FFA, Webster family shine light on farmer mental health

Farmer Angel Network helps bring awareness to western WI

By Sarah Nigbor
Posted 2/7/24

Bay City area farmer Brian Webster had a big heart and loved to help people. He didn’t like being the center of attention, but his family is hoping that by sharing his story, others will be …

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FFA, Webster family shine light on farmer mental health

Farmer Angel Network helps bring awareness to western WI


Bay City area farmer Brian Webster had a big heart and loved to help people. He didn’t like being the center of attention, but his family is hoping that by sharing his story, others will be helped. Webster died by suicide on Aug. 3, 2023 after living with depression. His family wants people to know, it’s okay not to be okay and to talk about it.

Ellsworth FFA & FFA Alumni, the Webster family and the Farmer Angel Network of Western Wisconsin are hosting an event Feb. 25 focusing on mental health in agriculture. A free meal of chicken and biscuit hotdish (one of Brian’s favorites), salad and dessert will be served at 1 p.m. in the Ellsworth Middle school cafeteria, followed by speaker Jeff Ditzenberger, who will speak about his suicide attempt and working in the ag industry.

“My dad Brian passed away in August on the farm due to suicide,” daughter Jennifer Webster said. “We had money left from his memorial and wanted to donate it to rural mental health. There wasn’t much available and we were trying to figure out what we could do.”

The Webster family connected with Karen Endres of the Wisconsin Farm Center to find an organization dedicated to farmers’ mental health. She directed them to the Farmer Angel Network, which is based in Sauk County. The organization, founded after the suicide of farmer Leon Statz, age 57, began as a way for friends, families and neighbors grieving Statz’s death to come together and help other farmers.

“Agricultural communities, often by the nature of their work, struggle to seek access to traditional mental health supports, and are communities in which talking about even the most basic feelings may not be common,” the FAN website states. “Farmers are used to bearing a significant amount of physical stress and hardship by the very nature of what they do.

“Where farmers used to have natural support systems in place with card playing circles, chore rotations amongst neighborhoods, after church gatherings, canning events, etc…where farms got together to support each other to prepare for seasonal activities or help with big events or when bad things happen…this happens less and less now.”

The Websters reached out to Dorothy Statz, Leon’s widow, and learned western Wisconsin had no such organization.

“We thought we should do something here, so we got the ball rolling,” Webster said.

The family contacted local farm boy turned reporter Boyd Huppert at KARE 11 to share Brian’s story. They didn’t hide Brian’s cause of death in his obituary.

“No one was really talking about it and I thought, ‘this is a problem,’” Webster said.

The Websters’ GoFundMe account for supporting farm mental health raised more than $17,000. Webster met with Ellsworth High School ag education/FFA advisor Katie Christenson around Christmas time to see what the money could be used for, how the family could help the local ag community.

“Dad was an officer, so was I and so were my brothers,” Webster said. “We like giving back and helping farmers in the community.”

Christenson had a connection to Ditzenberger’s farmer mental health nonprofit Talking, Understanding, Growing, Supporting (TUGS). She grew up in southwestern Wisconsin and went to the same high school Ditzenberger attended. She asked him to share his story with Ellsworth.

“He just has a really powerful story and from that he has been working the past several years to talk about mental health in agriculture and suicide death in farmers,” Christenson said. “His goal is to help as many people as he can. He attempted suicide about 30 years ago. He lit a house on fire on his property with the intention to die by suicide. Somehow, he uses that to help people.”

Ellsworth FFA member and EHS junior Genevieve Cady lives on a dairy farm about five minutes from town. Learning farm safety and dealing with mental health in agriculture has always been a part of her life.

“My mom lost a brother at the age of 11,” Cady said. “Growing up on a farm, my mom instilled safety in my childhood, showing me what I can and cannot do, signs that this might not be working right. Mrs. C know that and put me on the task of helping with the guest speaker because I have that background.”

Webster would like FAN to expand to western Wisconsin, since its roots are four hours away.

“We are trying to do things more local so we can keep spreading awareness,” Webster said. “What I have found is there are different suicide prevention organizations that are working to prevent suicide, so that’s enlightening, but FAN strives to work directly with farmers and their families.

“This his how I’m healing. It’s sad and I don’t want other families to go through this.”

Who was Brian?

Brian Webster grew up on the family farm on County Road D, which has been in the family since 1880. He was a fill-time crop and dairy farmer, growing corn, soybeans and hay. He and his son Mitch raised pigs together as well, and Mitch has beef cattle, Jennifer Webster said. The farm totals about 1,100 acres in all.

“My dad and uncle used to farm together and they split about a year ago, because my uncle and his son, it worked for them to just kind of do their thing,” Webster said. “My dad and my brother thought it was time to chop things up a little differently because we had another generation coming in.”

Her dad also sold seed corn and served on the town board, where he held the chair position at one time.

“That was something that he really enjoyed doing,” Webster said.

Brian had struggled with depression kind of and off through the years, his daughter said.

“Somewhere around 2008 he went and got treatment for mental health and he was in a facility,” Webster said. “He had made a comment to his doctor and that was enough for him to go get help. His depression was usually around a problem that he had and it kind of ate him up until it was solved. This time there was something, we’ll never know what it is…My dad was really irritable this spring. We had to get stuff done yesterday.”

Webster helped him in his seed business and could see something was off.

“He was on medication and he kind of knew in the spring and fall he was supposed to take extra during the stressful times on the farm,” Webster said. “His doctor switched him to a new medication about a month before he passed away.”

Once he was on the new medication, he seemed almost too happy, not himself. Webster said he was in the process of transitioning the farm to her brothers and she thought maybe he was having a tough time with the change. He seemed worried.

“Farming just wasn’t fun anymore and I think he felt like he was giving my brothers a burden to take on because there’s so much volatility in farming and the milk prices weren’t that great,” Webster said. “He was supposed to go see a therapist at the Mayo Clinic a week after he died, which was the soonest he could get in. There is obviously a problem to get it scheduled. Like my dad said, do you have to die in order to be seen? Do I have to be on my deathbed? About a week before, my mom took him to the ER because he was feeling light-headed. He was really irritable at that time. There were no beds available. No staffing available. We had my brother’s party and that was the last time I saw my dad.”

Webster said her dad didn’t do well in the heat. On really hot days, he couldn’t stand to be outside for long periods of time. He spent a lot of time in the house on those days, and that bothered him, she said.

Farming comes with a lot of stressors, some beyond a farmer’s control.

“Dad struggled with the transition to the next generation,” Webster said. “Especially for dairy farming, volatility of prices and costs keep going u[. My brother Tommy wants to milk cows and wants to be a dairy farmer, but how do you get going when prices are poorly established?”

Farmers are also at the mercy of the weather. If the right amount of rain or snow doesn’t come, that takes a big toll. It could mean cows don’t get fed or crops don’t grow, which could add a huge financial burden if debts can’t be paid.”

Brian’s death has left a huge hole in the family. Her brothers are trying to keep things going.

“My dad and brothers worked really well together,” Webster said. “Tommy, he’s 25, just learned the ropes on how to do things on his own. Mitchell, he’s 30, has had a bit more experience working alongside my dad. Tommy is a bit lost, learning how taxes work, and he has to be more involved with things now.”

Webster, trying to find humor in a sad situation, said it’s ironic that this event is focused on her dad’s story and helping people like him. He never wanted to be the center of attention.

“Most people that knew my dad knew that he wanted to help people. If there was a way he could help someone, he would,” Webster said. “He didn’t want anybody to know about it. He was kind of a private person anyway.”

Webster credits her dad for making work on the farm fun and for leading her into an agriculture career. She works in commodities and logistics.

“He always made work on the farm really fun, even if you were doing something you hated, he made it fun. He taught us the value of hard work and the value of a dollar,” she said.

According to a study published in 2020 focusing on suicide rates among occupational groups, the suicide rate for farmers, ranchers and ag managers was 43.7 deaths per 100,000 people, which was significantly higher than the average of 14.1 per 100,000 in the general population.

Cady is hoping the event will spread awareness because many farmers don’t talk about mental health and struggle in silence.

“I’ve seen it firsthand. I’ve seen how it can affect people’s mental health,” Cady said. “There’s a lot of time spent alone on the farm and there can be a lot to think about. I want people to know, if you go down that rabbit hole, we can help pull you out. It’s ok to talk about depression and anxiety. My grandpa acts all tough. It’s hit my dad pretty hard. But there’s that stigma, oh we’re fine, we don’t have to talk about it. I just mainly want to cut that stigma and open it up to the older generation. We can talk about it and it can be fixed and we can help. You don’t just have to bottle it up and pretend you’re fine.”

Those wishing to attend the event can RSVP by calling the EHS Ag Room at 715-276-3904, texting Christenson at 715-768-9070 or email Cady at cadyg@ellsworth.k12.wi.us The event is free, but please RSVP so the group knows how much food to order.  

Brian Webster, Ellsworth FFA & FFA Alumni, Farmer Angel Network of Western Wisconsin, speaker, farmer mental health, Ellsworth