As milk prices fall, dairy farmers in Pennsylvania seek mental health support

Milk prices have been falling for several years because supply is outpacing demand. Milk prices are so low, some farmers are losing money every day.

Cows from a dairy farm in Central Pennsylvania. (Dani Fresh for WHYY)

Cows from a dairy farm in Central Pennsylvania. (Dani Fresh for WHYY)

Pennsylvania is fifth in the nation for milk production, but as supply outpaces demand, some area farms are experiencing difficulty. Some farmers have put together a network of counselors to help those struggling financially.

Milk prices have been falling for several years. They’re so low now, some farmers are losing money every day, said Jayne Sebright, a dairy farmer and executive director of the Center for Dairy Excellence.

The dairy market has always been volatile, she said, but this time is a little more intense because some farmers have been losing buyers through no fault of their own.

Dean Foods, a major milk buyer, recently informed 26 farms that it would no longer buy milk from them in May, as reported by WITF and the Lebanon Daily News.

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“Right now in dairy farming, we’re kind of in a perfect storm,” said Frank Hartley, a dairy farmer in northern Pennsylvania for more than 30 years. “I’ve talked to older farmers, and they’ve never dealt with anything like this before.”

Farming isn’t like other jobs, Hartley said. It’s a life and livelihood that can stretch back for generations, making it nearly impossible to find another line of work when prices drop. And that can take a toll on the farmers’ mental health — as well as their finances.

The mental stress has been so bad, a dairy co-op serving New York and New England recently included a list of suicide prevention hotline numbers along with its 2018 forecast for milk prices.

A 2012 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that people in farming, fishing, and forestry have the highest suicide rates among occupations.

Hartley and the Center for Dairy Excellence are working on mental health resources for farmers, building a network of counselors who understand farming. They are also training veterinarians, nutritionists, and others  who work with dairy farmers frequently to recognize signs of stress in farmers.

This issue is getting some nationwide attention. Several U.S. House representatives recently introduced legislation to give states funding for mental health support for farmers.

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