A dairy farmer, Jean-Pierre Le Guelvout, once kept 66 cows at a thriving estate in southern Brittany. But falling milk prices, accumulating debts, depression and worries about his health in middle age became too much to bear.
Just 46, Mr. Le Guelvout shot himself in the heart in a grove behind his house one cold December day last year. “It was a place that he loved, near the fields that he loved,” explained his sister Marie, who said she was “very close” to him but did not see his suicide coming.
The death of Ms. Le Guelvout’s brother was part of a quiet epidemic of suicide among French farmers with which stoical rural families, the authorities, public health officials and researchers are trying to grapple.
Farmers are particularly at risk, they all say, because of the nature of their work, which can be isolating, financially precarious and physically demanding.
For farmers who do not have children to help with the work and eventually take over, the burden is that much greater. Falling prices for milk and meat have also added to debts and stress in recent years.
Researchers and farming organizations agree that the problem has persisted for years, but while they have stepped up efforts to help farmers, the effectiveness of such measures and the toll from suicides remain difficult to quantify.
The most recent statistics, made public in 2016 by France’s public health institute, show that 985 farmers killed themselves from 2007 to 2011 — a suicide rate 22 percent higher than that of the general population.
Even that number of suicides, which increased over time, may be underestimated, say researchers, who add that they fear the problem is not going away, though they are still analyzing more recent data.
“The doctor establishing the death certificate can avoid mentioning suicide,” said Dr. Véronique Maeght-Lenormand, an occupational physician who runs the national suicide prevention plan for the Mutualité Sociale Agricole, a farmers’ association.
The reason? “Some insurance companies won’t allow compensations for spouses after a suicide,” she said. “There’s also the weight of our Judeo-Christian culture.”
Mr. Le Guelvout’s case came to light because he had previously achieved some fame as a participant in a popular television program, “L’Amour Est Dans le Pré” (“Love Is in the Field”), a sort of French version of “The Bachelor” that aimed to help farmers find companionship.
“He was very naïve,” Ms. Le Guelvout said. “He wanted a wife who worked outside the farm, and to become a father.”
But in some ways, he was representative of the farmers who are most likely to kill themselves, according to public health statistics. They are often men ages 45 to 54, working in animal husbandry.
“It is a time when you start having small health issues, when you think about the transfer of your farm,” Dr. Maeght-Lenormand said. “Farmers can start wondering why they’re doing all of this if no one is here to inherit it.”
But that is not the only force that pushes many to despair.
“There’s this financial pressure, this loan pressure,” said Nicolas Deffontaines, a researcher for Cesaer, a center that studies the economy and sociology of rural areas.
The debts, Mr. Deffontaines said, can lead farmers to deepen their investments, both personal and financial, as they immerse themselves in their work and take more loans to pay off previous ones. In doing so, they fuel their isolation and deepen the financial hole they are in, he said.
In recent years, those financial pressures have grown only more onerous. In 2015, the European Union ended quotas for dairy farmers that had been intended to avoid overproduction.
Since then, there has been a glut of some products. Prices for milk have dropped below what farm associations say is needed to run and sustain a farm, let alone to make a profit.
The move to end quotas came on top of the bloc’s imposition of sanctions on Russia in response to its land grab in Ukraine, cutting off a once-robust export market for European dairy farmers in 2014.
Because many milk farms have shut, more cows have been sent for slaughter, in turn leading to lower prices for meat, even as the Frenchlowered their consumption of meat products by 27 percent from 1998 to2013, by some measures.
Seven years ago, the French government began addressing the rising suicide rate among farmers, and the agriculture minister at the time, Bruno Le Maire, elevated the issue to a national cause.
Since then, multiple steps have been taken in coordination with the Mutualité Sociale Agricole, the farm organization.
In 2014, a hotline called Agri’écoute (Listening to Farmers) was introduced to lend troubled farmers an ear. Multidisciplinary groups were created to help farmers sort out financial, medical, legal or family issues. In 2016, those units followed 1,352 cases across France.
Much of the focus was placed on farmers who were single or widowed, but building trust was not easy, said Dr. Maeght-Lenormand of the farmers’ association.
“For the farmers who pay regular social contributions to us, we’re still seen as the ones claiming money from them,” she said.
But farmers’ organizations, like Solidarité Paysans (Farmers’ Solidarity), have also stepped in.
In 2015, Véronique Louazel, who works for the national bureau of the solidarity association, met with 27 struggling farmers for a study on the crisis the profession faces.
Farmers are often reluctant to talk about their difficulties, and it is hard for them to imagine doing anything else. “They have a strong culture of labor and effort, and they’re not used to complaining,” Ms. Louazel said.
But things are slowly changing, as more farmers speak up.
Cyril Belliard, 52, is among them. One recent day, he told his story to a small support group that had gathered in his tiny house in Vendée, a farming region in western France.
Mr. Belliard had been a farmer since 1996, he told them. But recently, he watched his goats dying day after day of a mysterious illness that neither he nor his veterinarian could figure out. Debts were piling up. Legal procedures began.
“I was living in a mobile home to avoid paying rent,” he recalled. “I moved into this small space of 35 square meters, where the whole family, my wife and children, would live, eat and sleep,” he added, referring to an area of about 375 square feet.
The father of three children, Mr. Belliard depended on charities for food and Solidarité Paysans for support. Finally, in March, he decided to sell his farm to a young farmer.
“I held on thanks to sports, which I’ve been practicing since I was 18,” he said, “and thanks to my kids, who were always my priority.”
Now, he is considering a career change. But leaving farm life is not easy and not always an option.
Since Mr. Le Guelvout’s suicide, his brother André, 52, has taken over the farm in Brittany, and his sister Marie worries about how he will handle all of the work that was previously shared. The family recently decided to stop milk production and to sell part of its livestock.
“André has been a farmer his whole life,” Ms. Le Guelvout said. “All that I want right now is for André to live peacefully on his farm, until he retires.”