7 INVESTIGATES: Emotional toll of trade war on local farmers

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MARATHON COUNTY, Wis. (WSAW) -- "The nicest guy you ever want to meet. Hardest working, very smart kid. It's a great loss."

Marathon County farmer John Hoffman lost his cousin, also a farmer, to suicide two weeks ago, and he attributes it in part to the economic situation aggravated by the trade war with China.

"It just got to be tough times--and he couldn't make it through."

His cousin, who we won't be naming, worked on a local farm with his father--and helped out on Hoffman's farm as well. It's a loss that's hard for Hoffman to explain.

"When you're the son that stays home on the farm, and you see your friends and your siblings go off and get off-farm jobs, and they're able to buy toys and go on vacations and have all kinds of fun things, and work just standard normal hours...and you're at home on the farm working cuckoo hours and not able to have any of that, and you can't see the light at the end of the tunnel, and there's nobody there to help you, and the people you do talk to tell you there's nothing that can be done--it's hard to make it through that."

For Hoffman, the loss of his cousin now means a greater concern: his 13-year-old son, also named John.

"I'm trying to raise [him] to be a farmer," he explains. But now--he's not sure that's a good idea. He started his farm fifteen years ago before John was born, because he wanted to raise him in a farming lifestyle. Now, John's one of his best helpers. He was helping farm as early as six or seven, by his father's side for projects and planting.

"It took a lot of energy to get to this point, and now we got to back it down and teach him to stay out of it. Because if I would tell him to keep going into it--he's gonna lose it. You know?"

Hoffman said he's honest about the current state of farming with his son--especially now, after the loss of a family member. "There's no money in farming," he said.

"Right now, with the price of beans and corn, we're getting absolutely zero for our labor," he explained. Corn is now at $3 a bushel, he said, yet they're already cutting into their overhead costs just to produce it.

"There's no money left, and we're struggling through this using old equipment, maintaining as little as we have to. But we're running in a hole, and it's not good for the agricultural community."

That frustration is reflected in rising numbers of distress calls to the Wisconsin Farm Center at the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP).

They operate a helpline for farmers (1-800-942-2474) who need help with disputes, creditors, buying and selling and other issues. And the number of calls is increasing, Rick Hummel explained, a public information officer for DATCP.

They don't track calls specifically dealing with suicide. But he said there's a significant increase in the number of calls from farmers in "dire straits".

How many more? Hummel estimated it to be increasing by 20% a year over the past couple years.

John Eron, a Portage County farmer, is one that a lot of farmers come to when struggling with these issues, and he said he's getting calls every day.

"A lot of these farmers just need another farmer to relate to. A lot of farmers are kinda on their own, they feel like, in the world of farming," Eron said.

"The potential of losing the family farm? It's their legacy, it's what they know. It's literally their identity. And to lose that, to most people, is to lose everything."

With President Donald Trump considering another round of $20 billion in market facilitation funding, farmers told us in Part 1 of this series that they don't want it as much as they want an open market. And the vice president of the National Farmers Union, Patty Edelburg, says the trade war is making the suicide situation worse.

"In Wisconsin, we're seeing record bankruptcies. We're seeing farmer suicides. Things that are, a lot of these are all effects of this trade war."

Hoffman believes that trade war could be brought to an early end if Americans start boycotting Chinese commodities.

"Americans have to step up to the table and boycott some of these Chinese products until they take the tariff price off, and lower it." Because like other local farmers, he says the compensatory money from the government isn't cutting it.

His son John has thoughts on the trade war, too. "It's just got to be fair."

Hoffman has tried to reach out to local politicians to have his voice heard on the tariff situation--14 of them, to be exact. Only one, Republican representative Pat Snyder, called him back.

"It's hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel."

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Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255