United Effort To Try And Help Wisconsin Farmers And Their Families

University of Wisconsin-Madison Division of Extension and the Southwestern Wisconsin Community Action Program (SWCAP) are partnering with agencies, organizations and others to provide education, resources, and support to Wisconsin farmers, ag service professionals, mental health, and healthcare providers to mitigate farm stress and reduce suicide risk in rural communities. 

In many Wisconsin farming communities, farmers, family members, or farmworkers face a lack of access to medical or mental health information, services, and treatment. Despite progress in recent years, there are continued barriers for those who want to seek care and support services because of stigma surrounding issues like depression, anxiety, substance abuse, or suicide risk. 

Ongoing economic conditions continue to take a toll on Wisconsin’s farm families and others in local communities in the state’s ag service and supply sectors.  

“Low prices and uncertainty for many of Wisconsin’s primary farm and food products over the last five years have created hardship and stress for many in our rural communities,” said Joy Kirkpatrick, UW Center for Dairy Profitability Outreach Specialist. “On top of that, the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic has compounded stress levels as we saw the ‘farm-to-table’ supply chains break down or get clogged up, especially in the spring and early summer of 2020, affecting farmers, workers, and consumers.” 

These conditions have led to many concerns about the high levels of farm stress, health concerns, and increased suicide risk. A recent Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade & Consumer Protection (DATCP)  Dairy Producer Survey (March 2020) found that almost 10% of respondents have felt the need to access mental health services in the past year for themselves and/or a family member due to farming challenges. 

Because of these needs, the University of Wisconsin has engaged with partners to provide education, support, and activities to support the state’s farming communities. Several efforts are led by UW-Madison Division of Extension, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the School of Human Ecology, and UW-Platteville. Since 2019, Extension has focused resources on farm stress education which can be accessed through the Resilient Farms, Families, Businesses & Communities Resource Center. These focused efforts positioned University of Wisconsin to leverage efforts for two newly funded projects: 

Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN) 

UW-Madison Extension educators in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and UW-Platteville are partnering with DATCP’s Wisconsin Farm Center to focus on farm financial management and future planning through a newly funded multi-state project. The Wisconsin team joins Extension services and other organizations in the Midwest. This effort, the North Central Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Center, is supported through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network grant. Wisconsin joins the University of Illinois and Illinois Extension who will lead the 12-state collaborative. Over several years, the $7.2 million award will create and expand statewide access to financial, stress management, and mental health resources for farmers and other stakeholders. Wisconsin will receive over $400,000 to provide education and support to Wisconsin farmers, ag-related businesses, mental health, and healthcare providers to mitigate farm stress.  

As a partner in the Wisconsin effort, the Wisconsin Farm Center will be creating farmer focus groups, developing and implementing mental health provider trainings, and assisting with other activities that focus on farmer mental health needs. “As stress among farmers continues to run high, we are excited to be joining with UW-Madison Extension and other partners to help Wisconsin farmers and their families overcome mental health related challenges through this unique collaboration,” said Jayne Krull, DATCP’s Farm Center Director. 

Wisconsin Partnership Program 

A second grant funded in October 2020, supports the farm stress, mental health, and medical care needs of farmers, families, and farmworkers in a five-county region of southwest Wisconsin. This project is led by the Southwestern Wisconsin Community Action Program (SWCAP) and is titled “Addressing Stressors, Preventing Farmer Suicide: Social Connectedness and Health.” 

The project team includes SWCAP, UW-Madison Division of Extension, the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, and the School of Human Ecology’s Center for Community and Nonprofit Studies. The $1 million grant, over five years, will address mental health needs of Wisconsin farmers and workers. The projects goals include reducing suicide risk in this population. The team will work closely with farmers, community leaders, health professionals, and others to develop a range of activities and resources designed to build resilience and knowledge among families, local businesses, services, medical and mental health care providers and others. The project will support and empower rural residents to strengthen the social connections and to leverage educational efforts on farm diversification and financial stabilization. 

This project is one of six grants funded by the Wisconsin Partnership Program at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health through its Community Impact Grants program. The projects were selected for their potential to create policy, environmental, and systems change that advance health equity and lead to equitable and sustainable improvements in health.  

Together, these new Wisconsin projects seek to engage farmers, family members, workers, and the wide range of individuals that provide products, services, technical information and support to those in the industry who produce the food and farm products that keep us healthy and safe during these challenging times. 

“We feel strongly that the answers to some of the concerns, barriers and challenges in our state’s farming communities are embedded within those in our communities,” said John Shutske, Director, UW Center for Agricultural Safety and Health. “In our rural areas, there is an incredible gold mine of wisdom, experience, and knowledge. But, because of changes in technology, an aging population, and other shifts, it’s not always possible for ideas and actions to ‘come together’ especially across geographical and time barriers. Our job will be to help communities and leaders to weave resources together in ways that benefit us all.”