As milk prices decline, worries about dairy farmer suicides rise


Kansas dairy farmers are used to dealing with hard times, but as they struggle through the fourth year of depressed milk prices, they too have become down.

Orville and Mary Jane Miller have been dairy farmers their entire lives. Mary Jane's father passed the farm in Reno County down to them, and they plan to pass it on to their son.

“It's very demanding, my wife starts at 1:30 a.m. milking cows. There's a calf born nearly every other day. There's just a lot happening all the time,” said Orville Miller. 

The Millers milk 170 cows a day, a process that takes four hours at a time.  While they know the business is cyclical, times are really tough right now.

"Here a couple of weeks ago, I went to sit at my desk to pay the bills, and I started crying, because I didn't know how I was going to pay the bills," Mary Jane told KAKE News.

Farmers are making less per gallon of milk now than they did 20 years ago, and they blame an increase in milk production combined with sharply lower exports. The cost to produce a gallon of milk is higher than what a farmer sells a gallon for, meaning most dairies can't even break even.

"The numbers just don't work out for us. Every month we borrow money to pay the bills and think it's going to get better next year," said Miller.

In fact, milk prices have been so low over the last five years, the number of dairy farms in Kansas has dropped from 400 to 290.

The number of dairy farms nationwide have dropped from 57,127 in 2008 to just over 40,000 this year. Many farmers are becoming so hopeless, they are taking their own lives.  Something Stephanie Eckroat, Executive Director of Kansas Dairy doesn't want to happen here.

"I pray every day that we don't see that," she said.

Eckroat gets calls from across the state, farmers who can't get any more loans, and don't know if they can stay afloat. She advises them to keep their heads up, stay positive and talk about it.

"I encourage them to talk to other farmers they work with their families and try to make it happen,"

The Millers try to cut costs and diversify, raising crops to help supplement their income.

And now a new trade deal that's still in the works would allow the U.S. to sell more milk, butter and cheese to Canada. 

"I tend to be the optimist," said Miller.

Orville and Mary Jane will keep going and relying on their faith,

"I put those things out of my mind, I just say, I’m in this for the long haul. I'm going to be one of the survivors, I want to be there when things turn around"

And advice from Mary Jane's 94-year-old father.

"It’s the advice from my dad and watching him over the years, and I'm going to keep doing the same thing."

Kansas Suicide & Crisis Hotlines

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