Kat Becker feeds hundreds of people with the vegetables she grows on her Wisconsin farm and wants to expand. But their ability to grow their business clashes with their need for affordable health insurance and child care.
He has had to make difficult decisions over the years: keep his farm income low enough for his children to opt for state public health insurance or expand the farm and buy expensive private insurance. To take care of her three young children, she could hire a cheap but inexperienced babysitter, or spend a significant portion of her income on childcare and have the peace of mind that children are safe on the farm.
“The stable choice for my children to have health insurance is an irrational choice for my farming business,” he said.
We have heard numerous stories like Kat’s in our work as social scientists supporting the next generation of farmers. Through thousands of interviews, surveys, and conversations with farmers across the country, we have documented how household expenses, such as access to health care and child care, reduce investments that could increase production. of food in the United States. As farmers continue to age and retire, the U.S. needs young farmers to take their place. The country currently has 3.4 million agricultural operators, about 2% of the American population, and its average age is 58 years.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has made joint efforts to help young and novice farmers, especially with access to farmland, credit, and marketing skills. But focusing on the technical side of agriculture lacks a fundamental fact about farms: they are intrinsically social entities and their success depends on both social infrastructure and biophysical or financial. Strengthening the resilience of food systems means supporting people so that they can grow food. Our research indicates that health care and child care are two crucial ingredients for a successful food system.
Health insurance: what happens when farmers get sick?
Economists believe that healthier workers are more productive, adaptable, and able to cope with stress. Meanwhile, farming is a physical and stressful job. Our research found that two-thirds of farmers have a pre-existing state of health and that one in three farms has a family member whose health problems make farming difficult. Farmers prioritize health insurance (more than 90% of farmers are covered), but that number hides details that affect the entire U.S. health care system.
In addition to agriculture, half of all farming families have at least one additional full-time working adult, often primarily to cover health insurance. It’s an affordable option, but it takes time and energy away from working on the farm. Farmers in states as diverse as Mississippi, California and Nebraska have shared periods that have gone on to remain eligible for public health insurance. In extreme cases, farmers have said they kept marriages secret. Farmers often feel trapped: excess income can exceed their public benefit threshold.
Across the country, 68% of all personal bankruptcies are related to health and medical expenses. These personal and financial crises can have long-term consequences for farms. One in two peasant families reported that they were concerned about having to sell farm goods to pay for health care expenses. Farmers report that meeting health care needs often means working in old age or selling land to the highest bidder. This limits access to farmland, making it even more difficult for young farmers to get started.
Child care: who watches children?
As parents across the country discovered during the pandemic, productivity can suffer when working from home with children around. Advertisements in magazines and grocery stores of smiling farmers posing with young children overshadow the reality that farm parents are hardworking parents who also have to navigate the complex world of childcare.
Growing up on a farm has many benefits for children, but farms can also be dangerous. Every day there are 33 children seriously injured in agriculture-related incidents and every three days a child dies on a farm. Child care is rarely discussed in conversations related to farm viability and farm safety, although it underpins the very basis of the family farm.
In a national study of farm parents before the pandemic, we found that two-thirds had problems with the cost, availability, and quality of child care. Surveying farm parents during the early months of COVID-19, we found that 58% reported that caring for children became more difficult during the pandemic, especially for women farmers and those with children under 6 years of age. .
Women are one of the fastest growing groups of farmers and their role as primary caregivers influences the success of a farm. In our research, women were almost twice as likely as men to report that childcare was an important factor in agricultural decisions, 44% compared to 24% among men.
We also found that most women farmers with child care problems operated small or medium-sized farms and were much more likely to sell directly to consumers, such as in agricultural markets. These findings have implications for the food system. The Biden administration’s new $ 1.8 trillion proposal to support families and women in the workforce includes resources for child care infrastructure. These investments could also provide much-needed support for American peasant families.
Prescription to support the next harvest of farmers
For the past ten years, farming families have told us that public insurance options, which facilitate access for the self-employed, universal health insurance and affordable rural child care, will help them grow better food. and stronger companies. These challenges run parallel to those faced by many Americans. Policymakers can take advantage of the lessons of the economic and social crises unleashed by COVID-19 to ensure that all Americans, including those who grow the nation’s food, have access to adequate and affordable health insurance and care. children.
The Department of Agriculture announced on April 21, 2021 that it was beginning an effort to “improve and reimagine” supply chains for food production, including meeting the need of agricultural workers and resolution of the needs of medium and small farms. This is an opportunity to integrate health insurance and child care as a basic infrastructure that supports the future of farmers and rural communities, along with the U.S. food supply.