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Farming is dangerous, but access to affordable health insurance remains elusive, survey finds

Azeem Zakir Kareem sets up irrigation lines on the Windsor Locks land where he farms with wife Sarah Rose Kareem.
Mark Mirko
Connecticut Public
Azeem Zakir Kareem sets up irrigation lines on the Windsor Locks land where he farms with wife Sarah Rose Kareem.

Agriculture is one of the most hazardous industries in America. In 2020, federal data show that more farmers died from occupational injuries than did police officers, logging workers or roofers.

But in the agriculture industry, access to affordable health care is challenging – particularly for new farmers.

Mary Claire Whelan has farmed for five seasons in Connecticut. Over that time, she said, the issue of health insurance for farmers has continued to discourage people from undertaking farming as a full-time profession.

“It is really appealing to find a job with benefits,” Whelan said. “To find a job that’ll match your 401(k) contributions, that’ll provide you health insurance. That will provide you paid time off.”

Whelan is part of the New Connecticut Farmers Alliance, an alliance of new and beginning farmers in the state who share knowledge and advocate for policy change. In a recently released policy platform, the organization is calling attention to the problem of affordable health insurance for farmers, who are working in what the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) characterizes as “among the most hazardous industries.”

In 2020, NIOSH reported 368 farmers and farm workers died from a work-related injury. That equates to a fatality rate of 18 deaths per 100,000 workers, with transportation incidents – including tractor overturns – as the leading cause of death for these farmers and farm workers.

In a recent proclamation, President Joe Biden said his administration is putting $100 million into partnerships with labor unions to better train agricultural workers to avoid injuries.

Biden also said up to $65 million from the American Rescue Plan will be directed to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to help minimize the risks of injuries on farms, ranches and processing plants.

But, the issue of access to affordable health care for individuals remains problematic, Whelan said.

Here in Connecticut, her organization recently surveyed 80 of its members. It found that only four had health insurance through their farming job.

More than half of the farmers surveyed got health insurance through an-off farm job or through a family member. About 16% said they were on HUSKY or Medicare. Whelan’s group found that about 3 in 10 farmers said their health insurance was either “unaffordable” or “very unaffordable.”

Whelan said her group would like to see state agricultural officials offer more workplace-safety training for farmers as well. And she’d like to see more farm employers offer health insurance to their employees.

“Why can’t farming, this crucial thing – this thing that can do so much good – why can’t that have the benefits and the stability and the ability to make a livelihood that other jobs have?” Whelan asked.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached at pskahill@ctpublic.org.