NC State University/ Dr. David Crouse
Sweet corn production at Open Grounds Farm in eastern North Carolina. Photo credit: Soil Science @ NC State

By Taylor Knopf

Farmers are some of the biggest gamblers.

Their livelihood hinges on something as fickle as the weather or crop prices. And not only do they take chances with their crops, they tend to take extreme risks with their health.

woman stands at the front of a room of people sitting at desks. She's motioning to diagrams on the wall at the front of the room
AgriSafe nurse Jessica Wilburn teaches farmers at the annual North Carolina Minority Farmers and Landowners conference how to protect their ears on the job and prevent hearing loss. Photo credit: Taylor Knopf

There is no such thing as an 8 to 5 job for farmers. So don’t even think about vacation time and sick days.

It’s a high-stress job that demands a lot from an individual. In the agricultural industry, there is an increased risk for ailments such as heat exhaustion, skin cancer, injury and respiratory disease.

So, the North Carolina Agromedicine Institute, headquartered at East Carolina University, is reminding farmers that they are their number one asset.

“We need to change the perception to make sure you are taking care of yourself, because if not, there may not be a farm,” AgriSafe nurse Jessica Wilburn told a group of farmers during a farm safety class last week.

There about 48,000 farmers in North Carolina and staff with the various Agromedicine programs reached about 9,000 last year. Because North Carolina farmers, fishermen and loggers tend to be more concerned about their commodities than their own health and safety, the institute’s staff provide safety classes. AgriSafe nurses travel to farm meetings, conferences or to individual farms to conduct free on-site health screenings.

“Farmers don’t routinely go to the doctor or get preventive care,” said Robin Tutor, director of the Agromedicine Institute. “[One of these screenings] might be the first time they know that they have high blood pressure or diabetes. We help get them into care and teach them how to manage their disease in their work environment.”

Tutor said about 60 percent of the farmers they have come in contact with have high blood pressure or obesity.

Preventable incidents

The institute was founded about 20 years ago by physicians at the NC Cooperative Extension at North Carolina State University, East Carolina University and North Carolina A&T. The institute also has a research component and relies on university staff and interested college students to help conduct their agricultural health-related studies.

woman sits looking at the camera, smiling.
Robin Tutor, director of the Agromedicine Institute. Photo credit: Taylor Knopf

Currently, a major focus for the institute is fighting respiratory disease among farmers and forestry workers. Tutor said it’s the number one disease in the agricultural community.

Each year, there are between 1,800 and 3,000 “preventable occupational incidents involving pesticide exposure” in the agricultural and forestry industries throughout the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA made revisions to the Agricultural Worker Protection Standard to be fully implemented by January 2018. The biggest change is requiring workers handling chemicals to wear respirators.

But it’s not as simple as going to the store and buying a one-size-fits-all device. Agromedicine Institute workers are helping farmers comply with the new standards by helping them identify which respirators they need for handling which chemicals. The Agrisafe nurses do “fit tests” to help farmers find the respirator that best fit their faces and needs.

Staff members who can relate

Tutor grew up halfway between Durham and Chapel Hill where her grandfather had a 100-acre farm. She has two sons who went into the industry. One is a hog producer, the other a cattleman.

“This was a way to combine my background and personal passions together for the health and safety of agriculture in North Carolina,” Tutor said of her current job.

Having an agricultural background helps her and the other nurses relate to the population they serve. A little more than half of North Carolina’s farmers have occupations outside the farm that they consider their main job, according to a United States Department of Agriculture census from 2012. Nationally, the median farm household income fluctuates. It dipped from $81,637 in 2014 to $76,735 in 2015. It’s expected to rise to $79,733 in 2017, according to the USDA.

Wilburn started her farm safety class last week at the annual North Carolina Minority Farmers and Landowners conference by sharing her background as a beef cattle farmer.

“Farmers today have additional challenges,” she told her audience. “My husband and I work off the farm and on the farm together. On a daily basis we are racing the sun trying to get back from wherever we are to take care of the animals.

“Scheduling is a challenge. We may rush to get home, rush to use equipment and put ourselves at higher risk of safety issues. You make mistakes and take shortcuts when you’re hurrying and it’s easy to get hurt.”

Wilburn went on to demonstrate to the class how to properly put in earplugs to avoid hearing loss from loud equipment.

Shelton Billups, 75-year-old soybean, corn and wheat farmer from Elizabeth City sat near the front of the room. He’s been farming his whole life.

“It’s in my blood. I love it,” he said. “I don’t make a whole lot of money and some years are better than others.”

But he said the freedom and fresh air of being out in the fields make it worthwhile.

Billups admitted that he has not always used the safest farming methods Wilburn described in her talk, but he thinks they are needed.

“A farmer will take chances when other people won’t,” he said. “We are in a hurry a lot, and anxious to get the job done.”

After sitting through Wilburn’s presentation, Billups said he’s now convinced he should be wearing earplugs while operating some of his older tractors.

Good fit

At the exhibit tables, AgriSafe nurse Cynthia Smith was checking blood pressure and handing out respirator information to those who stopped by the Agromedicine Institute booth. This is a major part of what the institute does. And meetings like this are a great place to catch a lot of farmers in one place.

an older woman takes the blood pressure of a woman who is sitting down
Columbus County sweet potato farmer Mary Graham gets her blood pressure checked by AgriSafe nurse Cynthia Smith at the annual NC Minority Farmer and Landowner conference in June. Photo credit: Taylor Knopf

Smith worked as a nurse in various capacities over the last 30 years as she helped her husband farm about 400 acres in Nash County. They’ve grown tobacco, soybeans, corn, wheat, oats,and  hay and raise chickens for Perdue Farms. She first heard about the Agromedicine Institute two years ago when her daughter sent her the job listing for a part-time AgriSafe nurse.

“I applied, thinking no one is going to want an old nurse like me, but the agricultural background is actually what they were looking for,” Smith said.

There is some extra training involved. Smith will be taking the exam for a national certification as an AgriSafe provider next month.

“My personal goal is to make everybody I’m in contact with aware of the institute,” she said. “So many people have never heard of us. I think that’s a shame. In my community, they know what the institute is and what it does. They are all working on their health.”

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Taylor Knopf

Taylor Knopf writes about mental health, including addiction and harm reduction. She lives in Raleigh and previously wrote for The News & Observer. Knopf has a bachelor's degree in sociology with a...

One reply on “Helping Farmers Care for Their Number One Asset: Themselves”

  1. Great story — rode my tractor yesterday and after this article I think I might need better ear plugs!!!

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