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It's the people, not just the pigs

SDSU Extension Mental Health specialist offers tips for pork industry members dealing with stressful times.

"God only gives you what he knows you can handle." I remember that phrase growing up and thinking, I must be some tough little girl after my father passed away at a young age. By the time I was a young adult, going through a divorce, being a single mom and struggling financially, I remember resenting that expression and praying, "God, please let up. I cannot take anymore."

I am sure many members of the pork industry feel like this today, from the employees at the packing plants who just want to be healthy, COVID-free and working again to the producers on farms trying to buy another day until the processing facilities open up again. I am also sure every morning when you wake up, you are like me, thankful for another day upon this earth and hopeful for better news, less cases of COVID-19 and a return to some normalcy in this uncertain world.

On Thursday evening, I participated in a South Dakota State University Extension Zoom meeting with South Dakota swine industry members where we dived into some of those uncertainties and I was quickly reminded of a mental health discipline we can all strive to remember right now. As Andrea Bjornestad, assistant professor and SDSU Extension Mental Health specialist, points out we all have a plate. What's on that plate right now?

"What's on your plate? The key is what stressors can you control. We cannot control market prices, we cannot control the weather, we cannot control the tariffs, we cannot control what is happening at Smithfield right now," Bjornestad says. "What can you control? Thinking about what's on your plate — What are the stressors you can control right now?"

Bjornestad says those are the stressors that will help you decrease your stress.

"The other ones, that you can't control, only contribute to more stress and are unproductive so those are the ones, even though we have so much anxiety about the current situation, somehow we have to manage those worries," Bjornestad says. "We can't let them consume us because they are unproductive, and they only contribute to more stress."

During the webinar, Bjornestad highlighted how some of those early symptoms of stress can often linger and manifest into longer issues with depression, and how important it is for producers to recognize those symptoms and listen to family members who may observe them.

Bob Thaler, SDSU professor and Extension swine specialist, recognizes that plate right now is very heavy for pork producers in the Midwest as more than 25% of pork processing facilities are shut down due to COVID-19. While all pork producers are trying to buy time until those plants open up again, some will be forced to make difficult decisions in the days ahead.

"When you have to euthanize a large number of animals, it takes a huge emotional toll, a mental toll on the people doing it because they've spent their whole lives, providing care for these animals," Thaler says. "They're doing everything they can to keep them alive since birth — great environment, great food, good welfare, and then all of a sudden now they've got to euthanize them and that will be a terrible toll on our producers."

Thaler says this is an unprecedented time right now for producers.

"There's more financial and emotional stress on these people than we've ever had in a long time, if ever," Thaler says. "Reach out to your neighbors, reach out to your friends, reach out to everybody in agriculture. If those people that are struggling know that somebody cares about them, that could make all the difference in the world. You know the people component of this is really big too. We need to take care of our friends and neighbors and be there for them."

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