Farming is a uniquely stressful occupation, and farmer mental-health needs tend to be underserved, said Loganville, WI dairy farmer Randy Roecker in the latest Dairy Defined podcast. Roecker, a board member for Foremost Farms USA, is a co-founder of the Farmer Angel Network, a Wisconsin organization that helps support farmers’ mental health needs.
“A lot of farmers are very isolated and they don't get off the farm very much. This leads to getting stuck in the same rut over and over again,” he said. “The main thing is to just be there for each other.”
Alan Bjerga: Hello and welcome to Dairy Defined. Farmer Mental Health, it's a challenging topic between the unique pressures of life and agriculture and the issues with access that come with living in a rural area. For too long, the topic simply hasn't been discussed, but that's changing. Today we talk about the Farmer Angel Network created to build strong rural communities that support agriculture by providing education, resources and fellowship with a focus on mental health.
Randy Roecker, a Wisconsin dairy farmer and a board member of the Foremost Farms USA cooperative, joins us today to talk about the network, the challenges of mental health for a farmer, and how agriculture is finally building a community to handle these issues. Thank you for joining us, Randy.
Randy Roecker: Thank you. Pleasure to be here.
Alan Bjerga: Tell us a little bit about the network, what it is, how it started, and most importantly, perhaps why it started.
Randy Roecker: The Farmer Angel Network started in the fall of 2018 after the unfortunate suicide of a neighboring farmer. And we met in our local church, St. Peter's Lutheran Church here in Loganville. We felt that was a place where we could gather and just talk about what happened. And at that meeting, we had about 50 people for our first meeting. We didn't expect that, and we just had such an outpouring of people that showed up. And we had a reporter from the Wisconsin State Journal. That story that he did was picked up on the AP network, and the next thing you knew, NBC Nightly News was out at our farm and in our community interviewing people. We've actually had stories done now from all over the world.
Alan Bjerga: You've shared also some stories of your own struggles with depression. Could you tell us a little bit about your farm, some of what you faced and the journey where that took you?
Randy Roecker: Well, Roecker's Rolling Acres is now going on the fourth generation, and the farm was started in the 1930s by my grandfather. And after graduating from the UW Farm and Industry Short Course, I returned home with a goal of modernizing our farm. It took me many years to accomplish this. And then shortly after construction of our new facility, the worldwide recession hit in 2008. Milk dropped at that time to a little bit over $9. My life was basically a mess. Faced with losing this legacy that my grandfather had started, I sunk into a very deep depression. I talk about my struggles openly now, and it's actually hard.
My mom and dad are in their early 80s and they are one of those that they don't like you to share stories like this, but I feel that if I can help one person, so that's why I'm so open with my struggles. When I was going through this, I seen eight psychiatrists and seven therapists, and I was on over 20 medications and I was in the hospital three times. I had electroconvulsive shock therapy done nine times to try and reset my brain, I guess. But that's the struggles that I went through, and my life was a mess, but I pulled through that okay.
Alan Bjerga: As a dairy farmer what were some of the unique challenges you feel that you and other farmers are facing when dealing with maintaining mental health?
Randy Roecker: Well, the struggle that farmers have in maintaining their mental health, I believe were a combination of different things. Mainly it's a lot of farmers are very isolated and they don't get off the farm very much. This leads to getting stuck in the same rut over and over again. And everybody needs a break from the farm, if it's just to go out with friends or get away with the family. But we all need that time off. I think that's leading to a lot of this is just the isolation and hard work all the time, and you just never get a break.
Alan Bjerga: But you talked about people in their 70s and 80s and not wanting to talk about this so much. It's a different mentality. How do you get through that while still being respectful of what a lot of people achieve? And they'll say, "I did it on my own. I didn't need help."
Randy Roecker: Yeah, that's the challenge we're having. Our farm right now like I said, is going on the fourth generation. So unfortunately my grandfather is gone, but my dad is still here and my mom, and then my kids are involved too. So when you have this different age group, it's a challenge to farm together and it's hard. We want to be open, talk about our struggles that we're having, and yet the older generation, this is something, it's this stigma that you have with mental health that you're not supposed to talk about it. But that's one of the goals of the Farmer Angel Network is that we want to make it okay to talk about this.
Alan Bjerga: I would think it's a way to help bring people together and deal with some of that isolation you were discussing earlier.
Randy Roecker: Definitely. And that's one thing with the Farmer Angel Network. A couple of years ago before COVID, there's an older drive-in movie theater, and we had a night there, and I think we had over 200 people that night. Actually now on February 11th, we're going to have another movie night for farmers to come to. We get concessions provided for free from different businesses in the area. So that's one thing that we like to do is just to get together and forget about the farm for once and just have fun.
Alan Bjerga: So taking a look at the Farmer Angel Network specifically, what are some of the activities that you've been doing, and how have you been evolving as you've gotten more experience at this and more insight into what farmers need?
Randy Roecker: So in the past, we've actually done QPR training. We teamed up with the Sauk County Health Department here where I live, and they came in and they provide this training. It's a QPR. It stands for question, persuade and refer. So they'll put training on for different groups, and I don't care if it's your veterinarians or nutritionist or bankers or whoever, they're the ones that get out to the farm and they see how farmers are when they're talking with them. They can come right out and question them, "Are you doing okay? Do you ask the hard questions? Are you going to hurt yourself?" It's hard to say that, but that's the thing. You have to question and then you persuade them not to do anything, and then you refer them where to get help. That's actually a training program that we do in the area here. So that's one of the things.
We have scheduled in the future now some more sessions that we get together for soup and sandwich lunches. We have speakers to come in, we've teamed up with the Wisconsin Farm Center so they can actually provide vouchers for families to go in and get counseling because a lot of times farmers don't have good insurance. And so that's another area that the state of Wisconsin is helping in.
Alan Bjerga: You're working on this in Wisconsin. You have this network in rural Wisconsin. From your experiences and what you're learning as you talk about this more nationwide, what resources are there for farmers nationwide, and are there other examples of similar things going on across the country?
Randy Roecker: Well, that's the challenge in rural areas, and a lot of times you're so isolated and spread out. But we've had people from different states contact us about what we're doing. I was fortunate enough that Tammy Baldwin, our state senator was out at our farm and I had a chance to talk to her about our program. So actually at the federal level, they're doing some things too. Now they have funding. There's a phone number for a suicidal hotline number too. And one thing they would like to do that if somebody calls into the number, that they would direct you to somebody that is basically in agriculture, because that's what we're facing out here in the country, is that therapists don't understand farming. It is such a unique business, and it's not like a normal business in town when you have this legacy that these businesses are handed down for over a 100 years. So you want to talk to somebody that understands the struggles that we're going through.
Alan Bjerga: And for those who may be curious, the number for the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline is 988. That is 988.
Randy Roecker: So that's one thing about farming is that a lot of us are so isolated out here and that we lack the good therapist to go to. I know one farmer had talked to me too about he had problems with his nephew, I believe it was, and he was wondering where I could suggest to go. I called to six different counseling centers, and closest appointment that they could get into was three months away. Well, nobody can wait for three months when you're under that kind of pressure.
So that's one thing that we struggle with out here too. And also a lack of therapists that understand agriculture. It's such a unique business that when you're dealing with these legacy businesses like this, that you want to talk to somebody that understands that. I wish that there would be more counselors that specifically went into the agriculture area that could help farmers. So that's something we're working on too.
Alan Bjerga: We're talking with Randy Roecker and about the Farmer Angel Network. What do you see as the future of the Farmer Angel Network?
Randy Roecker: Well, the Farmer Angel Network, you can go on our website. We have www.farmerangelnetwork.com, or you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out what we're doing. And I know we've had people from different states reach out to us too and want to know different programs that we're doing. So that's what we're continuing to do is spread the word. And like I said, we're very fortunate for the state of Wisconsin for the Farm Center there because we have financial consultants there. They have people there monitoring the phone lines if people call in for help. We're very fortunate to live in Wisconsin where we can have resources available.
Alan Bjerga: But I would think if someone were interested in finding out more about what's going on in their region or maybe even trying to start something in their own region, you'd be open to getting that email, gathering more information, taking this effort further.
Randy Roecker: Yes, anybody can reach out to me. My email is email@example.com. Just reach out to me. I'm glad to talk to you about anything. It's just surprising me that at the meetings that I've been to that people come up to me and I never thought that sharing my story would lead to something like this. But people come up to me at meetings and they pull me aside and they tell me what's going on in their area. It's hard when you don't have the resources available and nowhere to turn, and it's good just to talk to somebody that's been through the same struggle.
Alan Bjerga: Is there anything you'd like to add?
Randy Roecker: I think the main thing is to just be there for each other. And that's one thing with my own struggle too, that it came right down to having a good set of friends that you could rely on. That's very important that we need to be there for each other and be a good listener.
Alan Bjerga: We've been speaking with Randy Roecker, a Loganville, Wisconsin dairy farmer and co-founder of the Farmer Angel Network, which focuses on farmer mental health. Thank you so much for joining us.
Randy Roecker: You're welcome.
Alan Bjerga: And that's it for today's podcast. For more on the network visit farmerangelnetwork, it's one word, just like it said, .com.
And for more of the Dairy Defined Podcast, you can find and subscribe to it on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and Amazon Music under the podcast name Dairy Defined. Thank you for joining us.