To Stoke Rural Vaccination Rates, Trusted Farmers Are Asked to Spread Word

When he became eligible for the coronavirus vaccine in Illinois, Tom Arnold, 68, said he didn’t need any convincing. He raises cattle, hogs and chickens in Elizabeth, a small town in the state’s northwestern corner.

After all, who better to understand why herd immunity matters than a herdsman?

“Being a livestock producer, I’m well aware of vaccinations and vaccines,” he said. “That’s how we develop immunity in our animals. We’re always vaccinating the breeding stock to pass on immunity to the little ones.”

Boosting covid-19 vaccination rates in rural America is now less a problem of access and more an issue of trust. Only about 40% of people in Jo Daviess County, where Arnold lives, are fully vaccinated. Arnold said he doesn’t get why people are acting as if the pandemic were over. Scientists say those under-vaccinated parts of the country like Jo Daviess are at serious risk, especially as the highly contagious delta variant spreads rapidly.

It’s why farmers and ranchers need to speak openly about why they’ve chosen to be vaccinated, said Carrie Cochran-McClain, chief policy officer with the National Rural Health Association.

“One of the hardest things about the vaccination effort is that it really, at this point, is almost down to those one-on-one kinds of conversations,” she said.

Cochran-McClain’s association has teamed up with the National Farmers Union to try to get more farmers to promote the vaccine in their communities. They’ve created an online toolkit for farmers with information and talking points for starting conversations.

Ryan Goodman, 32, is giving it a try. He’s a cattle rancher in Virginia and self-described “agriculture advocate.” On Instagram and Twitter, he’s known as “Beef Runner.”

Goodman, who lived in Colorado until recently, has been using his social media accounts to promote the vaccine, as part of a paid content partnership with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

The agency provides him with information about the vaccines to share online, and he responds to questions with support from the department’s public health experts.

He said he’s not sure he’s changed any minds, but he’s encouraged when skeptics return to chat more.

“I’m a fan of saying no one conversation changes someone’s mind, especially when you disagree on a topic that might be as hot or as political as vaccines,” Goodman said.

He’d like to see more farmers speak up, because in rural towns farmers have long roots, extending back generations — making them more trusted than even health experts, he said.

“Everybody looks at Joe down the road and thinks, ‘Hey, you know, what might be his experiences on this topic or this issue?’” Goodman said. “[And they] listen to what he or she may say.”

Larry Lieb farms 92 acres of soybeans and timber in central Illinois and also raises a few cows and pigs.

He said he wondered whether the vaccine could be safe, given how quickly it came to market — and he got it for only one reason.

“My daughter’s a respiratory therapist, and she told me I was gonna get it,” Lieb said. “Plain and simple.”

Unlike some of his relatives, Lieb said, he does not buy into conspiracy theories about the vaccine. But he said he avoids those conversations altogether.

“It’s their own personal choice,” he said. “On issues where they’re set in their ways, you know, it’s futile to try.”

The pandemic has had a huge economic impact on farmers, said Mike Stranz, vice president of advocacy for the National Farmers Union.

“There’s been so much upheaval in the agricultural economy and in our communities,” Stranz said. “We need to start moving past that, and vaccines are the way towards that [goal].”

Vaccination rates have consistently lagged in rural communities, and an analysis from NPR and Johns Hopkins University in June found new covid hot spots are cropping up in areas with dangerously low vaccination rates — especially in the South, Midwest and West.

Urban and rural areas have been seeing similar rates of new covid cases lately, according to an analysis from the University of Iowa. But some states — including Illinois, Missouri and Utah — are seeing higher rates in nonmetropolitan areas.

Recent polls suggest most unvaccinated people don’t want the vaccine.

But Cochran-McClain said she hopes farmers don’t get discouraged, and she has this message for people like Lieb: “He may not feel like his voice is much, but we believe it’s very strong and important.”

Arnold said he believes the vaccine saves lives, but he doesn’t think it’s his job to try to convince his neighbors or friends. And, he said, he has limited capacity for new challenges.

“I’m already overworked and underpaid,” Arnold said. The vaccine rollout, so far, has coincided with some of the busiest times of the year for farmers.

If he gets into a conversation with someone about the vaccine, he said, he’ll express to them that he’s a livestock producer and understands how they work.

“But I don’t elaborate,” Arnold said. “Unless people are asking me. And usually they don’t.”

This story is part of a reporting partnership that includes Illinois Public Media, Side Effects Public Media, NPR and KHN.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

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