by Enrico Villamaino

“Farmers and ranchers are a breed all their own,” said Natalie Roy. “They’re incredibly tough and resilient, but they’re not invulnerable.”

For this reason, the AgriSafe Network was formed.

Founded in 2003 by a group of nurses at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, the AgriSafe Network is a nonprofit organization staffed by both health professionals and educators. Through a series of programs AgriSafe seeks to reduce health disparities found among the agricultural community. Roy has served as AgriSafe’s executive director since its founding.

“There are so many things that can negatively affect a farmer’s health, physical and mental,” she said. Natural disasters like flooding, wildfires and well water contamination, injuries related to farming equipment as well as the epidemic of opioid misuse among farm workers puts these more remote workers in a higher risk category.

“When you also factor in the nonstop and unending nature of agricultural work, and the stress and depression that stem from it, we really see a great need for groups like ours,” Roy said. (The CDC has collected data revealing that the suicide rate of farmers is 1.5 times higher than the national average.)

AgriSafe promotes prevention over treatment

Natalie Roy, executive director of the AgriSafe Network, wants farm owners and workers to have access to information and programs that help reduce injuries and maintain good mental health. Photo by Enrico Villamaino

Staffed by 11 full-time employees, AgriSafe offers a series of web-based “learning labs.” Topics include aging farmers, behavioral and mental health, ergonomics, farm machinery and tractor safety, farm worker health, grain and confined space safety, hearing loss prevention, heat related illnesses, infectious diseases, opioid misuse prevention, OSHA standards, personal protective equipment, pesticide and chemical safety, respiratory health, veterans’ health, women’s health, youth safety and health and zoonotic diseases. Most web-based trainings are offered free of charge.

“We want our members to be able to better help the medical professionals who are trying to help them,” Roy explained. She referred to AgriSafe’s “Agricultural Respirator Selection Guide.” “Sometimes, it’s something as simple as identifying which respirator is appropriate for which job. Even highly trained doctors, physician assistants and nurse practitioners may not know that the problem could be as simple as having not selected the right equipment.”

Another obstacle AgriSafe attempts to overcome is the lack of a conventional human resource department on many farms. “Most of these places don’t have a traditional HR person. Many of these employees are independent contractors – they’re 1099s. Neither the farm owners nor the farm workers really have a go-to person for a lot of these issues. We try to fill that gap.”

Although funded largely by grants from the USDA and OSHA, AgriSafe has seen an increase in corporate funding in recent years. Roy said that workers compensation insurers seeking to keep farms safe, and therefore reduce injury claims, have stepped up to support the programs. She estimates that 25% of AgriSafe’s funding now originates from corporate sources.

Roy hopes that AgriSafe’s new mental health training certificate course can spread their message even further. The in-person training session gives participants “the knowledge necessary to recognize and respond to mental health crises using the approach of Question, Persuade and Refer.”

Roy concluded, “Prevention is always better than treatment.”

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