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

Aug 7, 2021

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.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Farmers and ranchers can be trusted voices in their rural communities. And because they work with animals, they understand the science and value of vaccines. That could position them to help convince some of their vaccine-hesitant neighbors to roll up their sleeves. Christine Herman at WILL in central Illinois went to find out if farmers are taking on that challenge.

CHRISTINE HERMAN, BYLINE: When the coronavirus vaccine first became available for him in Illinois, Tom Arnold 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.

TOM ARNOLD: Some friends, they said, well, you know, we don't trust the vaccine. Other people still weren't convinced that the vaccine was the way to go. And I always felt that was a little cavalier. I felt I had no problem being vaccinated myself.

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

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

HERMAN: The problem is that Arnold's among the minority of people in his county who've chosen to get the vaccine. Scientists warn under-vaccinated parts of the country are at serious risk, especially with the more contagious delta variant spreading. Arnold believes the vaccine saves lives, but he doesn't think it's his job to convince neighbors or friends. He says it's too politicized.

ARNOLD: I just - I don't want to get into a discussion on right or wrong.

HERMAN: Plus, he gets it. There's just so much information floating around, he says it's hard to know what to believe. And he doesn't think he personally could change anyone's mind.

Larry Lieb feels the same way. He's 69 and lives in central Illinois, where he's got 92 acres of soybeans and timber and raises a few cows and pigs.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE)

LARRY LIEB: Come here, pig.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIG OINKING)

LIEB: Come on, pig.

HERMAN: Lieb says he was a little worried himself because the vaccine was developed so fast. And he really only got it for one reason.

LIEB: My daughter is a respiratory therapist. And she told me I was going to get it, plain and simple.

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

LIEB: It's their own personal choice. I mean, you know, on issues where they're set in their ways, you know, I mean, it's futile to try.

HERMAN: Lieb and Arnold belong to the National Farmers Union, which has been urging its members to speak up about the vaccine in their rural communities. But it's not easy. Carrie Cochran-McClain is with the National Rural Health Association, which is also hoping that more rural Americans will get vaccinated if they hear from trusted neighbors like Arnold.

CARRIE COCHRAN-MCCLAIN: One of the hardest things about the vaccination effort is that it really at this point is almost down to those one-on-one kind of conversations and message-sharing. And so he may not feel like his voice is much, but we believe that it's very strong and important.

HERMAN: Ryan Goodman has heard the calls from the national level. And he's giving it a try. He's a cattle rancher in Virginia and self-described agriculture advocate on Instagram and Twitter. He's known as the Beef Runner. Goodman has been using social media to engage with his 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 for more dialogue.

RYAN GOODMAN: You know, 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 and these vaccine programs.

HERMAN: Goodman wants to see more farmers speaking up because in rural towns, he says farmers are more likely to be believed than even health experts.

GOODMAN: You know, everybody looks at Joe down the road and thinks, hey, you know, what might be his experiences on this topic or this issue or kind of listens to what he or she may say.

HERMAN: Tom Arnold also sees himself as trusted in his community. He says he'll answer questions if people ask him. But he's a pretty busy guy.

ARNOLD: I'm already overworked and underpaid. There are other people I feel that may be retired or have more free time that should be doing those things.

HERMAN: Meanwhile, only about 40% of his county is fully vaccinated. He says he doesn't really get why people are acting like the pandemic's over. For NPR News, I'm Christine Herman in Urbana, Ill.

SIMON: And that story comes from NPR's partnership with Side Effects Public Media and Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.