Farmers feeling the pressure

At least four farmers have taken their lives since Fonterra cut its milk payout forecast for the coming season.

On December 10, the diary giant dropped its payout forecast for 2014-15 to an eight-year low of $4.70 per kilogram of milk solids.

That's nearly half the $8.40 paid in the 2013-14 season and is estimated to mean an income drop for farmers of $6.6 billion.

Federated Farmers dairy industry group vice-chairman Kevin Robinson confirmed to the Herald on Sunday that it was aware of the December deaths.

"There's been discussion through Federated Farmers email about them," he said.

Several industry experts blame high levels of rural debt for increased stress on farmers.

In total, 14 farmers have taken their lives in the past six months, Chief Coroner Judge Neil MacLean said.

The most recent four deaths were also confirmed by Te Aroha farmer Sue McKay, the administrator of a private Facebook-based support group.

She added: "I also know some local hospitals have a number of farmers in them from attempted suicide. If there's three in one ward alone, there will be more in other hospitals."

Federated Farmers took an advocacy approach to mental health, said Katie Milne, its West Coast president and the group's mental health spokeswoman.

It made sure farmers were aware of the resources available in the community and asked members to keep an eye on neighbours.

Financial pressure was a big burden.

Younger farmers and other new entrants to the industry often battled, not having the backing that an established farm had.

"If they reach the depths of depression and can't think straight, financial pressure is one of the things that puts them in that spot."

The Rural Support Trust -- set up to help people and families in the rural community -- was also on hand to offer assistance.

Its advocates include Urenui farmer John White, aged 58, who tried to take his life in his early 50s.

He believed the reduced payouts would be of concern for many farmers.

"It's worse in recent times with fluctuating payouts and no steady income as such.

"Financial pressure is usually a trigger point," he said.

December hit farmers hard in the pocket.

Whole milk powder prices were down 11 per cent in the month and 52 per cent lower than a year earlier. Cheese also dropped 5 per cent over the month.

Fonterra group director of co-operative affairs Miles Hurrell said farmers' wellbeing was important to the organisation.

A field team was in frequent contact with farmers and, where necessary, provided referrals to a range of support networks and services.

MacLean said suicide rates had been reducing among farmers in the past eight years, from 28 in 2007 to 22 in the year to June last year.

But in the second half of last year, 14 farmers committed suicide.

"That comes back to an annual rate of 28, which is what it used to be eight years ago."

Six of the 14 were aged 35-44.

MacLean said farmers were not over-represented as an occupation in suicide statistics but a rural death reverberated through the community.

"If there's a suicide in the city few people hear about it but a suicide in a farming community, everyone knows everyone and everyone knows what's going on," he said.

There was some financial relief for farmers this week when the first GlobalDairyTrade auction for the year recorded a 3.6 per cent lift in prices.

Whole milk powder, New Zealand's biggest export, sold for US$2522 ($3242) a tonne, up 1.6 per cent from the last auction.

Where to get help:

- Youth services: (06) 3555 906

- Youthline: 0800 376 633

- Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (4pm to 6pm weekdays)

- Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (noon to midnight)

- Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (24-hour service)

- Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

- CASPER Suicide Prevention

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

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