BUSINESS

Suicide Rates On The Rise Among Quebec Farmers As Pressures Mount

A profession in distress.

11/23/2017 17:27 EST | Updated 11/28/2017 10:00 EST

Just before last Christmas, Rudy Ducreux, a young farmer from France, ended his life in the workshop on his Ducrêt farm, a stone's throw away from the town hall.

Saint-Basile, population 2,600, lies in the Portneuf region, west of Quebec City, where nearly half of the economy revolves around agriculture.

"It's a tragedy, because first, there's the loss of a human life. And then, it's one less agricultural operation in our area," said Mayor Jean Poirier.

Nicolas Mesly
Just before Christmas 2016, Rudy Ducreux died by suicide in a workshop on his farm in 2016.

Everyone in the Quebec cheesemaking industry knew Ducreux, a young rising star whose "Gaulois de Portneuf" cheese was a finalist at the esteemed 2011 Selection Caseus competition.

"He was quite reserved. But once you started talking about agriculture, you could see how passionate he was. His raw milk cheeses, like the Gaulois de Portneuf, were exceptional, irreplaceable. We can't afford to lose people like him," says Charles Trottier, co-owner of the region's Fromagerie Des Grondines.

The two artisan cheesemakers came through the listeriosis crisis of 2008 when dozens of people fell ill and two people died due to tainted cheese. The government subsequently ordered thousands of kilograms of cheese to be thrown out.

His raw milk cheeses, like the Gaulois de Portneuf, were exceptional, irreplaceable. We can't afford to lose people like him.Charles Trottier

In a report on how the crisis was handled, the Quebec Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food exonerated raw milk cheeses after identifying the bacteria responsible for the outbreak — pulsovar 93, a strain of Listeria monocytogenes — as originating from pasteurized milk cheeses.

But the damage was done. And today, with Rudy Ducreux gone, there are only four or five raw milk cheesemakers left in the province, according to Normand Côté, president of the Association of Artisanal Cheese Makers of Québec.

A profession under pressure

The job of an artisan cheesemaker can be considered a Herculean effort. The cows must be milked twice a day, 365 days a year. The cheese must be created in conditions that are as hygienic as a hospital operating room. And then there's the packaging, distribution and sale of the product in specialized boutiques or in restaurants.

"It's three professions in one," explains Trottier. "And that's not counting stress related to the weather, since the farm is an open-air factory, to produce feed and grain to keep the cows fed."

The job is also carried out under an administration that could be described as Kafkaesque. "To operate our cheese dairy, I need 16 or 17 permits, including one for production from the Ministry of Agriculture, a permit from the Ministry of the Environment, one for transporting the milk, selling it at retail, from the organic certification organization, the municipality ..." Trottier adds.

Nicolas Mesly
Charles Trottier, co-owner of the Fromagerie Des Grondines, had struck up a friendship with Rudy Ducreux.

Even if artisan cheesemakers only process a fraction of the milk produced by the nearly 5,600 dairy farms in Quebec, they are the standard-bearers of an industry that generates 30 per cent of all the agricultural revenues in the province.

And beginning Sept. 21, the Trudeau government allowed 16,000 metric tons of fine cheeses to be imported from Europe under the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), likely dealing a blow to several artisan cheesemakers in Quebec.

"These imports are the equivalent of 640 farms like ours. It's ludicrous to think we won't be affected," Trottier states.

Since he got his start, the businessman has invested $1.8 million in the dairy, including $750,000 in the last two years, primarily to build new stables. And he relies on his Québécois clientele — more than 30,000 people visit the dairy each year — to survive.

Unlike Trottier, who says he works up to 110 hours a week to operate the dairy with his partner and 20 or so employees, "Rudy worked alone, with the energy of youth."

The fragility of farmers

According to Ginette Lafleur, a PhD candidate at the Centre for Research and Intervention on Suicide and Euthanasia (CRISE) at Université du Québec à Montreal, farmers' jobs are known to be some of the most stressful due to uncontrollable elements like the weather.

But globalization, commercial treaties, family conflicts, relationship troubles and isolation are also factors that add up and increase the level of psychological distress.

"Until one day the elastic breaks," explains the researcher, who has studied farmers' stress not only in Quebec, but also in France and Switzerland. "I'm not able to say to what extent Rudy Ducreux's case is representative of the psychological state of the rest of dairy producers in Quebec."

The only available study on rates of suicide among farmers in Quebec was carried out 30 years ago, and indicates that it is double that of men in the general public.

The National Institute of Public Health of Quebec does not categorize suicides by profession, but recorded that in 2014, 845 men in Quebec took their own lives. Since 1981, this statistic fluctuates between 795 and 1,284 suicides each year.

In comparison, France's National Suicide Observatory, which was created in 2013, registered 417 suicides among male farmers between 2007 and 2009, especially among cattle farmers.

Hiding in plain sight

It seems that suicide is pervasive in the Quebec countryside. Just ask Laurier Gauthier, one of Ducreux's neighbours. The 67-year-old is a dairy farmer and co-owns the second-largest maple farm in la belle province with his brothers. He offered to accompany us to the Ducrêt farm.

On the way, riding in his truck, Gauthier comments as we pass a neighbour's farm: "He committed suicide too. And yet, he was flush with money. He had just bought a Cadillac."

He adds that he's known six people — five producers and a farm employee — who died by suicide within a 12-kilometre radius of his own farm.

He committed suicide too. And yet, he was flush with money. He had just bought a Cadillac.Laurier Gauthier

As for Ducreux's death, Gauthier suggests it might be related to having taken on too much work for a single person, but, "the real, deep reason, people take it with them," he says.

A former mayor of Saint-Basile, Gauthier points to the existing socio-economic situation as an important factor in farmers' psychological distress. He is also critical of the Quebec government, including former Parti Québécois agriculture minister and food sovereignty champion Jean Garon, who Gauthier says appointed people who were ignorant of the issues.

On the federal level, Gauthier asks how far Ottawa is willing, under the current NAFTA renegotiation demanded by U.S. President Donald Trump, to defend supply management and not sacrifice it to help the softwood lumber, automobile, or aviation sectors.

Nicolas Mesly
Farmer Connie McLellan takes care of Rudy Ducreux's herd of cattle.

We arrive at the Ducrêt farm. Rudy Ducreux bought it in 2004 from Luc Mailloux, a former raw milk cheesemaker. We are greeted by Connie McLellan, a 28-year-old farmer from Nova Scotia. She is hesitant to speak with journalists, on the advice of a lawyer hired by the estate "so as not to hinder the sale of the farm."

Rudy Ducreux's body has long since been repatriated by the family.

McLellan explains she was hired to milk the herd of 26 cattle. Aside from the clinking of the cows' chains, there is no sound around the deserted house, dairy, workshop and sheds. There is only a cat looking for attention, following us from one building to the next.

In the adjacent fields, machinery is rusting in the middle of high grass. There are new trees planted on nearby land, which was once farmed. Like the tree that makes one unable to see the forest, the suicide of the creator of the Gaulois de Portneuf hides the reality of Quebec farming in jeopardy.

This is part of a special series, published originally in French by HuffPost Quebec.

More from HuffPost Canada: