My children are getting old enough to help more on the farm, but finding child care for young children can be a real challenge on the farm.

Childcare a unique challenge for parents involved with agriculture

By Matt Reese

It has been really exciting at the Reese family Christmas tree farm watching the next generation step up and do more jobs in recent years. My daughter is now 13 and she runs the cash register and drives the ATV hauling trees out of the field. My son is 11 and he has started mowing between tree rows in the summer, cutting trees in the field at harvest and he is always up for giving farm tours. Their cousins are also starting to do more around the farm too. It is uniquely rewarding to see children show an interest in joining older generations of their family working for a common goal on the farm.

As great as this can be, it can also be very challenging. When the children were younger, there were many occasions where their “help” was actually much more work. It was not easy balancing babies/toddlers, an off farm job and farm work. In fact, sometimes it was overwhelming.

In a recent a national study, most farmers with children under 18 said childcare was a challenge. There can be particular challenges for first generation farmers with children who reported struggles with childcare. Even farmers with relatives living nearby said childcare affordability, availability, or quality was a problem.

“This is going to come as a surprise to a lot of people who don’t think childcare is an issue for farmers,” said Shoshanah Inwood, an assistant professor at The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES) and the lead researcher of the study. “Finding quality, affordable daycare affects young farmers and their ability to stay in agriculture.”

Inwood’s four-year study started with a 2014 survey of farmers in five metro areas: Columbus, Ohio; Burlington, Vt.; Honolulu, Hawaii; Miami, Fla.; and Portland, Maine. 

Inwood said the metro regions were selected in part because they had a healthy agricultural sector and a higher-than-average number of small- and mid-sized farms, and they were diverse with higher-than-average numbers of women farmers and farmers of color. Of the 654 people who responded to a written survey, 186 had children under 18 years old. 

Even with surveys taken in metropolitan areas with typically more childcare options than rural areas, childcare still was a major challenge. Especially when they are starting out, farmers often make land-purchasing decisions based on cost and proximity to markets, but if those decisions take them far away from relatives it can affect the well being of their family and farm productivity. Then the unusual hours, long days and weather-based nature of agriculture can make it particularly challenging to find a childcare provider.

“Oftentimes there’s this romantic idea of what it is to grow up on a farm, but what people are realizing is, ‘We can’t just let the kids run around all day unsupervised,’” she said. “There’s machinery and it’s dangerous, and it isn’t cute when you find out your child followed you down the row, plucking out the onions you just planted.” 

There have been extensive discussions in recent years about getting more young people involved in production agriculture, usually focused on the high startup costs, marketing and financial considerations. With many potential young farmers also being the parents of young children, Inwood said childcare should be part of the discussion as well.

“Nobody is talking about childcare,” she said.

For the second phase of the study, Inwood and Andrea Rissing, a postdoctoral researcher at CFAES, interviewed farmers who were also parents about childcare in nine Northeastern states: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont. The farmers’ ability to find childcare affected their production and marketing decisions in some surprising ways.

“There are tradeoffs farm families make as they need to decide how much money and time to spend on childcare versus time and money they spend investing in growing and building their enterprise,” Inwood said. 

One of the farmers interviewed for the study lost a significant amount of income when she had to stop selling at a farmers market because she couldn’t meet the requirement that sellers arrive an hour before opening. She couldn’t get a babysitter that early. 

On another farm, the wife planted crops in fields nearest their home to be as close as possible to their children while still working. Without a babysitter, she had to prioritize being close to home over agronomic considerations. The majority of farmers interviewed for the study said they could not scale up their farm businesses because they were limited by childcare responsibilities.

“Our interviews with young farmer-parents clearly showed that even though childcare seems like an issue confined to the farm household, it has real impacts on farm businesses as well,” Rissing said. “So much of a farm’s success and the quality of life of the farmers is tied to these dynamics, like having family nearby and a strong support network.”

Ultimately, a farm is not really sustainable without a solid plan in place for not only raising crops and livestock, but also the children who will one day carry on these tasks.

To grow fruitful crop is a noble thing indeed,

But a farmer who raises farmers will generations feed.

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