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2010-10-12 Farmer health pioneer proves health is most important harvest

Health and safety need to be seen as a crucial part of farming’s bottom line if the industry is to progress, a world expert told delegates at the National Centre for Farmer Health conference in Hamilton.

Professor Kelley Donham said while producers know all about raising crops and breeding livestock, they have never grasped the ‘need to farm health and safety’. He said farmers are too prepared to assume health issues and physical risks are part and parcel of their business – ‘and they are not’.

Professor Donham, who is with the College of Public Health at the University of Iowa, developed the first, and one of the few, didactic teaching programs today in agricultural medicine. It provides specialty training for health care professionals, occupational health professionals, and veterinarians in occupational and environmental health agricultural communities.

A blueprint for the Hamilton-based National Centre for Farmer Health (NCFH), his AgriSafe Network, a group of specialty clinics which deal with the occupational and environmental health issues of farm families and workers in their communities, has spread from one centre to a network across 17 states in the US.

Professor Donham speaks with hands-on experience, as he still owns and operates a farm.
His research has focused on diseases of agricultural workers, particularly respiratory diseases, zoonotic infectious diseases, and intervention methods of prevention.

‘One of the inherent risks for people in regional and rural areas is delayed, or misdiagnosed, intervention in illness,’ Professor Donham said.

‘The traditional healthcare system provides little to zero training in agriculture issues,’ he said.
‘A producer comes in and presents with symptoms which the health provider simply does not, and cannot, recognise.

‘That is compounded by the farmer’s inherent sense of self-reliance, and reluctance to go into detail about their problems, particularly men.’

Professor Donham said once producers took the step to recognise their health and wellbeing as a value-added product on the farm, many of the current problems go away.

He said farmers can worry about a single harvest, or sheep sale, but if they lose their health the result can be the loss of the farm.

‘When you look at it that way, people suddenly grasp their true worth,’ he said.

‘The culture of agriculture means change has to be built into the system, we have to farm and raise the profile of healthcare.’

NCFH director Sue Brumby said Professor Donham struck a genuine chord with conference delegates.

She said to have international speakers of his calibre at the conference helped hammer home the message her Centre has been delivering.

‘Getting farmers and their families to reprioritise their goals, putting health and safety first, has been a major challenge,’ Ms Brumby said.

‘But our conference has provided an exciting focus for showing what has been, and is being, achieved in other countries.’

For further information, please contact the National Centre for Farmer Health on 03 5551 8533