Hard times are nothing new for Maine dairy farmers, who have long been contending with problems like rising costs and falling prices for their milk, according to organic dairy farmer Mike Philbrick of Springer Farm in Knox.

Sometimes those hard times can escalate until a farmer doesn’t know where to turn for help. Then things can get dark, said Philbrick, who remembered the tragic story of a New York State dairy farmer who eight years ago picked up a rifle and shot to death all 51 of his milking cows before turning the gun on himself.

“It was a horrible thing,” the Maine farmer said, adding that he can understand how pressures on farmers can build up. “You can go into debt so quick, and then your assets turn out to be not worth much. It’s a dog chasing its tail. It’s crazy.”

Given that dismal dairy landscape, Philbrick wasn’t all that surprised to learn that the Agri-Mark dairy cooperative, which serves 1,000 member farmers in New England and New York state, included mental health resources and the number for a suicide prevention hotline in a letter that was tucked in with the February milk checks. The dairy cooperative, which saw the suicide of a member farmer in January and one the year before, is in the process of implementing a free, comprehensive member assistance program.

“We have reached the halfway point of a particularly stressful winter while also facing falling milk prices,” the letter sent to Agri-Mark members began. “Farm families are incredibly resilient, but some members may want to take advantage of helpful programs where they can talk with experts about work and financial stress, depression and anxiety, grief counseling, substance abuse and family relationship issues.”

Dark days for dairy farmers

The challenging financial reality for dairy farmers has been going on for years. In fact, some dairy experts have said that no matter how hard farmers work, it seems they can’t get ahead. The Associated Press reported that farmers are facing their fourth year of milk payments that are well below the cost of production, due in part to a national and global milk glut. Prices paid to farmers hit an average of $24 per hundred pounds of milk in 2014, the highest price since at least 2000. But prices dropped to an average of $17 per hundred pounds of milk in 2015, $16 in 2016 and $17 last year.

“It’s a boom or bust cycle that dairy farmers get into, and right now we’re in what I would call an extended down time, making it even more difficult for farmers to try and make a living,” Rick Kersbergen, a University of Maine Cooperative Extension sustainable dairy and forage systems professor, said Monday. “It’s a tough profession and a tough time. … Dairy farmers are proud people. When they work as hard as they do and go into debt, it’s pretty depressing.”

Amanda Beal, president of Belfast-based nonprofit organization Maine Farmland Trust, grew up on a Maine dairy farm and believes strongly that dairy farmers are resilient.

“But the reality is that they bear the brunt of a dysfunctional federal pricing system that doesn’t take the cost of production into account,” she said. “This has been going on for a long, long time and is at the heart of why we continue to lose commercial dairy farms in Maine.”

The federal milk pricing system is convoluted, Kersbergen and Philbrick agree, and is not obviously connected to the cost of milk production. It’s based on supply and demand and also on the butter and cheese inventory, but not the cost of production, according to Kersbergen, who called it “the most complicated thing in the world.” It’s hard for most people, even many farmers, to understand.

“When Bob Mueller gets done with the Russian investigation thing, maybe we can get him to look into the milk pricing,” Philbrick said jokingly. “They make it so complicated.”

Maine dairy farmers in some ways are better situated than farmers in other states because of the Maine Dairy Relief Program (commonly known as the Maine tier program), which provides economic relief to farmers when milk prices dip below the cost of production.

“It’s actually been a real lifesaver to Maine dairy farmers,” Kersbergen said.

Still, there’s much more policy work that needs to be done to support Maine dairy farms and farmers and make sure the industry can survive into the future, Beal said. In 1950, there were nearly 5,000 dairy farms in the state, according to the Maine Milk Commission. In 2013 there were about 300, and today there are just 241. Despite the massive decline in dairy farms, the amount of milk produced in Maine has stable over the years, thanks to larger, more efficient farms, Kersbergen said. Yet dairy is a challenging industry here as well as in the rest of the country, and what Beal termed the “constant roller coaster” ride of milk pricing is one reason why small dairy farms have a hard time remaining viable. That’s troubling, she said.

“We want dairy farms. We need dairy farms. They’re really an anchor for services that other farms require, like large animal vets,” Beal said. “I want young people to want to pick up the reins and carry forward, but I think we have a lot of work to do.”

Compounding challenges

Another member of a Maine dairy family and outspoken dairy advocate, Jenni Tilton-Flood of Flood Brothers Farm in Clinton, said that when she saw the letter from Agri-Mark, she took it as a big step forward. Dairy farmers aren’t only contending with money troubles. They also work in rural areas and can struggle with isolation, physical health challenges, access to mental health resources and stigma about using those resources if they are available. And they’re not the only ones that are doing so. A 2016 report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that suicide rates nationwide were highest among farmers, fishermen and foresters.

“This letter — I was so proud of it,” she said. “My hope is that this conversation is now something that is happening out loud and not in hushed whispers and behind closed doors. I want it to keep going. I want that care and that openness to continue.”

In the letter, she said the Agri-Mark farmer board of directors “shined a light on a very dark place.” Tilton-Flood hopes the letter will fall into the hands of those who need to read it most, including those struggling with mental and other health challenges and those who are watching the struggle without knowing how to help.

“With regard to Maine dairy farmers and our cooperative, struggle and challenges are nothing new. And when it comes to the struggles of mental health, the physical challenges and financial woes, we have a history. We’ve been there. We’ve battled. It’s just been a really long battle and it’s time for the conversation to happen out loud,” she said. “It happens to be a very dark time for dairy farming, but I think there’s a light at the end, and I’m happy there are some wonderful people and farmers making sure that path is well-lit.”

Agri-Mark included the number for the Maine Crisis Hotline, 1-888-568-1112, and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

To reach a suicide prevention hotline, call 888-568-1112 or 800-273-TALK (8255), or visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.