Will health-care repeal drive Ky. families off their farms?

John Wilhoit and Sue Churchill on their Thistle’s End Farm in Woodford County.
John Wilhoit and Sue Churchill on their Thistle’s End Farm in Woodford County.

My husband, John, and I farm on land outside Versailles that has been in his family for generations.

Over the years, it has produced tobacco, cattle and hay, and now pastured livestock for meat, organic vegetables and flowers. Farming is a calling we actively chose. We worked hard to gain the knowledge and skills we’d need. We expected the hard work, but we weren’t adequately prepared for the challenges presented by health care.

Health insurance was always a priority, compelling us to take off-farm jobs as much for the benefits as for the salaries. We would not jeopardize our children’s health. Our kids remained healthy, but John faced a potentially lethal cancer. He recovered and, because of the Affordable Care Act, we were finally able to pursue full-time farming with peace of mind.

But if Congress repeals the ACA, we may have to choose between health insurance and the viability of our farm. We aren’t alone. Farmers across the state and country could face this choice.

Farming is a high-risk occupation. Dangers include accidents, increased risk of cancers and a rocket-high rate of depression and suicide. Sadly, farmers have always faced difficulties in getting desperately needed health insurance. Before the ACA, high premiums and pre-existing conditions made it unavailable for many who don’t have employer-subsidized policies.

In 2007, researcher Shoshana Inwood at the University of Vermont was shocked to learn that health insurance was farmers’ primary concern, overshadowing the cost of land, difficulty in getting workers and low prices for farm products.

In later studies, she found that farmers paid significantly more in premiums than salaried workers and that for most farming couples, one or both partners took a part-time or full-time job to support the farm and to get health insurance. With less time to devote to the farm, production suffers and the farm may become a “hobby farm” or be sold entirely. Then, Americans end up with fewer opportunities to buy local and keep their dollars in their communities.

John was still working at an off-farm job when he was diagnosed with head and neck cancer. He spent five months on leave fighting the cancer through surgery, chemo and absorbing his lifetime limit of radiation. He had a feeding tube, and we feared he might never re-learn to swallow.

Thankfully, we had good insurance and he is back on his feet. We count our blessings.

Our farm struggled in those difficult years, but the ACA gave us a lifeline, literally. Without it, affordable insurance would not be available while working the farm because of the pre-existing condition — cancer. We enrolled and, for the first time, both turned our full attention to the farm.

John resumed his vegetable operation and we leased land to a couple who raise free-range chickens and organic flowers. We supplemented a traditional cattle operation with sheep, which could be finished on pasture. We sell the animals locally and have embarked on raising pastured pigs.

We continue growing and learning as farmers, but we are pleased with our progress. Our son hopes to take over the farm in the future, and we will strive to make that possible.

Our politicians say they support small farms. If they truly want to help, they will oppose any efforts to repeal or water down the Affordable Care Act. If it is repealed, many will find themselves unable to continue farming. Our communities, our food supply and our nation will be the worse for it.