Kerissa and Charlie Payne are budding farmers living their dream of raising two daughters on a farm in Central Ohio. By conventional measures, their ranch, Covey Rise, is a success. But beneath the surface, the challenge of finding high-quality, affordable childcare has kept their business from growing and reaching its full potential.
“It feels like we are always divided between the safety of the children on the farm, being a good parent and the needs of the farm,” said Kerissa Payne.
The United States has a childcare crisis, but in the agricultural sector the problem remains largely invisible. For too long, the nation has ignored the fact that farm parents are working parents who have to juggle childcare while they work, which is one of the most dangerous and stressful jobs in America.
But as Bob Dylan might say, “The times they are a-changin’.”
For the first time in history, the two largest farmers’ organizations, the American Bureau of Agriculture and the National Farmers Union, have included child care in their policy priorities for the 2023 federal farm bill, a massive spending bill that passes every five years. If national researchers, our conversations with policymakers suggesting there may be bipartisan support to help improve access to affordable quality childcare in rural areas, as legislators hear from families.
Over the past 10 years, we have interviewed and surveyed thousands of farmers across the country to understand how childcare affects farm economic viability, farm safety, quality of life of farm families and the future of the country’s food supply. What we found debunks the three most common myths that have kept childcare in the shadows of agricultural policy debates and points to solutions that can support farmer parents.
Myth #1: Child care is not a problem in the agricultural sector
Despite hearing from countless parents about their childcare challenges, the problem has remained largely unseen among farm consultants, agricultural organizations, and federal and state agricultural agencies. When we interviewed advisors and decision makers on this topic at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, common first reactions we heard were: “childcare is not a problem for farmers”, “we never thought to ask about it” and “does it affect the farm?”
Nationally, three quarters (77%) of farm families with children under the age of 18 report this difficulty finding childcare because of lack of affordability, availability or quality. Nearly half (48%) say access to affordable childcare is important to maintaining and growing their farm business.
Our research has consistently found childcare is a problem that affects the whole of agriculture, regardless of farm size, production system or location.
Access to childcare is especially acute in rural areaswhere even before COVID-19 there were 3 out of 5 rural communities categorized as child care deserts. The high cost of childcare put the Paynes in a position many Americans are familiar with: They earn too much to qualify for childcare allowance, but they don’t earn enough to afford the kind of high-quality childcare they want.
The Paynes’ experience echoes what we consistently hear from farmers: childcare affects the farm trajectory and a farmer’s family’s ability to stay on the land.
Myth #2: Farmers don’t want or need help with childcare because they have help from family
Perhaps one of the biggest myths we’ve heard is that farm parents want to do it all on their own, and if they need help, they have relatives who can look after the kids.
This could work if relatives are nearby, but nearly half of the farmers surveyed said their own parents were too busy to help care for children, had died or were in declining health.
Farmers often do had to move from family and friends to find affordable land. These parents consistently said that the lack of community made it more difficult to care for their children.
Farmers have repeatedly said it is a myth that they don’t want help taking care of children. The problem is that they can’t find or pay for help.
Myth #3: Children can come along if they work on the farm
While wonderful places to grow up, farms can be dangerous, with large equipment, electric fences, large animals, ponds and other potential hazards. Every day, 33 children are seriously injured in agriculture-related incidents and every three days a child dies on a farm.
Farm parents we spoke to told stories of children dying after falling out of a tractor, drowning when they fell into a pond, or being maimed by a cow. Almost all farm parents – 97% – do afraid that their children might get hurt on the farm.
In our survey, parents talked about constantly weighing the risks and benefits of having children on the farm. A farmer had hoped that his young son would “be my little sidekick and do everything I did.” The reality, however, was different. He admitted that he “hadn’t thought about the fact that a baby couldn’t be out in the sun all day,” and he did difficulty in combining care work and work on the farm. The government has spent millions of dollars on farm stress programs, but the role of childcare in creating and exacerbating stress on farms is rarely discussed.
The Paynes asked a question we’ve heard from many other parents: “Why is farming the only occupation where you’re expected to bring your kids to work?”
Farm safety programs have traditionally focused on education. However, our research shows that farmer parents are very aware of the risks. Instead of education, parents explain that they need resources to help with childcare – 86% said they sometimes take children to the farm because they have no other options.
Finding solutions to support childcare
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to America’s childcare problems, especially for farm parents, who juggle raising their own families while working to feed and clothe the nation.
In our research, farmers talked about a wide range of solutions: free or affordable high-quality childcare, before and after school programs, better parental leave policies for employees and the self-employed, financial support for safe play areas on the farm, university debt relief, free tuition and more affordable health insurance.
Adam Alson, a corn and soybean farmer in Jasper County, Indiana, saw his farming community struggle with childcare and co-founded Appleseed Youth Education, a non-profit organization dedicated to creating care and education opportunities for children from birth through high school. It opened its first early learning center in 2023 with a mix of public and private support.
Also sees investing in childcare as a way to attract and retain young farmers and families, and as a strategy to grow and retain the rural workforce.
“Throughout our country’s history, we have valued the importance of our rural communities and invested in them and in sectors where the market is not going,” he said. “In 2023, quality childcare will be one of those sectors.”
As one Ohio farmer put it, “If America wants farmers, farm families need help caring for children.”