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Routine Mailing To Dairy Farmers Included A Rare Note: Suicide Hotline Info

Jersey dairy cows feed at Mapleline Farm in Hadley, Massachusetts.
File photo
The Republican / MassLive.com/photos
Jersey dairy cows feed at Mapleline Farm in Hadley, Massachusetts.

For dairy farms in New England, the outlook for milk prices is not good this year. The stress has been tied to suicides among dairy farmers.

One effort to get them help is sparking some criticism.

Will Rogers and his girlfriend, Heather, run a 75-cow dairy farm in Warren, Massachusetts. It's just the two of them, and sometimes, short-term, part-time workers.

"Other than that, it's seven days, 365, 14, 16 hours a day that we're at it," Rogers said.

It's his life's passion, he said, but it's not easy -- especially now that milk prices are sliding to their lowest levels in years, and the prices were already well below break-even for most farmers.

"Financially, mentally, physically -- [it's] very very draining," he said.

Rogers said it was all the more draining on Monday, when he opened his twice-monthly check fromAgri-Mark, his milk co-op, which also owns the Cabot Creamery cheese company.

"You know, you got a milk check that ain't worth much of nothing," he said.

That check comes with a letter. This week, it was all about the stresses on farm families, and contained a list of suicide and mental health hotlines.

"It's a great resource -- I will say that, you know," he said. "It's something that should be available for people that are in trouble. But my God... you open up your milk check and find suicide hotline numbers. It doesn't do much for your mental state."

And on the back of the letter was a terribly disappointing milk price forecast for the next twelve months.

Rogers said there had to be a more tactful way to spread the word about suicide prevention than putting it together with so much bad news in one envelope.

For its part, the co-op is standing behind the letter.

"We've had some recent instances and we did have one farmer commit suicide recently," said Doug DiMento, director of corporate communications for Agri-Mark.

DiMento said the idea to include the hotline numbers with the milk checks came from the co-op's board, which is made up of farmers. He said the board wanted to be proactive.

"We have a thousand farmers in our co-op and I'm sure some people will see it in a positive way and some may see it in a negative way," he said. "But if we can prevent any type of issue, any type of suicide or anything like that on the farm, then I think the letter was well worth it."

Rogers said he expects Agrimark meant well. But seeing that letter hit home for him.

"It's hard for me to talk about," Rogers said. "In 1986, my dad had lost his brother, on top of things being in a down-cycle. [It] was more than he could bear -- a down-cycle in milk prices then, like now."

In college at the time, Rogers tried to help his dad by coming back home a few days a week.

"He took his own life on the morning of my 23rd birthday," Rogers said. "And left me with the greatest learning experience I ever had. It was a very trying time for me. And just to see all that in that letter, just brought back all that emotion to me, personally."

He wrote about the Agri-Mark letter on Facebook -- widely shared among friends and fellow farmers -- with a photo of one of his cows, Rosebud, looking down, and the message, "hard to keep your head up."

Carrie Healy contributed to this report.

Sam Hudzik has overseen local news coverage on New England Public Media since 2013. He manages a team of about a dozen full- and part-time reporters and hosts.
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