NC Agromedicine Institute

Eastern North Carolina can trace its roots, quite literally, to agriculture. Once an epicenter of a thriving tobacco industry, this region’s history reaches generations deep with men and women who made their living off the land.

David and Tami Thompson, owners and operators of Lazy-O Farms in Johnston County, NC, are working with the NC Agromedicine Institute to improve health and safety on their farm.

Farms are still plentiful in the region. Seven of the top 10 counties for agriculture in the state are located in the east. Sadly, these seven are also the poorest counties in the state, the most lacking in health care, and contain the highest percentage of uninsured citizens.

The North Carolina Agromedicine Institute and East Carolina University are working to change that.

Sanctioned in 1999 by the Board of Governors from the UNC General Administration, the institute is a University of North Carolina inter-institutional program that combines the efforts of ECU, North Carolina State University, and North Carolina Agriculture & Technology State University to provide support for agricultural workers and their families. The institute is based out of ECU’s West Research Campus and serves all 100 counties in the state of North Carolina.

Agromedicine works to keep agriculture a thriving part of the state economy by keeping farmers, fishers, and foresters safe and healthy. Outreach programs along with the research infrastructure of ECU—and in particular, the Brody School of Medicine—combine to give the institute tools to improve agriculture throughout the state.

“In order to improve the health and safety of farmers, fishers, foresters, their families, and their workers, we need to have a nice blend of research, prevention, and intervention programs for the agricultural community at large,” said Robin Tutor, interim director of the NC Agromedicine Institute.

The institute recently completed its first pilot year of what it hopes will become its flagship program, AgriSafe-NC. The pilot was made possible by funding from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust. AgriSafe originated at the University of Iowa as a response to noticeable increases in illness and injury among farmers, workers, and their families. In the years since its inception, AgriSafe has expanded into 10 states across the country and continues to improve agricultural occupational safety by connecting health professionals to farm workers in the form of clinics, advocacy, education, and on-farm training and medical care.

With AgriSafe, farmers, their workers, and families have a place to go to learn about the occupational hazards that are common to agriculture, and to receive health care at reduced or even no cost. The institute subcontracts with Tri-County Community Health Council, a federally qualified migrant/community health center, to provide an AgriSafe-trained health care provider and certified respiratory and hearing technician/community outreach worker. A small AgriSafe work area is also maintained at Carolina Oaks Family Health Center in Four Oaks, Johnston County.

The institute's AgriSafe events range from child farm safety courses (the southeastern region of the United States has more on-farm accidents involving children than any other region of the country) to demonstrations of personal protective equipment. An AgriSafe outreach worker helps link farmers, their workers, and families to health care providers affiliated with the program, and also provides health screenings on-site, at the farm, or other community location free of charge.

“We do training for farmers on a lot of different issues. We work with farmers every day on safety issues on the farm and so that’s where there is a natural linkage between what we do here at North Carolina Cooperative Extension,   and with what the agromedicine program at ECU does,” said Bryant Spivey, director of the Johnston County NC Cooperative Extension Office.

The Agromedicine Institute participated in a family fun day event at David and Tami Thompson’s Lazy-O Farm in Johnston County, NC, this spring to share information about heat-related illness and skin cancer. Institute personnel were on hand to conduct some basic health screenings. David was tested for his pulmonary function—an important test for farmers who use respirators for protection from grain particles and mold—in less than five minutes right there on his own farm.

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