NC Agromedicine Institute

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Pictured above are a few of the boats from Lee William's fleet of fishing boats.

Spivey is seeing more and more farmers come to him with concerns over the costs associated with health care.

A worker at Hobo Seafood in Swan Quarter, NC, sorts the day's catch.

“I’ve had more than one farmer tell me how much their annual cost of health insurance is,” he said. “When a farmer tells you that their health insurance is 16, 18, 20 thousand dollars a year, you know that it is important to them.”

Throughout the state, the seven counties with the highest rate of uninsured citizens are among the top 10 counties for agriculture. According to the institute, roughly 29 percent of North Carolina farmers have no health insurance, including Tami Thompson, who herself also works in the health care field as a medical technician. Anecdotal evidence suggests that among fishers, the situation is even more dire. ECU professors Lena Carawan and Mike Behm, spent time last summer with fishermen assessing their exposure to occupational stress. Based on the previous work of Dr Carawan as well as the joint work from the summer of 2008, findings suggested that perhaps as few as 20 percent or less of fish boat owners have health insurance. The percentage is likely less for crew members.

“In a qualitative study (2003–2004) that I did, only two fishing captains out of 10 had health insurance. And then if you look at the boat crew, not the owners of the boats, it’s significantly less. I would say that virtually none of them have health insurance unless they are covered by a spouse through their work,” she said.

That is the case for Lee and Madge Williams of Swan Quarter, NC. The Williams’s own and operate Hobo Seafood, an independent fishing operation in Hyde County. Hobo Seafood owns a fleet of fishing boats that fish, shrimp, and scallop depending on their permits.

“The kids and I have health insurance, but Lee isn’t covered,” said Madge. “I have insurance through my former employer, although we pay for it ourselves now. But it’s a struggle to pay for it. It’s hard to cover just myself and our kids.”

The institute has the long-term goal of creating a cooperative among farmers, fishers, and foresters in the state in order to increase the size of the risk pool and lower costs. The Certified Safe Farm program is the first step in that process in that it will provide the data that will show insurers how farms are becoming safer places to live and work.

“Hopefully, what we will be able to do is to prevent illness and injury, lower health care costs, and lower health insurance and liability premiums, all of which will support the economic wellbeing of the farm and keep them in place,” said Tutor.

The NC Agromedicine Institute is working tirelessly to improve the overall standard of living for the state’s agricultural community, by both easing the economic burden faced by families, and by improving the health and safety of the state’s fishers, farmers, and foresters. The institute is making inroads into agricultural communities by partnering with organizations like NC Cooperative Extension, NC Forestry Association, Sea Grant, and other ECU institutes such as the Office of Engagement, Innovation, and Economic Development, Institute for Coastal Science and Policy, Center for Sustainable Tourism, and the ECU Center for Health Disparities Research.

“It’s been a great partnership. The institute has been very active in many things we are doing here. They’ve brought expertise we don’t have and we’ve helped them meet with farmers and build their client base,” said Spivey.

Dr. Carawan envisions many areas where the NC Agromedicine Institute can increase its involvement with the fishing community on the coast in coming years, especially with educating the public about the fishing industry and the quality of local seafood in the state.

“Right now there is an issue with imported pond-raised shrimp being cheaper than local wild shrimp and in abundant supply. Commercial shrimpers receive less per pound for wild shrimp in the 2009 season than they did 10 years ago which is amazing. As I see it, one way that the Agromedicine Institute can assist commercial fishing will be to help the public understand that there is a difference in the taste and quality of wild shrimp versus pond raised shrimp - this will help North Carolina’s commercial fishermen as well as provide the highest quality of locally caught seafood to North Carolinians. It would be a win-win situation and at this point, nothing should be overlooked,” she said.

The fishers, farmers, and foresters of North Carolina need the NC Agromedicine Institute now more than ever, and East Carolina is fortunate to be in a position to support it. Agromedicine researchers who work to gain the insight and expertise of those they serve continue to inform policy and procedure, and appears that only through the help of institutes like Agromedicine, will these vital family businesses survive. Tutor is excited about the future and is optimistic that the institute will continue to grow and gain support of North Carolinians across the state.

“Pretty soon, if you do something enough, and you are successful at it, people want to be a part of it,” she said.

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