hard to make change for agriculture workers.
The September sky is chalk gray, and for a moment it rains. John Blaske’s cows are lined up at the fence; cicadas trill from the trees. It’s been a year since he flipped through Missouri Farmer Today and froze, startled by an article written by Rosmann.
Much of the acreage lost to the Blaskes sits across the road from the 35 acres they retain today. “I can’t leave our property without seeing what we lost,” Blaske frets. “You can’t imagine how that cuts into me every day. It just eats me alive.”
Rosmann has developed what he calls the agrarian imperative theory – though he is quick to say it sits on the shoulders of other psychologists. “People engaged in farming,” he explains, “have a strong urge to supply essentials for human life, such as food and materials for clothing, shelter and fuel, and to hang on to their land and other resources needed to produce these goods at all costs.”
When farmers can’t fulfill this instinctual purpose, they feel despair. Thus, within the theory lies an important paradox: the drive that makes a farmer successful is the same that exacerbates failure, sometimes to the point of suicide. In an article, Rosmann wrote that the agrarian imperative theory “is a plausible explanation of the motivations of farmers to be agricultural producers and to sometimes end their lives.”
Since 2013, net farm income for US farmers has declined 50%. Median farm income for 2017 is projected to be negative $1,325. And without parity in place (essentially a minimum price floor for farm products), most commodity prices remain below the cost of production.
In an email, Rosmann wrote, “The rate of self-imposed [farmer] death rises and falls in accordance with their economic well-being … Suicide is currently rising because of our current farm recession.”
Inside the sunny lobby of the newly remodeled Onaga community hospital, where Joyce Blaske happens to work in the business department, Dr Nancy Zidek has just finished her rounds. As a family medicine doctor, she sees behavioral health issues frequently among her farmer patients, which she attributes to the stressors inherent in farming. “If your farm is struggling, you’re certainly going to be depressed and going to be worried about how to put food on the table, how to get your kids to college,” she says.
In August 2017, Tom Giessel, farmer and president of the Pawnee County Kansas Farmers Union produced a short video called “Ten Things a Bushel of Wheat Won’t Buy”. At $3.27 per bushel (60lb), Giessel says, “The grain I produce and harvest is my ‘currency’ and it is less than one-fifth of what it should be priced.”
He shows snapshots of consumer goods that cost more than a bushel of wheat: six English muffins, four rolls of toilet paper, a single loaf of bread – even though one bushel of wheat is enough to make 70 one-pound breadloaves. Dr Zidek says the wellbeing of farmers is inextricably linked to the health of rural communities. “The grain prices are low. The gas prices are high. Farmers feel the strain of ‘I’ve got to get this stuff in the field. But if I can’t sell it, I can’t pay for next year’s crop. I can’t pay my loans at the bank off.’ And that impacts the rest of us in a small community, because if the farmers can’t come into town to purchase from the grocery store, the hardware store, the pharmacy – then those people also struggle.”
Indeed, it is Saturday afternoon, and downtown Onaga is practically deserted. There’s a liquor store, a school, a few churches, a pizza place, a youth center and boarded-up storefronts. “You need to have a family farm structure to have rural communities – for school systems, churches, hospitals,” says Donn Teske of the Kansas Farmers Union. “I’m watching with serious dismay the industrialization of the agriculture sector and the depopulation of rural Kansas … In rural America,” he adds, “maybe the war is lost.” You partnered with photographer Audra Mulkern on this story. How did your collaboration with Audra begin and how has partnering with a photographer influenced the shape and direction of this story? Audra is the founder of The Female Farmer Project, which is a multimedia project documenting the rise of women in agriculture. I called her up one day to interview her as a fellow documentarian for a Civil Eats story about women’s workwear, and we hit it off. She flew down to Arizona (my home state, and the state with the highest proportion of female farmers) and we went on a road trip photographing and interviewing farmers. We’ve worked together on several stories, and it seemed obvious that she should be the photographer for the Guardian story.
After finding the article in Missouri Farmer Today, John Blaske decided to contact Rosmann. But the article listed a website, and the Blaskes did not own a computer. So he drove to the library and asked a librarian to send an email to Rosmann on his behalf. A few days later, as Blaske was driving his tractor down the road, Rosmann called him back.
“He wanted to hear what I had to say,” Blaske says. “Someone needs to care about what’s going on out here.” In your follow-up piece in the Guardian you state that this has been a five-year project, during which time you’ve collected many more stories than you were able to feature in the article. Are you and Audra working on another project pertaining to these issues? I’m working on another piece about the pending farmer suicide prevention legislation right now, and will continue to follow the issue. Audra and I are working on a handful of other stories that sit at the intersection of agriculture and social justice, and in a way, they’re all related to the wellbeing of farmers. I’m also working on a related book concept.
Since the 1980s farm crisis, Rosmann says experts have learned much more about how to support farmers. Confidential crisis communication systems – by telephone or online – are effective, but staff need to be versed in the reality and language of agriculture. Despite revived interest in learning where food comes from, there are more people living in cities than ever before. Were you aiming this story toward a broad readership or strategically targeting an urban audience? I actually think this is part of why the story was rejected so many times—either for being irrelevant to the interests of urban dwellers, or for being “too depressing.” I wrote this for everyone, because this is a story that is relevant and important for both farmers and consumers. If you eat, this is important to know and care about.
“If you go to a therapist who may know about therapy but doesn’t understand farming, the therapist might say, ‘Take a vacation – that’s the best thing you can do.’ And the farmer will say, ‘But my cows aren’t on a five-day-a-week schedule.’”
Affordable therapy is critical and inexpensive to fund – Rosmann says many issues can be resolved in fewer than five sessions, which he compares to an Employee Assistance Program. Medical providers need to be educated about physical and behavioral health vulnerabilities in agricultural populations, an effort Rosmann is working on with colleagues.
John Blaske says painting helps. When he’s feeling up to it, he paints heavy saw blades with detailed farmscapes. Counseling and medication have also helped, but he craves conversation with farmers who know what he’s experiencing. “I would really give about anything to go and talk to people,” he says. “If any one person thinks they are the only one in this boat, they are badly mistaken. It’s like Noah’s Ark. It’s running over.”
Inside the farmhouse, Blaske places two journals in my hands. They’re filled with memories of walking through town barefoot as a child, how his mother would pick sandburs out of his feet at night; about the years he worked full-time at the grain elevator, only to come home to farmwork in the dark and counting cows by flashlight.
The image of Blaske on the farm, illuminating the darkness, is a powerful one. “Sometimes the batteries were low and the light was not so bright,” he wrote, “But when you found the cow that was missing, you also found a newborn calf, which made the dark of night much brighter.” This scene, akin to the opening scene, involves a discovery in the darkness, and thus enacts a subtle envelope around the data and stories. Did creating these rhyming scenes come naturally or did you struggle to conclude in an unforced but hopeful way? Ah, this was a great catch by a friend-editor who read the piece before I submitted it. She remarked that this might be the perfect, visual, “glimmer of hope” ending. Just as the beginning scene naturally fell into place, this ending intuitively felt right. And I just love ending with John’s beautiful words and the image of a farmer’s light shining in the darkness.
In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In the UK the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found atwww.befrienders.org.