Farmers are getting older while participating in one of the most dangerous occupations in the country.
More than 2 million full-time workers were employed in production agriculture in the U.S. in 2018. In 2017, 416 farmers and farm workers died from a work-related injury, resulting in a fatality rate of 20.4 deaths per 100,000 workers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
The average age of all U.S. farm producers in 2017 was 57.5 years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service Census of Agriculture. That was more than a year older than the average from the previous survey in 2012.
As many farmers continue to live and work on the farm well beyond typical retirement age, Jeff Bender, director for the Upper Midwest Agriculture Safety and Health Center, said a goal of UMASH is to have those involved in agriculture — which as a profession has more older workers than any other profession or industry — to be aware of the impact of aging and ways to prevent injuries.
Randy Koller, a dairy farmer in Pepin County, said he has seen the way aging has affected him and his farm.
Koller, 56, said after graduating from high school, his father, who was approaching 65 at the time, told him to be smart with how he was doing things on the farm and to take care of his body.
“Sometimes you need to do more with less,” Koller said said June 15 during a UMASH online community forum about aging on the farm. “You need to do more to be more productive and remain profitable in today’s world. But, as you get older, you can’t do things the hard way to get there.
“You have to be smarter. You have to use technology. You have to ask for help when you need help, so you’re not out there getting injured lifting things, moving things around. There are challenges, but use your experience to do things easier.”
Koller said he is fortunate to live just 20 minutes from Eau Claire, where he has access to several health-care facilities. His proximity to the city also means he has access to high-speed internet, but both those factors can limit access to quality care for those in more rural locations, he said.
“A lot of times farmers take a tough-person approach and say, ‘Well, I can tough my way through this’,” Koller said. “That is not necessarily the answer. Sometimes you need some health care and some screening to make sure things are OK.”
Koller, whose wife, Carma, is a physical therapist, said he has kept himself in shape for farming through running and weight training.
“Just what I naturally do on the farm is not necessarily a good workout in everyday,” Koller said. “Yeah, if I get into a day where I’m throwing hay bales all day, it’s a great workout. Otherwise, you’re just doing repetitive things, walking at a calculated, slow pace. Sometimes some more strenuous physical activity and weight training is a good thing.”
Nicholas Beltz, assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology at UW-Eau Claire and director of a community-fitness program, said physical activity outside of farming is key to slowing the loss of muscle mass associated with aging and retaining the fitness required to continue farming at an older age.
Adults over the age of 65 are the least physically active age group, Beltz said, with about a third of individuals in that age group not getting any exercise outside of their jobs.
“We’re getting older as a population,” Beltz said. “Things need to be adapted as we get older. There are a lot of things that change physiologically as we age.”
While cardiovascular activities like walking and biking are important to overall health, Beltz recommended resistance training to help maintain muscle integrity and overall quality of life during the aging process.
“As we move less, we get loss in muscle mass,” Beltz said. “If you’re not doing things, they’re going to be perceived as taking much more effort when you need to do them.”
Joseph E. Gaugler, director at the School of Public Health’s Center on Aging at the University of Minnesota, said roughly 20% of all older Americans, those 65 and older, live in rural areas. In Wisconsin and Minnesota, roughly a third of the aging population lives in rural areas.
Gaugler said persistent health-care provider shortages tend to plague rural areas, with the number of physicians per 10,000 people trending lower in rural areas than in urban areas, and specialty care can often require patients traveling great distances.
“This has been compounded by the fact that many rural hospitals have been closing,” he said. “What has that done overall to accessibility in the care offered and available to older persons and their families in rural areas?
“One solution that is thrown out is telehealth and virtual visits. This is simply not possible if we don’t have a dedicated broadband infrastructure in rural communities.”
Lisa Schiller, an associate professor and nursing graduate programs director at UW-Eau Claire, is a nurse practitioner and has been practicing in rural Wisconsin for 23 years. For almost a decade, Schiller has been taking senior nursing students at UW-Eau Claire to about 18 large dairies in Pepin and Buffalo counties to do health screenings and health and safety education for the farm owners and employees.
Since starting the program, Schiller has seen the average age of the participating farm owners and workers increase to about 30 and older for farm workers and 49 and older for farm owners.
“We know that farmers don’t retire, they just work a little bit less and supervise a little more,” she said.
Farming as an occupation comes with a high risk of injury, and that risk increases as farmers age, Schiller said. Among farmers younger than 55 in the U.S., the rate of fatal accidents is about 18 to 20 per 100,000. That rate increases to 45 to 55 per 100,000 for farmers 55 and older. The age group at greatest risk of fatal injury is 65 to 84, she said.
“When you think about this and the average age of workers in other industries, they’re not working at 65 to 84,” Schiller said. “But farmers still are.”
Schiller said many factors can play a role in the increasing risk of injury as farmers age, citing increasing prescription drug use, depression, hearing loss, osteoarthritis or respiratory problems.
“Farmers’ self-perceived risk does not equal their actual risk,” Schiller said. “I’m sure everybody’s heard the near-miss story. It always ended, ‘well, farming’s risky.’ There’s just an acceptance of risk. We need to be aware of that.”
For more information, visit the the Upper Midwest Agriculture Safety and Health Center’s website at http://umash.umn.edu.
If you’ve entered Putnam Heights Elementary School in Eau Claire any time over the past 28 years, there’s a good chance you were greeted by Dayna Smith. Likely with a smile. And very possibly by name.
Since August of 1992 she’s served as the school’s secretary, a job whose duties far transcend the office managerial role one might expect. Dayna is part-teacher, part-counselor, part-confidante, and, when called upon, even part-nurse. While the school now has a health care assistant, for several years, if a student suffered a bump, or a bruise, or a scrape, or a fever, Dayna always had just the fix.
But when COVID-19 stuck, not even Dayna had the solution. One mid-March afternoon she waved goodbye to Putnam Height’s 430 students. She hasn’t seen them since. Such a lack of closure has made her decision to retire all the more difficult.
“It’s hard because I miss being able to see the kids,” Dayna says, “though on the flipside, if we were together, I would really struggle to keep my composure in these last days. People are so, so kind here,” she adds.
And that kindness begins with Dayna.
Twice now, I’ve endured the tear-jerking experience of dropping my kindergartners off for their first day of school at Putnam Heights. The kids were fine, though I’m pretty certain I stopped traffic with my blubbering. Thankfully, Dayna was there to soothe both students and parents. As the mother of two daughters, she’s well versed in parental anxieties. In an effort to alleviate them in others, Dayna made it her business to try to learn every parent’s name.
Just ask Larry Jolivette, who last saw Dayna while dropping his son off at school in 2001.
Seventeen years later, when picking up his grandson, he walked through the school’s entrance to spot Dayna once again. She greeted him as if no time had passed at all: “Well hey there, Larry!”
Second grade teacher Anne Aubart recalls an equally astonishing example of Dayna’s personal touch. One day Ms. Aubart walked a sick kindergartner to the office and informed Dayna that they would need to call the child’s home. Nodding, Dayna picked up the phone, then dialed the number from memory.
“Dayna knew the number because it was a returning family,” Aubart explained, “and she’d called home for the child’s siblings at one time or another.”
While Dayna concedes that she has a pretty good memory, she also notes that she works at it. Each August, she studies the names and photographs for every incoming kindergartner.
“Once I learn their names as kindergartners, I’ll remember them for the rest of the time they’re here,” Dayna says.
As a guy who regularly confuses his own children’s names, Dayna’s “pretty good” memory seems more like a superpower. But her memory’s only half the source of her strength.
Dayna’s greatest gift is utilizing her first-name basis relationship to ensure that every student is seen. As class sizes increase and teachers become ever more taxed, sometimes a staff member like Dayna can make all the difference in the life of a student. Parent Kristen Berger shared how her son, Owen, once regularly ambled into the office under the auspices of phantom tummy aches, hoping to be sent home. Dayna always listened, sympathized, and after a bit of chitchat (which regularly seemed to cure what ailed him), redirected Owen back to class. Over the years, Berger witnessed similar encounters involving other students. “Dayna was always able to get the kids on their way back to where they need to be without making them feel like she hadn’t met their needs,” Berger said. “All they wanted was a little attention, or maybe someone just to tell them they were OK. Or maybe,” Berger added, “they just needed some Dayna time.”
In 2017, Dayna received the Eau Claire Public Schools Foundation’s prestigious Golden Apple Award, then Putnam Heights principal Kim Koller commending Dayna for her kindness, her helpfulness and how, “at the end of the day you make sure everyone gets home.”
It’s no small matter overseeing the personal safety and well-being of a school’s worth of students. Dayna rightfully credits the entire staff, but I can’t help but think that student-centered approach begins at the school’s front desk.
“An elementary school office is a bustling place,” remarked second grade teacher Kate Gilboy, “but Dayna always stays calm and collected. I honestly don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone as composed, while also being organized, hard-working, kind, and quick to solve problems. First impressions are impactful. Putnam has been blessed to have such a class-act as our first point of contact.”
Retired media specialist Sharon Bestul described Dayna as “the heart and soul of Putnam Heights,” and, indeed, many parents agree.
When I ask Dayna what she’d have told her students if she’d had the chance to say goodbye, she mulls it over for a moment.
“I’d wish each and every one of them the very best throughout their lives,” Dayna says.
And surely, she’d call each of them by name.
When Mark Stephenson, director of UW-Madison’s Center for Dairy Profitability and dairy policy specialist with UW-Extension, forecast last fall that dairy producers would see $20 milk this year, he couldn’t have factored the COVID-19 pandemic into the equation.
But even as the pandemic has thrown many other plans and predictions out of skew and although the dairy outlook dimmed for a time, that part of Stephenson’s forecast is looking like it might hold true after all as dairy stages a steep comeback.
During the June 16 Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin Dairy Signal webinar, Stephenson said that he considered his forecast holding up in light of COVID-19 not as an “I told you so” moment but rather as akin to “a blind pig (that) stumbles across an acorn.”
“Twenty-dollar milk, I would have never guessed for these reasons,” Stephenson added.
Stephenson’s thoughts prior to COVID-19 and based on reasoning at that time had leaned toward hitting the $20 mark toward this fall, he said. Now, even with the market’s deep trough in April, $20 Class III milk could be reality by the end of this month.
The kind of recovery that the dairy industry has seen in a short amount of time is “nothing short of phenomenal,” added Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation.
The last 100 days have been tumultuous for the industry, Mulhern said, but it does appear that dairy will indeed see a V-shaped recovery from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite COVID-19, Mulhern said, dairy may still have the kind of year it came in looking for after struggling with several years of depressed prices.
There’s cause for optimism that dairy prices will be able to sustain the gains that have been made since the market bottomed out.
“Grocery store sales and a return to home cooking have been phenomenal for dairy,” Stephenson said, noting that’s an area that has yet to tail off.
Those retail sales have helped offset the loss of food service outlets at least somewhat, even if they can’t make up for food service losses entirely, Mulhern said.
Restaurants reopening — and restocking — as well as a sense that things might be heading back to a kind of “normal” have also helped optimism, Stephenson said.
Quick-serve restaurants, which are often dairy friendly, that stayed open for carryout were helpful for the industry, Mulhern said, and as more casual and upscale dining options open, some relief may be seen there as well.
Export opportunities for U.S., particularly with powder, which is still at a discount on the global market, remain available, too, Stephenson said.
Efforts to cut back milk production in addition to something of a pause on herd buildup and expansion have been good so far, Mulhern said, and if the industry doesn’t get back into a herd expansion cycle, that could bode well for the future of recovery.
USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program and other government interventions have contributed to price buoyancy as well, Stephenson and Mulhern said.
While dairy had one difficult quarter, producers who signed up for $9.50 coverage through Dairy Margin Coverage, got direct payments from the government worth about $6.20 per hundredweight through Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, or put floor under prices with something like Dairy-RP in the fourth quarter of 2019 will be getting about a quarter’s worth of payments, Stephenson said.
“If you had any two out of three of those, you’re largely held harmless this year,” Stephenson said.
Still, there will be potential stumbling blocks that may give producers a reason to remain cautious.
A shift back to overproduction and oversupply, which may happen if a $20 milk price entices producers to jump in while prices look good, may be detrimental.
Strong prices would signal that the market wants more product, at least for a month or two, Stephenson said, but “don’t get up a big head of steam with milk production because I don’t think we’ve got that kind of optimism out there.”
“We do not need more milk,” Mulhern added, agreeing that while the market signal to produce more milk — and make more money — may be strong, if production increases significantly, the price will be driven down.
“Keep in mind,” Mulhern said, “that the prices we have are the result of demand creation and discipline on the supply side. It’s all about supply and demand.”
Without the government stepping in to create what could be called “artificial demand” by buying product during the pandemic, Mulhern said, dairy would not be looking at things getting back on track but rather at milk prices that would be the lowest seen in years.
While there’s a good chance that production will indeed pick up, Mulhern said, keeping production at a 1% or less increase from last year will put the industry in a much better shape.
Producers should also keep the large amount of existing dairy stocks in mind as another potential factor that is “ready to make us disappointed about prices,” Stephenson said.
The overall impact of COVID-19 on the U.S. and global economies will also have to be a consideration for dairy going forward.
The U.S. is technically in a recession right now, Stephenson said, and a mutation or second round of COVID-19 might also spell trouble.
“This isn’t a sprint,” Stephenson said. “This is going to take, in my opinion, a couple years before we climb out of this.”
There will be opportunities and pessimism in the future, Stephenson said, and producers can watch for those opportunities but also take the chance to shore themselves up if they are at risk.
“Most any major event in life is a duality. ... You can’t have light without dark,” Stephenson said. “We can’t have a blessing without a curse. We’ve had our curse, but have we learned something as a result of this?
“We’ve got volatile prices. We’ve known that for a long time, but we’ve also come to realize that, I think, this volatility can destroy our businesses. We need to make sure that we look at that and think about it and deal with it. We’ve got tools available. The market will finally reward that, so I would say think about this blessing that we have and what we’ve learned through COVID and put it to good use going forward.”