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Managing Stress: Supporting The Agricultural Workforce With New Tools

Sam Gettinger, owner of Gettinger Family Custom Meats in New Palestine and Rushville, says the stress of working in the meat packing industry finally caught up with him in 2018. He was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease after a flare up put him in the hospital for over two weeks. Still, he couldn’t see the toll the daily stress was taking on him until a doctor conducted a probing scope inside his body.

“The first thing the doctor asked was, ‘How much do you work?’,” Gettinger recalls. “When the doctor looks
inside of you and can tell that things aren’t right due to the stress and anxiety, that’s a major eye opener.”

Concerns from agriculture and natural resource educators regarding the mental health decline of the agricultural community prompted the Purdue Extension Farm Stress Team to form and initiate conversations with farmers and their families.

Angela Sorg, Extension educator and Farm Stress Team co-leader, says their first priority was to organize training to help others identify mental health concerns, such as signs of stress, anxiety or suicidal thoughts.
But, in order to reach the agriculture community, Sorg says she needed farmers and others entrenched in
the industry to join her in their educational efforts.

The Purdue Extension Farm Stress Team partnered with the Indiana Meat Packers Association to provide area members, like Gettinger, with funding for training, information, newsletters and resources to support mental health.

Darla Kiesel, co-owner of Dewig Meats in Indiana and president of the American Association of Meat Processors, says farmers and agricultural industry workers have so much piled on their plates every day that it can be difficult to see the point at when help and intervention is needed. One of the things the Farm Stress Program teaches, Kiesel said, is identifying that moment when the weight of one’s plate becomes too heavy to carry alone.

"We constantly talk about our meat packers as a family, because that’s exactly what we are. I can go to any of my fellow meat packers and talk to them about how our business is running or issues we’re facing, and there isn’t really anyone else besides them who will understand. Through these organizations and belonging, we can identify others just like us and know that we aren’t alone, and there is someone there to lean on.”

- Darla Kiesel

Kiesel says it’s not uncommon to see meat packers throughout the state coming together to work as a team and help one another out when tragedy strikes. After a fire at an Indiana plant, other Indiana Meat Packer members joined together to support production. The tools the Farm Stress Program provides complement the strong family atmosphere to support members in challenging situations.

Tonya Short, Farm Stress Team co-leader and Extension educator, has worked alongside Sorg to obtain two National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) grants to advance the Farm Stress Team as a leader in agricultural mental health support. The grants have helped the team create a stronger statewide effort and play a role in the newly formed 988 suicide and crisis hotline.

Educating therapists on the situations farmers encounter is a large part of the puzzle, Sorg says, to keeping someone on the path of continued help.

“If a farmer comes to me and is finally asking for therapy, I want to make sure I am referring them to someone who understands the specific and unique needs of the farming community, because it’s a culture. The way they have to do therapy is different, the time they are working with is different, the way they get paid is different. Everything about a farmer’s life is different compared to someone who works a job where they punch a clock and go home."

- Angela Sorg

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