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Young farmers Matt and Liz Hulsizer were forced to confront the rural mental health crisis head-on when Matt’s father, David, died by suicide nearly a decade ago.

Betty Haynes

January 25, 2023

10 Min Read
Matt and Liz Hulsizer stand in front of red barn
SUICIDE: “Some days it feels like yesterday and other days it feels like a lifetime ago,” Liz Hulsizer says. It took several years for her and husband Matt to process her father-in-law’s suicide, and the sadness, guilt and anger that came in the months that followed.Photos by Betty Haynes

The 2013 harvest was well underway when Matt Hulsizer’s phone rang. The call would alter the trajectory of his life forever. He answered and learned his father had just committed suicide. David Hulsizer had hung himself from the feed wagon. A farm employee found him.

Life would never be the same again for Matt and his wife, Liz, who’d married just 13 months before and begun farming with his parents. Their Oneida, Ill., farm was turned upside down in every way possible, exposing cracks they didn’t know existed.

The aftermath of that day was nearly impossible to reckon with. “Later that day, Matt and I had to make feed and use that very wagon to feed the pigs,” Liz recalls. “That messes with you and kind of forever changes you.”

As the Hulsizer family struggled to process their feelings of grief, anger and guilt, the work still had to be done. The pigs had to be fed every day after, and the rest of the crop still stood in the field. But as they often do, friends and neighbors stepped in quickly and filled the gaps.

Rural mental health

The University of Illinois reports that male farmers die by suicide at higher rates than individuals in other occupations. And that the nature of the job — market volatility, high input costs, rising debt, family conflicts, weather — results in a greater prevalence of anxiety and depression than other professions.

None know this better than the Hulsizer family, who say David’s mental health never recovered from the challenges of the 2009 crop year. It was a year plagued with a delayed, wet planting season, cool growing conditions and a tumultuous harvest that extended well into the Christmas season.

“He always had to be in control, and there was nothing we were in control of that year,” Matt says.

The family would later discover that David had overdrawn several bank accounts, pushing the farm’s finances and his own control to the limit. He hid the farm’s financial situation from the rest of family, including his wife, Ann. Nobody knew his secret.

“Your problems don’t go away at your passing; they’re just passed on to someone else,” Matt explains.

Matt and Liz Hulsizer sit at dining room table

GRIEF: “People didn’t know the right thing to say to us after David’s death,” Liz says. “I could feel their eyes shift away from us in public. But we just needed someone to be there to be uncomfortable with us so we felt less alone.”

Their first move to avoid bankruptcy was to let go of some cash rent leases and auction off equipment. They put in countless hours with limited resources, sometimes doing chores in the middle of the night, all to save the family farm.

“We went into survival mode,” Liz says. “It put a lot of strain on our marriage. We lost that time frame where most young couples are having children, going on vacation, just having fun.

“A lot was taken from us based on his decision,” she adds.

In the process, they learned a lot about themselves and about what they value. Pride and comparison are the thieves of joy, and Liz says that’s especially true in farming.

“We are proud of who we are and what we’ve done, but our pride is not tied up in how many acres we farm or what our equipment is,” she adds. “If you have to walk away from a piece of ground, there’s no shame in that.”

Liz and Matt Hulsizer standing in haymow

MENTAL HEALTH: “We made decent money this year, but I’m more stressed about money this year than I was four or five years ago,” says Matt Hulsizer on the current farm economy. “The more money you have out there, the more risk exposure you have.”

The experience caused Matt and Liz to reanalyze how they farmed — and to recognize the stressors with what was left behind. And while both were raised on multigenerational family farms, they uniquely understood the burden of preserving it for the next generation. In 2022, they harvested the 145th crop for their family. That means for 145 years, one member of their family has planted, raised and harvested crops on a single piece of land. With that kind of legacy, nobody wants to be the generation to fail.

Still, there’s something more important, Liz says: “The farm is not the farm without the farmer.”

They’ve also learned to give themselves a small measure of credit, having dug out of the financial pit and working to right the family farm ship through years of tight prices and thin margins — years that were hard for farmers not already in a hole. And they’ve learned to check on each other, too, and their friends.

“Your parents may have lived through the 1980s farm crisis, and your great-grandparents could have gone through the Great Depression, but your times may be harder than you realize,” Matt says, looking at the current farm economy. “The margins are tighter, the stress is higher, and risk is greater now. You may have to take a step back and honestly ask yourself if you’re OK.”

How they cope

The couple says part of their own mental health journey has meant giving themselves permission to disconnect from the farm.

“It’s hard to shut it off,” Liz says. “When you go to family events and hang out with friends, we’re all talking about farming. It’s so engrained in us that we don’t have a healthy boundary between us and the farm.”

Talking about their family’s experience has helped them heal, in part because they can help other people. Part of the couple’s message is to encourage others to check on their friends and family who may be struggling.

“It is difficult to ask a friend or neighbor if they are OK,” Matt says. “But the alternative is a million times worse.”

Showing up for a friend or family member can look different for everyone, but quality time or a phone call from the tractor cab can let them know somebody cares, even if they reject the help.

“Every farm has their troubles, but no dirt is worth your life,” Liz says. “We just hope that by sharing our story, it allows other people to open up. But the biggest thing for the rural community is that we need both access to professional help and for mental health to be accepted as important in our lives.”

bulleting board of pictures

RELATIONSHIPS: If a friend or neighbor is struggling, it’s challenging to ask if them they’re OK, especially if they reject your help. But you can make a difference by supporting that person in other ways, like spending time doing something you both enjoy or just listening.

Josie Rudolphi of the University of Illinois is working to bring both awareness and accessibility to rural mental health. Her passion for serving the farming community stems from her own rural Iowa upbringing, and her experience with family members and neighbors through the 1998 hog market crash.

“Farmers are incredibly stoic and independent,” Rudolphi explains. “They can fix basically anything, so when they experience anxiety or depression, they think they can fix themselves. And they see stress and mental health as something that they need to deal with alone because they deal with so many other things alone.”

Rudolphi co-directs the North Central Farm and Ranch Assistance Center, a 12-state USDA-funded network that provides resources, programs and services to farmers and ranchers. As part of the center, she promotes a regional hotline that responds to farmers and ranchers, offering mental health help, stress management, answers to farm legal questions and natural disaster resources.

The North Central Farm and Ranch Assistance Center is working to provide low- or no-cost professional behavioral health services to rural areas by partnering with mental health providers across the Midwest.

“If you’re a livestock farmer and you have a disease in your herd, you would call a veterinarian, or if you’re a row crop farmer and you have a disease in your field, you would talk to an agronomist,” Rudolphi says. “If you are a producer struggling with your mental health, why not consult a professional? We want farmers and ranchers to be as healthy and productive as possible.”

The aftermath

A decade later, Matt and Liz are still proud to call the farm home, although things look a little different at Hulsizer Farms. The family no longer rents the farm where David died, and the feed wagon has since been sold.

“I was glad to walk away from that farm,” Matt says.

Liz agrees. “A dark cloud hung over it,” she says. “It felt tainted.”

The couple now farms with Matt’s mother, Ann; Liz’s mother, Sally; and Liz’s brother Andrew and sister-in-law Karlie. That decision made sense both financially and emotionally after Liz’s father died from cancer in 2016.

“For us, for Matt’s mom and for my mom, the life we envisioned is not the one we have,” says Liz, speaking of her mother’s and mother-in-law’s loss of their spouses and her tumultuous early farming years. “You have to give yourself grace to grieve the life you imagined while being grateful for the life you have now.”

For Ann, healing and processing her grief has taken longer, and was driven by the guilt she felt for not realizing the gravity of David’s mental health struggles. Still, the family tried.

“We tried to tell him he needed help, and he shut us down,” Liz says. “In the end, it was his decision, and we can’t bear that guilt.”

Liz and Matt Hulsizer in haymow

GRATEFUL: A decade later, the Hulsizers say it’s by the grace of God that they’re where they are today. They’re thankful for how far they’ve come, and grateful for their relationship, their family and the support from their community.

Although Matt and Liz admit they’re still learning to thrive rather than just survive, working with family has helped them heal and prioritize their own mental health.

“By the grace of God, we came out of the situation,” Liz explains. “Our family and friends helped us in ways that they’ll never know.”

In the years that followed, the couple swapped equipment and labor with neighbors and family members to continue farming. They have also seen counselors to work through the trauma of their loss and the anxiety of avoiding bankruptcy.

“Matt, Andrew and their friends are very honest about how difficult this lifestyle can be,” Liz says. “Matt and I are fortunate to have friends who are open about their struggles with anxiety and depression, and that’s been huge for us.”

While the stigma around mental health in rural communities still exists, the tide may turn for coming generations.

“Younger farmers and ranchers seem to be much more open to discussing farm stress and mental health,” Rudolphi says, pointing out that commodity groups and ag organizations are adding mental health workshops to conferences.

The ag industry is ever-changing and so is rural mental health, but the conversation is far from over.

“We want people to know that when you feel desperate, you’re not alone,” Liz says. “When you feel like your back is against the wall, you’re not alone in how difficult this lifestyle can be. We want people to accept mental health as something that’s important, because no one deserves what we went through.”

Find help

Contact the North Central Farm and Ranch Assistance Center at 800-447-1985 or farmstress.org.

About the Author(s)

Betty Haynes

Betty Haynes is the associate editor of Prairie Farmer. She grew up on a Menard County, Ill., farm and graduated from the University of Missouri. Most recently, Betty worked for the Illinois Beef Association, entirely managing and editing its publication.

She and her husband, Dan, raise corn, soybeans and cattle with her family near Oakford , Ill., and are parents to Clare.

Betty won the 2023 Andy Markwart Horizon Award, 2022 Emerging Writer, and received Master Writer designation from the Ag Communicators Network. She was also selected as a 2023 Young Leader by the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists.

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