As we get ever-changing news about the status of the COVID-19 outbreak, I keep thinking about the farmers I work with in Rice and Steele counties. I reflect about what this world of social distancing means for them and how this respiratory disease might affect them if they were to contract it.

There are over 600 farmers in Rice County who are 65 years of age or older, which makes up approximately 31% of total producers in Rice County. Steele County has about 375 (32%) farmers who are 65 or older. This means that many of our farmers are in the age category that is at higher risk for severe illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This means that it is especially critical that farmers, and those who work with farmers, follow preventive and protective recommendations. It’s important to follow the CDC’s guidelines of washing hands, limiting travel and social distancing. These are things we can all do to keep ourselves and one another healthy.

Farmers or rural families often travel less frequently and are naturally more spread out, already experiencing a degree of social distancing. In this way, we may think that farmers aren’t as impacted by this recommendation. However, I worry that this may turn into social isolation, as many gathering places, such as churches, local schools, and universities are changing their typical operating practices. One way that many organizations are addressing the need for social distancing is by using online resources and communicating using the internet to provide services and resources. This works for many sectors, but may be difficult for some rural residents where high-speed internet service is not available. 23% of farms in Rice County and 21% of farms in Steele County don’t have internet access. Even farms that do report having internet may not have internet that is capable of some of the high-speed demands of video conferencing, streaming webinars, etc. Using the phone and communicating using mail are still necessary tools to reach our farmers.

The University of Minnesota is following recommendations for social distancing and all in-person Extension events are canceled through March 31. Extension is still here to help if you have questions related to agriculture, horticulture, or yard and garden. Please contact me, Claire LaCanne, at lacanne@umn.edu or 507-330-0447 if you have questions, concerns, or ideas for how we can bring resources to you. Extension is offering several learning opportunities online, for those with internet. To keep apprised of Extension’s online courses and events, visit: extension.umn.edu/courses-and-events.

We can do our best to come together as a community, even when we can’t physically get together. In this time of uncertainty, I urge you to call your friends and family. Social distancing does not have to mean social isolation. Talking to one another about what’s going on can lift spirits. Just take practical precautions to limit the spread of the disease.

Claire LaCanne is the agricultural extension educator for Rice and Steele counties. Reach her at lacanne@umn.edu, or at 507-332-6165 (Rice County) or 507-444-7691 (Steele County).

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