Suicide rates in rural areas are higher than in cities, and increasingly so. Meanwhile, farmers—who are typically older, male, and white, three more factors that increase suicide risk—grapple with newer existential risks to their already-fraught profession, like climate change and a real-estate crunch. A mental-health storm has been gathering for some time; Allison Salerno visits a pilot program at the University of Georgia that seeks to break up the clouds with fellowship and human connection.
Jason is now 46 and married, with children of his own. He still manages the farm in Bowersville, where twice a day—every day of the year—those cows need to be milked. Other chores: mix feed rations for milking and dry cows (pregnant or about to deliver), water and feed the animals, care for those that are ailing, deliver new calves, manage manure, monitor herd health and nutrition—and, depending on the season, prep, plant, or harvest fields. Since 2019, Jason has made multimillion-dollar investments in the business. He borrowed money to build an upgraded barn and become the second dairy farm in the state to use robotic milkers. He bought four of the machines, at about $250,000 each. Jason often worries that to ensure the farm’s future, he could have endangered it—that the debt he’s taken on might lead to the farm’s failure. “I’ve taken all that 70-something years’ worth of effort, and I’ve risked it all,” he says. Having witnessed the aftermath of his brother’s death, Jason never considers dying by suicide, but he’s honest about how tough running the business can be. How does he manage the pressure? “Some days are better than others.” Jason lives too far from Blairsville to participate in the Shed program there—he’s about a two-hour drive east—but he’s the type of farmer Haney would love to reach.