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Finance committee approves $200K to help struggling farmers deal with mental health issues

Farmer (Getty Images)

MADISON — The Wisconsin Legislature’s finance committee voted unanimously Wednesday to allow state agriculture officials to spend an additional $200,000 to help struggling farmers deal with depression and mental health problems.

Wisconsin farmers have been wrestling with a combination of problems over the last few years, including an industry transition toward a factory farm model, falling milk prices and President Donald Trump’s trade war.

Nearly 700 dairy farms closed in Wisconsin last year, which was the highest number of closures since 2011.

Total statewide net cash farm income in Wisconsin declined 22% between 2012 and 2017, according to data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Wisconsin milk prices have dropped from $26.60 per 100 pounds in September 2014 to an average of $16.76 from January 2018 through June 2019.

Meanwhile, the suicide rate for male farmers that managed their operations was 44.9 per 100,000 in 2012 and 32.2 in 2015, according to data released in November by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The suicide rate among all working-age adults, by comparison, was 17.3 per 100,000 in 2016.

The Joint Finance Committee set aside $200,000 as part of the 2019-21 state budget to help farmers struggling with mental health issues, but the panel didn’t release it to the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. Republicans who control the committee said Wednesday that they want oversight of agency spending because their constituents expect accountability and they wanted to wait to see what recommendations a suicide prevention task force Assembly Speaker Robin Vos appointed might provide.

DATCP Secretary Brad Pfaff issued a blistering news release in July accusing the committee of abandoning farmers after the panel didn’t consider releasing the money at a meeting that month.

Pfaff asked the committee for the $200,000 during a hearing Wednesday. He said his department wants to use the money to offer farmers counseling vouchers, set up workshops to help farmers learn stress management, coping and grieving skills, and teach mental health care providers about challenges farmers face. According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, DATCP had only $1,300 left for counseling vouchers as of Aug. 21.

Republican committee members immediately attacked Pfaff, a member of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ cabinet. They accused him of never communicating to committee leaders the immediate need for the money, failing to tap other DATCP accounts to fund counseling vouchers and embarrassing them with his news release.

“I do believe somebody was playing politics with farmers and that’s really unfortunate,” Rep. John Nygren, one of the committee’s co-chairs, said.

Pfaff repeatedly said he has been communicating with Vos’ suicide prevention task force, which only seemed to annoy Nygren further.

“How can we work with you if you actually aren’t providing us the information?” he said. “I’m not sure how there’s a trust there when communications go through the media.”

Democratic Rep. Chris Taylor quipped that her party learns about Republican proposals through news releases, too. She chided Republicans for squabbling over $200,000.

In the end, the committee unanimously approved a motion to give Pfaff the money.

The motion also pulled $100,000 from the state Department of Health Services and placed it in the committee’s holding account. The motion allows the health department to petition the committee to release it as suicide prevention grant to recipients the department chooses.

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