Bill addressing farmer suicides passes the state Assembly unanimously

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MADISON, Wis. (WSAW) -- A new bill addressing farmer suicides has passed the state Assembly unanimously and is now up for decision by the state Senate.

John Hoffman's farm in Marathon County 11/7/19 (WSAW photo)

Assembly Bill 524 is a product of the recommendations of the Speaker’s Task Force on Suicide Prevention. In July, the Task Force had a hearing in Marshfield that was focused on the mental health of farmers. Representative Loren Oldenburg of Viroqua was a part of the task force, and sponsored the bill.

“I am honored to author a bipartisan bill that seeks to help farmers further their education in farm and production management,” said Rep. Oldenburg in a press release. “This bill can help prevent farmers from entering a financial situation that could lead to undue stress.”

The bill’s language originally offered $10,000 in grants to low-income farmers who enrolled in a course on better farming techniques. It was amended to allow for $50,000 in farmer assistance scholarships for courses in farm management or farm finance offered at a technical college. Current and future farmers would be eligible to receive the scholarships at a rate of no more than $1,000 per year for no more than 3 years. An amendment to the bill also ensures that current and future farmers would pay no more than 50% of tuition costs for enrolling in those courses.

John Hoffman has experienced mental health issues in the farming community first-hand. His cousin, a fellow farmer, took their life earlier this year. He is skeptical as to how effective the bill will be should it be signed into law.

“Throwing money is the easy solution, but it doesn’t always fix it,” said Hoffman. “Most of the farmers that I know are very well trained. They know how to run their operation. The biggest drawback that farmers have right now is they don’t have a marketing system that allows them a profit, or at least a break-even point for their crop.”

Dr. Casper Bendixsen is a research scientist and anthropologist at Marshfield Clinic where he helps head the National Farm Medicine Center. He spoke at the Speaker’s Task Force in July and is happy to see action, but says there needs to be more done to help prevent this serious issue.

“We need better access to mental health experts,” said Bendixsen. “We need a number of things that other bills could do, but this is one piece of the solution and I think it’s a good one for rural communities.”

Bendixsen went on to suggest that instructors at technical colleges that teach the courses mentioned in the bill should be trained in how to identify depression and mental health issues.

“With this program specifically, I would suggest any tech instructor or any vocational instructor who plans on using this program and assisting farmers through this program, they should probably take a mental health first-aid course and view themselves as a part of the solution,” said Bendixsen. “The stigma of not coming to mental health professionals and seeking help is very strong in the rural community. The agriculture instructor at a tech school speaks farm, speaks agriculture, and they need to learn how to think about mental health and anxiety and depression in that farm talk.”

The bill now goes to the state Senate, which isn't expected to meet again until January. Should it pass there, Governor Tony Evers will then have the option of signing it into law.

Meanwhile, farmers like Hoffman continue to push forward as they deal with the hardships the farming industry provides.

“It’s going to be a harder situation next spring when there’s not enough money left over to plant a crop decent and take care of your family,” said Hoffman.

Bendixsen added that as a community, it’s important to check on those who provide so much for us.

“It’s a critical topic for all of society,” said Bendixsen. “This topic matters to you if you eat. If you eat any food then you care about farmer mental health, so I would say make sure you are staying tuned in to your farm neighbors and really be a part of that solution.”