For dairy farmer Will Rogers, it was just too much to take in one envelope.
His most recent milk check from farmer-owned cooperative Agri-Mark was paltry, paying only about $17 per 100 pounds of milk — not even close to the $20 per hundredweight he needs to break even. A 2018 forecast included with the check was even worse, with the price of 100 gallons expected to fall to $15.98.
And in a move that filled Rogers with a weary sense of exasperation, the Andover-based co-op also included contact information for mental health support and suicide prevention agencies. New York farmers were also told of that state’s Ag Mediation Program which can help debt issues, loan restructuring and financial counseling.
“We have reached the halfway point of a particularly stressful winter while also facing falling milk prices,” the letter reads. “Farm families are incredibly resilient, but some members may want to take advantage of helpful programs where they can talk with experts about work and financial stress, depression and anxiety, grief counseling, substance abuse and family relationship issues.”
The issue hits Rogers especially hard. His father, Earl, died by suicide in 1986 on a day Will had come home from classes at the Stockbridge School at the University of Massachusetts Amherst to help out on the farm. A downswing in milk prices was partly to blame for his father’s state of mind.
“Now I am reliving that all over again,” he said.
Farmers have the highest suicide rates of any profession, with 84.5 suicides per 100,000 people each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Men in the industry kill themselves at an even higher rate: 90 per 100,000.
Rogers said consumers need to know the stress the men and women who grow their food are under.
“They meant well by sending out this letter,” he said. “Things could have been handled differently.”
He suggested sending a separate mailing, so the bad financial news doesn’t come with talk of suicide. Or, he said, perhaps an Agri-Mark representative could broach the subject with farmers in person.
The letter was Agri-Mark’s way of addressing what could become a crisis among its farm families, said Douglas DiMento, Agri-Mark’s director of corporate communications.
“We know from our past experience that dairy farmers tend to be alone on the farm,” DiMento said. “They tend to work alone. They tend to keep a lot of their problems to themselves”
Agri-Mark, which owns the Cabot and McCadam brands, has 1,000 farmer-owners in New England and New York, including 60 in Massachusetts. The company is also about halfway through a $17 million expansion at its plant at 958 Riverdale St. in West Springfield. When the expansion opens later this year, the plant will be able to accept more milk to make more product, such as butter and cheese.
But the problem is that the worldwide market is awash in excess milk, DiMento said.
Agri-Mark tries to keep prices up by making as many different dairy products as possible, and by selling those products under its own brand name for a premium price.
When prices go down, though, farmers increase production to make the money they need to survive. This leads to even more supply, DiMento said .
Prices, meanwhile, are set by the federal government using a complex formula.
Rogers has 75 milking cows right now, and grows crops on 420 acres of land he owns and rents. Side businesses help him make ends meet. He sells sweet corn, pumpkins, decorative corn stalks and hay or firewood, depending on the time of year. He also sells composted cow manure.
But some farmers aren’t on busy roads with ready customers for corn or compost. Some are faced with the choice of giving up not just their business, but a farming heritage passed to them over generations.
“There is going to be a mass exodus of dairy farms. There will be some loss of life,” Rogers said. “People need to be made aware. We work awfully hard to produce the food on people’s tables. And we have no control over the prices we are paid.”