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Farmers & Producers In Crisis

Jackie Hendry: The disruption of the food supply chain has been an issue for South Dakota producers, especially pork producers, but that physical and emotional stress places a lot of weight on these individuals. Joining us today is Karl Oehlke. He's a physician assistant with Avera Medical Group and University Psychiatry Associates. He's also, himself, a third generation farmer. Karl Oehlke, welcome to In the Moment. Thanks for being here.

Karl Oehlke: Thank you.

Jackie Hendry: So I think to put in context, obviously the pandemic is putting a lot of additional pressure on producers in the state, but we want to keep in mind that we also had last year flooding that was putting a lot of pressure on producers, not to mention trade disputes with China, and it's a perfect storm of a lot of bad things that our producers are having to deal with. So talk to us, just maybe set the scene for us a little bit of what you're seeing as far as those emotional and mental health needs for our state's producers.

Karl Oehlke: Sure. Thanks for having me. Even just going back a year, you talk one could even extrapolate data that says we've probably been in three to four to five years of a downturn. Commodity prices, input prices remain high. Obviously tariffs and trade disputes last year made the headlines. I told a number of people, last year we heard the word historic flooding, historic rainfall. I told a lot of folks, historic is an adjective we don't really want to hear anymore. We just, unfortunately now, we end up with a historic pandemic with historic issues with supply chain issues and logistical issues with some of our packing plants and stuff. And the toll that it's taken on farmers is kind of where the idea for the farm and stress hotline came from.

We came up with the idea probably going back to the fall of even 2018, when harvest was pretty rough, a lot of rain. That's kind of when the rains kind of started. Water tables were pretty high even then. And of course, last spring, when the deluge came again and we ended up with flooding and significant infrastructure loss, not only in South Dakota, but looking down Nebraska, the Missouri river system, obviously a lot of areas around here with significant amounts of prevent plan takers, and now a pandemic that has affected the row crop guys as far as their impacts with a reduction in prices.

But especially the dairy, the hog, the cattle guys who have run into a lot of issues with some of the plants needed to close because of concerns with safety and trying to get those back up and running. But obviously that huge backlog of animals that took place has taken a toll on the producers themselves. I think a lot of folks were struggling with depression, anxiety, fear, how to provide those types of concerns, and this has unfortunately only amplified those concerns as well.

Jackie Hendry: We folks who aren't involved in the ag industry when, for instance, Smithfield closed, and we were looking at that backlog of animals when that first possibility of just having to euthanize the hogs and piglets with nowhere to go was raised. A lot of people kind of gasped and thought, oh my goodness. So as producers are having to do this, other folks are saying, "Well, you were raising them to send them to a slaughterhouse in the first place." But of course, it's a difference. Maybe explain the emotional toll and the big difference that we're seeing having to euthanize hogs because you can't send them to market versus sending them where they were intended to go.

Karl Oehlke: Sure. Obviously, you can kind of see some of the ideas behind where people would say that, but as a producer you have an end point. It's either, for instance, like a slaughterhouse, it's an elevator for your corn, it's a market for your hogs. It's a truck hopefully shipping your milk out. But for instance, if you get to the point where your corn goes out of condition, you can't get it to the elevator, that's a frustration. If you can't take a hog to Smithfield, for instance.

The other concern with that is when you're euthanizing hogs, a lot of the work that you've put in, a lot of the care that you put in for that animal is now lost. One expects and hopes if you put a significant amount of work and love and care into these animals, that you will get somewhat of a profit or at least get repaid in the end. Euthanizing an animal obviously is a zero return. You've lost the amount of money you put into feed, vaccines, the building, your time, which a lot of people don't oftentimes quantify, and that's what really starts to weigh on people, I believe anyway.

Jackie Hendry: You mentioned Avera's farmer stress hotline, which I believe kicked off early last year, if I'm remembering correctly. And I know there was a jump in volume when we were seeing that, as you say, historic flooding, that was an issue. What can you tell us about call volumes today with our current situation?

Karl Oehlke: Throughout the inception of the hotline, as well as its current usage, I would say there's always an ebb and a flow that you'll see with calls. For instance, right after the floods, definitely saw an increase in calls there. Things kind of got a little bit better. A few guys got back into the fields. Calls kind of never go to zero by any means, but maybe reduce, then all of a sudden we started getting more rains in September. We had more infrastructure loss. Calls bounced back up again.

We definitely saw an influx in calls this spring. We were seeing some steady calls throughout much of the spring. And unfortunately when coronavirus hit, and there was certainly no warning. That's probably the hardest part. Everything in the grand scheme of things happened very, very quickly. We lost a significant amount of ability to market green, hogs, cattle and milk in what seemed like the blink of an eye. And that's when the calls had definitely increased, although we were seeing steady calls even prior to that.

Jackie Hendry: A question I've heard posed with folks, or with those producers who are having to euthanize a large number of hogs, the question is posed because this is not a typical part of their operation. Are we anticipating a risk of PTSD or others, I guess, detrimental mental states because of that?

Karl Oehlke: Oh, absolutely. I think one of the biggest things we see right now is more that depression and anxiety. When will things, if ever, get back to normal? I know a lot of phrasiology has been a new normal. But even animals after a natural disaster, folks that had lost cattle, when we go back to the blizzard of October a few years ago, I heard folks talk about they know these cattle. Granted, I've had cattle, I've never had hogs, but you're not supposed to befriend your animals by any means, but it's kind of hard not to.

You have a cow that sticks out like a sore thumb because she's a foot taller than everybody else, so that was one that, for instance, stuck out for me. And it's, to see something like that, if you lose those animals unexpectedly, especially with huge numbers, that weighs on a person because that's part of their livelihood. I'm not going to call them family members by any means, but they certainly have a connection to them.

Jackie Hendry: For any producers who might be listening, we'll start with PTSD maybe. When are certain feelings, an unexpected reaction to our current upsetting situation, and when does it turn into something that maybe someone should consider calling the helpline or getting a little extra help?

Karl Oehlke: One can see concerns even months after the event. I've always tried to list, kind of a constellation of symptoms that need to be addressed or at least monitored. And a lot of times that outside looking in prerogative, whether that's a spouse, a coworker, a child, another family member are the folks that oftentimes see these things, even before the producer may. Things like loss of sleep, inability to sleep. A lot of times we see there's kind of a misnomer in psychiatry over the years of people who are depressed or anxious, they sleep all day long. Well, that's not oftentimes the case. These folks are just replaying their days. They're fast forwarding to the future. "How am I going to rebuild my hog operation?" Maybe seeing images of those hogs that they lost. Inability to sleep because of those concerns.

An avoidance of different things. Maybe not wanting to spend time with family, maybe not doing a hobby that they used to be able to do. Things they're always, my phrasing is always different now because with social distancing and everything has changed. We can't go to the elevator. We can't go sit down and have a cup of coffee at the coffee shop like we used to. Hopefully things will start to ease going forward, but more avoidant-type concerns. Maybe not eating. Seeing that belt loop move over a couple of spots or those pants hanging off the hips a little bit more, those types of concerns. Lack of energy, lack of concentration or focus, maybe making mistakes on the farm that wouldn't be something that was historically seen, bearing in mistakes can always happen because we're human, but maybe if they become more prominent or are just seen more often.

And then, of course, the biggest one that we're always, and is always our biggest concern, and that is thoughts of self harm or those types of concerns or suicide.

Jackie Hendry: Right. My guest has been Karl Oehlke. He's a physician assistant with the Avera Medical Group, University Psychiatry Associates, and also a third generation family farmer. Karl, thanks so much for being with us today. We really appreciate it very much.

Karl Oehlke: You're welcome. Thanks for having us.