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As Trusted Voices, Farmers Could Be Key To Boosting Rural Vaccination Rates

Larry Lieb, 69, feeds the cattle on his farm in Mode, Ill., on July 8. He says he feels safer having gotten the coronavirus vaccine. But he's not interested in trying to convince anyone else to get it.
Larry Lieb, 69, feeds the cattle on his farm in Mode, Ill., on July 8. He says he feels safer having gotten the coronavirus vaccine. But he's not interested in trying to convince anyone else to get it.

When he first became eligible for the coronavirus vaccine in Illinois, Tom Arnold, 68, says he didn't need any convincing. He raises cattle, hogs and chickens in Elizabeth, a small rural town in the northwest corner of the state.

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 says. "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 the county where Arnold lives, Jo Daviess, are fully vaccinated, so he doesn't get why people are acting like the pandemic is over. Scientists say under-vaccinated parts of the country like Jo Daviess are at serious risk, especially as the more contagious delta variant spreads rapidly.

It's why farmers and ranchers need to speak openly about why they've chosen to be vaccinated, says 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 says.

Can @BeefRunner boost vaccines?

Cochran-McClain's association has teamed up with the National Farmers Union to try to get more farmers to promote the vaccine in their rural communities. They've created an online toolkit for rural farmers with information and talking points for starting up 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 has been using his social media accounts to engage with followers about the vaccine. He says he's not sure he's changed any minds, but he's encouraged when skeptics who seem unconvinced 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 says.

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

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

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

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

"My daughter's a respiratory therapist, and she told me I was gonna get it," Lieb says. "Plain and simple."

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

"It's their own personal choice," he says. "On issues where they're set in their ways, you know, it's futile to try."

Less COVID-19, more farming

The pandemic has had a huge economic impact on farmers, says 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 says. "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-19 hotspots 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-19 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 says she hopes farmers don't get discouraged, and says 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."

Tom Arnold says he believes the vaccine saves lives, but he doesn't think it's his job to try to convince his neighbors or friends.

He's also got limited capacity for new challenges.

"I'm already overworked and underpaid," Arnold says. 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 says he'll express to them that he's a livestock producer and understands how they work.

"But I don't elaborate," Arnold says. "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 Kaiser Health News.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.