EAU CLAIRE — Stephanie and Andy Schneider moved to their Mondovi farm when Stephanie was relocated for her job with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
The couple knew they wanted to raise their young children in a rural setting and be able to feed them food they raised themselves, Stephanie Schneider said.
“We thought, if we can raise three pigs, how hard is it to raise 10?” Schneider said last month during a farmer panel at Just Local Food Cooperative’s annual meeting in Eau Claire. “It kind of spiraled from there.”
So Together Farms was born.
The Schneiders raise grass-fed beef, lamb and pork on their 160-acre Buffalo County farm. Then last year, they started offering burger nights on the farm, in addition to freezer meals, skin-care products and candles.
It has gotten big enough that Schneider recently decided to leave her off-the-farm job to focus on Together Farms.
“Now I’m running it like a business instead of a hobby that I’m subsidizing with off-farm income,” Schneider said.
The move to full-time farmer has not come without obstacles, said Schneider, whose husband, Andy, is a carpenter.
“One of our biggest costs is health insurance,” Schneider said. “Now that we’re both going to be self employed, we really have to figure out this health-insurance thing.”
Jim Deutsch of Deutsch Family Farm in Osseo agreed.
“Insurance is one of our biggest expenses on our farm,” he said. “It’s just ridiculous.”
And it’s not just farmers struggling with the cost of insurance.
Many rural Americans continue to lack adequate health care access, according to a recent poll of more than 1,400 rural adults conducted by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, National Public Radio and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Though most rural Americans have health insurance, 26 percent have not been able to get health care when they needed it at some point in the past few years. Nearly one in 10 rural adults say hospitals in their local community have closed down in the past few years.
Four in 10 rural Americans say their families have experienced problems affording medical bills, housing or food in the past few years, according to the nationwide survey, which was conducted between Jan. 31 and March 2.
“Even with major improvements in health insurance coverage over the last decade, it is concerning that one in four rural Americans are struggling to get the health care they need,” Robert J. Blendon, co-director of the survey and the Richard L. Menschel Professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said in a news release.
When asked what was the most important thing that could be done to improve their health, more than a third of rural adults identified options related to fixing health care, including improving access and quality and reducing costs.
“I have heard a lot of conventional farmers complaining too about the tremendous amount of money we spend every month on insurance,” Schneider said. “It’s one of the biggest things that is impacting me right now.”
There is one way agriculture could be able to help reduce health care costs countrywide, according to Mariann Holm of Holm Girls Dairy in Dunn County, but it requires everyone have access to fresh, healthful food.
“We really need to re-frame the way we think about food in this country,” Holm said. “Food impacts our communities, our local economies, it impacts our national security and it touches on health care and the environment.”