Off-farm income is more than 'working for the insurance'
Providing additional income and access to affordable healthcare, off-farm jobs are giving farm families something money can't buy: peace of mind.
Christie Jaeger helps run and operate her family’s cow-calf and small grain operation near Esmond, N.D., in north-central North Dakota.
“I started out doing all the things that generally 'farm wives' do, which is a term I don’t love. I just consider myself a farmer," she said. "I do book work, pay bills, prepare stuff for the banker, I do the cooking, help with rides to the field and go for parts. My role gradually changed as my husband's father retired. I did more of driving the tractor, helping haul bales home, combine operator, that sort of thing. I feel like I need to know how to do a little bit of everything.”
That "everything" now includes working an off-farm job as a crop adjuster. With uncertainty in the ag industry in recent years and consistent increases in cost of living, many farming families have chosen to add the safety net of off-farm income to their operations. This safeguard not only brings in additional income but a coveted and oftentimes out-of-reach luxury for self-employed farmers: health insurance.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 60% of farming families have a source of off-farm income. A large percentage of those working off the farm to help support their family are women.
While they were growing their family, Jaeger and her husband decided she would stay home and help raise their children.
“It just made sense to be around the farm, raise our kids here. Working with your spouse on the farm is a great experience, and it can definitely be a career path to follow, especially when you are treated as a business partner, which you are. And if for a time in your life the children, cooking, bookwork and all the in between errands are the primary work you do, that is as essential as driving the combine,” Jaeger said.
However, once her kids had grown, Jaeger decided it was time to seek employment off the farm.
“I was looking for work that could help bring income into the farm and also give me flexibility,” Jaeger said.
Jaeger works as a crop insurance adjuster, a role that seems to be the perfect fit for her and her family's lifestyle.
“I work from home, so there is great flexibility with the farm, if the guys need something, I can take time to help them and do that. It’s been good for me to find something that is my own to do. I feel like having a job that is still related to agriculture can help me do my own thing and yet contribute to the farm with the knowledge I am learning. It’s also been so nice to bring in an income and primarily, health insurance. That was a big thing we were looking for,” Jaeger said.
Peace of mind
Tracey Miller and her husband raise cattle and rent cropland while residing near Bismarck, N.D. Miller primarily focuses on their cattle operation, but lends a hand wherever one is needed.
“I come from a farming family and my husband did as well,” Miller said.
The couple’s passion for agriculture is strong and they hope to expand on their operation in the years to come. Miller’s off-farm income is helping stabilize that dream. Miller has worked as a government relations specialist for KLJ, a Bismarck engineering firm, for nine years.
“My husband and I’s goal in the years to come is to replace our off-farm income with on-farm income. We have been able to do that slowly and gradually over time, but it comes with its challenges. The barriers of entering and the costs to sink your teeth in and hit the ground running are large. So, having an off-farm income has been extremely beneficial for us to mitigate some of that risk to offset some of the impacts we have seen on a global scale. But, there is no denying that the outlying piece and the biggest challenge is being able to have affordable access to health care,” Miller said.
Being able to afford health insurance is a protection some farm families struggle to obtain. Being employed off the farm can also help with the cost of insurance, which is a crippling bill for many self-employed people.
Tracey and her husband welcomed their first child, a son, in May 2020. The first-time parents were blown away at the cost of care and the hospital bills that come attached to having a baby. The couple was thankful for their health coverage and sympathize for parents who are not as lucky.
“A lot of times when you see access to rural hospitals and now welcoming our own son, the cost of that care, that's a limitation. So you can start replacing that off-farm income, but when you get into the cost of health care, that gets really challenging,” Miller said.
“I would always hear, especially farm women, say the comment ‘I am working for the insurance.’ I never really wanted to feel that way. As a self-employed person, you’re not on a group plan, you’re not getting discounts. You’re still paying the deductibles and coinsurance, and it was just getting to the point where it was really difficult to afford," Jaeger said. "To a point, I feel like I did have to take a job off the farm for insurance, but it isn’t just that. I really do think it has eased my worry and husband’s as well. It’s one less bill to worry about right now. I think it is something that only self-employed people could understand."
While acquiring insurance also was a struggle in generations past, it has become increasingly difficult for today’s farmers and ranchers to foot the bill and attain ample health care coverage.
“We often talk about our grandparents' generation being able to work on the farm, live sustainably, and have access to health care. Then you shift a generation to our parents' generation and at least one always had to work off the farm, primarily because of health care costs," Miller said.
She said even with off-farm income from her job and her husband's, they still find the financial picture challenging.
"We run into those barriers of health care access. I sympathize for those who do not have access to affordable health care,” she said.
With the cost of living going up and the price of insurance along with it, those who have decided to seek employment off the farm have secured something that money can’t buy: peace of mind.
“Health insurance is skyrocketing. There's people in our area that don’t carry health insurance. For us, that isn’t an option. So for her taking a job off the farm and getting insurance, that helps tremendously and then the wage that she brings in helps with family living, which has skyrocketed too. It brought such peace of mind,” said Gerald Jaeger, Christie Jaeger’s husband.