Family farms are struggling with two hidden challenges: health insurance and child care

Kat Becker, a Wisconsin farmer, feeds hundreds of people every day with the vegetables that she grows. She wants to grow more. Her ability to grow her business is constrained by her need for affordable healthcare and child care.
Kat Becker - The Conversation

Over the years, she has had to make hard choices: either keep her farm income low enough that her children can receive state public health insurance or grow the farm and purchase expensive private insurance. She could either hire an inexperienced but cheap babysitter or pay a substantial portion of her income for child care. This would give her peace of mind knowing that her children are safe from farm dangers.

She said that the stable option for my children to have insurance for their health is an unreasonable choice for my farm business.

As social scientists working with the next generation farmers, we have heard many stories similar to Kats. We have collected data from thousands of interviews, surveys, and conversations with farmers all over the country to show how household expenses, such as access to child care, can reduce investments that would increase food production in the United States.

The United States needs to hire young farmers as farmers age and retire. The average age of American farm operators is 58. They account for 2% of the country's 3.4 million farmers.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture made concerted efforts in helping beginning farmers access credit, farmland and marketing skills. Focusing on the technical aspects of farming overlooks an important fact: Farms are social entities. Their success is dependent upon their social infrastructure. Supporting individuals to grow food is one way to boost resilience of food systems.

Research shows that child care and health care are crucial components of a healthy food system.

How does health insurance help farmers who are sick?

Economists have found that workers who are healthier are more productive, more adaptable, and better able cope with stress. Farming is a physically and emotionally demanding job.

Our research revealed that nearly two-thirds (33%) of farmers have pre-existing conditions and that one in three farms has a family member with a health problem that makes farming difficult. Farmers are more concerned about having insurance than 90%, but this does not include details that can plague the entire U.S. healthcare system.

Half of farm families also have at least one person working a full-time job outside of farming. This is often to obtain health insurance coverage. Although it is an economical option, it takes time away from farm work.

Young farmers may find it difficult to start or expand their farms due to the high costs of child care and health insurance. Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

In states such as Nebraska, California, and Mississippi, farmers have shared their stories of how they went to ensure that they are eligible for public insurance. Farmers have admitted to keeping their marriages secret in extreme cases. Farmers often feel trapped. Too much income can make them eligible for public benefits.

68% of personal bankruptcies nationwide are related to medical and health expenses. These financial and personal crises can have serious consequences for farmers. One in two farm families said they were concerned about having to sell their farm assets to cover health costs.

Farmers say that to cover their health care costs, they often have to work into old age or sell their land to the highest bidder. This makes it difficult for young farmers get started in farming.

Child care: Who watches over the children?

Parents across the country learned during the pandemic that working at home with young children can cause productivity problems. Advertisements in magazines and grocery stores featuring smiling farmers with young children hide the fact that farm parents are also working parents who must navigate the complicated world of child care.

While growing up on a farm can have many advantages for children, it can also pose dangers. Each day, 33 children are injured in farm-related accidents. Every three days, a child is killed on a farm. Although child care is not often discussed in discussions about farm viability or safety, it is essential to the foundation of any family farm.

We found that nearly two-thirds of farm parents struggled to find child care, regardless of its cost or availability, in a nationwide study. We surveyed farm parents in the first months of COVID-19 and found that 58% of them reported difficulty caring for their children during the pandemic, especially women farmers and children younger than 6.

Women are among the fastest growing groups of farmers. Their role as primary caregivers is crucial to a farm's success. Our research showed that 44% of women reported that child care played an important role in their farm decisions. This is almost double the percentage for men, 24% less than for women.

Our research also showed that most women farmers who had child care issues operated small- or medium-sized farms. They were also significantly more likely than other farmers to sell directly to customers, such as at farmers markets. These findings have implications on the food system.

Biden's proposal for US.8 trillion to support families and women working includes funding for child care infrastructure. These investments could also provide much-needed support to American farm families.

Prescription to support the next crop of farmers

Farm families have been telling us for the past 10 years that they believe public insurance options would make it easier to get insurance. They also feel universal health insurance and affordable rural child care would allow them to grow better food and more successful businesses.

These are the same challenges that many Americans face. The lessons learned from COVID-19's economic and social crises can be used by policymakers to ensure that all Americans have access to affordable and adequate health care and child care.

On April 21, 2021 the Department of Agriculture announced that it was launching an effort to improve and reinvent the supply chain for food production. This included meeting the demand of agricultural workers and addressing the needs of small and mid-sized farms. This is an opportunity to combine health insurance and child-care as core infrastructure that supports farmers and rural communities and the U.S. food supply.

This article was republished by The Conversation, a non-profit news site that shares ideas from academic experts. It was written by Shoshanah inwood, The Ohio State University; Andrea Rissing (The Ohio State University) and Florence Becot (The Ohio State University).

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Shoshanah inwood is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Florence Becot is funded by the CDC National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Andrea Rissing is not affiliated with any company or organization that would be benefited from this article.