The deepest economic depression in the California dairy industry since the Great Depression has bared a subject far more compelling than the cost of feed and the price of milk.

It is suicide.

“When someone says, ‘This is my last day on earth,’ it’s very frightening,” said Michael Marsh, chief executive officer, Western United Dairymen, Modesto, Calif. He has intervened to help at least two dairy operators this year after they expressed despair. Western represents 1,100 dairy members producing 60 percent of California’s milk.

Marsh said the men were despondent over finances and setbacks in the industry, a shriveling export market, an oversupply of milk and the necessity to trim herds or completely sell out herds as milk prices dipped and losses soared. In brief, he said, “losing everything.”

They survived, in part due to Marsh’s help in accessing mental health services.

But two other California dairy farmers killed themselves in recent months. There were reports of many more.

And on the subject of those suicides, Marsh said, “I pray we have had the last one and that the economic situation turns around.”

The issue of suicide on dairies and the pain of losing the family farm is a national one, and expertise from outside the state has been tapped in recent weeks to strengthen lifelines in California.

A California webinar in June focused on farmer stress, depression and suicide. It was aimed at pinpointing signs of distress and ways of getting help. Its audience was made up of people who interact with dairy operators: dairy veterinarians, agricultural lenders, field staff from producer and processor organizations, regulatory field staff, consultants, University of California livestock advisers and staff of the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

A task force is now stepping up efforts in Tulare County, the nation’s leading milk producer, to reach out to those despairing because of finances – and not just those in the dairy industry. It will reach out to a wide range of people, including hair salon operators who might get an earful on life’s stresses. There are reports of at least four suicides related to the dairy crisis this year in Tulare County.

“If producers have an issue, we need to get them to mental health resources as quickly as we can,” said Marsh, who said this is the first year he has known of suicides on dairies in California linked to the economic downturn.

“This is the deepest economic depression the dairy industry has seen since the Great Depression,” he said.

Marsh said there was some despair among dairy operators in 2006, when milk prices were also low and a heat wave killed thousands of cows in California. Rendering plants were so backlogged that farmers had to bury many animals on their land.

He said he has given troubled dairy operators his home phone and told them, “Pick up the phone day or night and give me a call. If you need a place to stay, give me a call.” He declined to elaborate on specific assistance he provided.

“The other details are personal,” he said.

Experts say it’s that sort of caring outreach that is needed in the face of today’s trying times.