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As the nation's dairy farmers are struggling through a fourth year of depressed milk prices, concerns are rising about the farmers being depressed themselves. The outlook for milk prices is so bleak it's heightening worries in the Northeast about farmer suicides. But as NPR's Tovia Smith reports, one recent outreach effort is drawing criticism.
WILL ROGERS: That's a girl. Come on, Betty Boop.
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: It's the crack of dawn and just below freezing. But as he does every day, Massachusetts farmer Will Rogers is outside, milking his cows.
ROGERS: So these are our ladies.
(SOUNDBITE OF COW MOOING)
SMITH: His ruddy face framed by thick, gray hair, Rogers says farming is his calling, as it was his dad's.
ROGERS: What I do here - this is nature's way, God's way. This is life. This sustains life.
SMITH: Which makes it all the more poignant, Rogers says, that so many farmers in the current down-cycle would take their lives. The reasons for any suicide can be complicated, of course. But in Rogers' co-op alone, out of a thousand farmers, three killed themselves in the past three years. It's a very small sample but a very sharp increase.
ROGERS: Tough to keep your head up with all of what's going on.
SMITH: And stress is only mounting as a global oversupply of milk and lower prices overseas press milk prices further down below farmers' breakeven point.
ROGERS: I don't see any relief in sight. You know, that's hard.
SMITH: Knowing farmers' despair, Rogers' dairy co-op wanted to help. Agri-Mark, as the co-op's called, pays its farmers for their milk, which goes into its own brands of Cabot and McCadam cheeses, as well as others. When it came time to mail farmers their milk checks this month, Agri-Mark included a copy of the dismal market forecast and a list of suicide hotlines.
ROGERS: I personally just felt my heart sink. And it just creates a lot of distress.
SMITH: Especially since Rogers' own father took his life 30 years ago during another down cycle for farmers.
ROGERS: Released a lot of emotion that took me years to deal with, you know, everything coming flooding right back to me.
SMITH: The letter may have been well-intentioned, Rogers says, but it was so brusque and so grim without even a shred of hope to hang on, he worries it may actually backfire and drive some farmers over the edge. Agri-Mark concedes the letter was blunt. But board member Blake Gendebien says it was meant to get farmers' attention fast.
BLAKE GENDEBIEN: We knew there was no great way to do it, and we decided that a letter with the check would be the best because everybody opens a letter with their milk check.
SMITH: According to the CDC, farmers have a much higher suicide rate than other occupations partly due to a kind of perfect storm of financial pressure and a sense of powerlessness in an industry where prices are set by the government. Plus, Gendebien says, many farmers also feel the weight of legacy.
GENDEBIEN: They're feeling, my grandfather was able to be successful. My father was able to be successful. And look at me, I can't do it. It's too much to bear.
SMITH: Agri-Mark says it'll soon offer free counseling to farmers and will continue suicide prevention efforts. Dan Reidenberg, head of the National Council for Suicide Prevention, says as disturbing as it may be, talking about it as Agri-Mark did does help more than it hurts.
DAN REIDENBERG: I'm not saying that their approach - being very direct - was the best approach or worded exactly the right way. But the idea that they wanted to do the right thing and try to save people - literally save their lives - is actually a remarkable effort.
ROGERS: Charlie, you be good.
SMITH: Will Rogers says he's not sure how much longer he'll be able to keep his farm going. To stay afloat, he's now selling firewood and some beef. There's so much more at stake than just individual farmers, he says. It's the survival of New England's landscape and character.
ROGERS: You know, this isn't just a job. This is your way of life. This is your life. This is what you're put on the planet for, you know? This is our heart and soul.
SMITH: Hearts will continue to ache over the recent suicides. But Rogers concedes as harsh as that letter was, it did get farmers talking. And if that saves a life, it'll have been worth it. Tovia Smith, NPR News.
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