A few weeks ago, Natasha Paris took part in a community pasture walk. Paris is a farmer and high school agriculture teacher in Green Lake, Wisconsin who raises cattle and lamb for meat and sheep for wool using regenerative practices. When she showed up for the walk, she was alarmed to see none of the other farmers were wearing masks, but she figured it would be safe as long as people kept their distance. They were outside, after all.
As the walk got underway, however, Paris started to feel the other farmers getting closer and closer. “I felt people breathing down my neck,” she recalls. And yet, she found herself unable to reach into her pocket and put on her own mask. Afterwards, Paris began to feel angry with herself and anxious about possible exposure to COVID-19. Back home, she found herself researching the odds that she could have been exposed.
“I can’t believe I bowed to public pressure,” Paris says. And yet, the divide around mask-wearing and the science of COVID isn’t new to her; in fact, it’s just another incarnation of a larger cultural and political divide she is often up against as a progressive living in a rural farming community.
“I straddle these two worlds,” she adds. “The large part of the farming community here is conservative.” More specifically, the kind of conservative, Trump-supporting farmers who refuse to wear a mask or follow public health advice about COVID-19.
Although some U.S. farmers may be ready to part ways with Trump, most haven’t wavered in their allegiance. And the president’s erroneous downplaying of the virus and mockery of masks had likely influenced their perceptions of the pandemic in recent months. But it’s still too early to say how the president’s COVID diagnosis will play out among this population.
Paris is used to feeling like an outsider—she grew up Baha’i in Milwaukee—but the fact that people around her have jarringly different views on the coronavirus presents a whole new challenge. And she isn’t alone. According to Charlotte Halverson, a nurse with a national agricultural health organization, AgriSafe, agricultural communities across the country are polarized, divided in how they perceive COVID-19.
Halverson says she has struggled to communicate even the most basic facts about this virus. “Everything around COVID has become politicized,” she laments. “There’s no conversation in between.” For the agricultural communities she works with, Halverson says, “that’s been really detrimental,” as she’s seen firsthand how rural anti-mask sentiment thwarts the effects of local mandates. Her own home of Dubuque, Iowa requires that people wear masks, for example, but many surrounding farm communities do not. As a result, when farmers come into the city, Halverson says some refuse to wear a mask, contributing to the county case increase.
These disparate beliefs about COVID fall largely along party lines. But it’s not always that cut and dry. Some farmers believe the disease is a hoax and refuse to accept publicly reported death rates. Others see the virus as real but overblown by the media. Farmer Erin Holbert recently tweeted: “bean dust is more likely to kill me than COVID.”
In Arkansas, farmers joined with other anti-maskers to protest the state’s mask mandate. In Pennsylvania, some farmers were outraged when required to wear masks in farm stores and when dealing with customers. “COME OUT TO THE FIELD & MAKE ME WEAR IT,” wrote one on Facebook in response to the rule.
In Raleigh, North Carolina farmers resisted a mask-wearing mandate at the farmers’ market, and in Niagara, New York, a market revoked one seller’s permit for refusing to wear one. And in Michigan, produce farmers recently fought hard against a legal battle against a mandate that will require testing for their workers.
Halverson has hoped personal experience would eventually persuade people to take the virus seriously. “Just about everybody knows someone who has become ill,” she says. And that’s what had happened when her former co-worker was one of the first people to die of COVID in her own community. “That really struck a chord with a lot of us,” she says.
But loss in the age of coronavirus doesn’t always look the same. Lyle Benjamin is a former farmer turned agricultural inputs salesman who lives in Sunburst, a tiny town in far northern Montana with around 330 residents. Like Halverson, he knew several of the first people to die from the virus in his own community, elderly residents of a nearby nursing home.
Yet, what Benjamin remembers most about these losses is the fact that there were no funerals, no chance for the community to come together and mourn. And when his grandfather was dying from something other than COVID in March, his family had a conflict with the hospice nurse about the number of people in the house. Then, when he passed away, his family wasn’t able to have a proper memorial service. “In normal times, because of his community stature, the whole community would have shown up,” he says. Instead, only a handful of family members were allowed.
At the same time, Benjamin says the dozen or so people he knows who contracted the virus have all recovered well, and he think the response is overblown. For him, the loss of community spaces to gather feels more tangible than the health risks. As a salesman, he prefers face-to-face meetings but most restaurants in town are closed. “It’s been difficult to have informal meetings with neighbors or customers,” he adds. “That’s been a huge frustration.”
Christine Chasek, a therapist and researcher on farmer mental health at the University of Nebraska, says a lot of the frustration on the part of conservative rural residents comes from a sense of having lost control. “I hear a lot of skepticism, a lot of anger,” says Chasek, whose practice is located in a town of about 20,000 people, many of whom are farmers. They feel like, “’everything’s being destroyed in my life on a personal level because of something I really can’t see or feel or touch,’” she explains.
Furthermore, many farmers feel inoculated from the virus because their communities haven’t seen the same numbers of infections as larger ones.
And yet, rural America isn’t a monolith. In places where most farmers raise corn and soy on large farms and typically don’t hire workers, they feel safe in their sparsely populated rural bubbles. But there have also been many new outbreaks in rural America, as the states with the highest rates of new infection are all currently located in the middle of the country. An Iowa State University study concluded that 33 percent of rural communities are highly susceptible to COVID-19, with outbreaks clustered in the “Midwest, Great Plains, some Great Lakes states, and in the lower Mississippi Delta.” According to the Daily Yonder, rural counties reported 61,00 new cases during the last full week of September, setting a national record for the highest number of new cases.
Many of these rural outbreaks originated in meatpacking plants. Labor-intensive fruit and vegetable farms in California, New York, Washington, and Michigan have also experienced a surge in cases since the spring. In these communities, case numbers are often much higher.
Rural health researchers also argue that case numbers aren’t the only measurement of COVID impact. Rural farming communities tend to have more elderly residents, who are at greater risk of death or severe illness due to COVID-19. And many are also severely underprepared for even a small surge in cases. The nursing home outbreak in Toole County that Benjamin describes was in fact one of the deadliest outbreaks in the entire state of Montana, catching public health officials off guard and without sufficient testing supplies.
Today, Benjamin’s work as a salesman is mostly back to normal. He is meeting with customers face-to-face again. “I can’t think of a single customer that I have now that wouldn’t want me at their farm, in their office, or having a face to face conversation with them.” And that’s without a mask, he adds.
Though Benjamin wears a mask when required, he acknowledges there are some people in Sunburst who refuse, even starting fights with business owners. He insists farmers aren’t the ones starting these arguments, but California cattle rancher Megan Brown has a different perspective.
Brown has long been the target of angry farmers who don’t appreciate her criticisms of the industry on social media, whether it’s about sexism or climate change. These days her critiques are largely aimed at the farmers who think COVID-19 is a hoax, and who refuse to take the virus seriously despite the fact that it is still widespread in Butte County.
Brown’s family’s cattle ranch takes up most of her time but she also raises cows and pigs on her own directly for consumers, a business that’s taken off during the pandemic. This September, she had to attend a cattle auction in person, and called ahead to check what COVID-19 safety precautions.
She was promised the auction would be held safely, but when she arrived, she found everyone packed together at a table, eating lunch. She was the only one wearing a mask as the auction got underway, and was even called out by the auctioneer as “the lady with the mask” when she placed her bids. “There were so many people and they were so close,” she says. “I was just screaming in my head.”
When the auction promoter came by her home the next day to deliver the bull, Brown shared her concerns but said that he mostly just stammered in response. For two weeks afterward, she wore a mask while working near her elderly parents on the ranch just in case she’d been infected.
She frequently tweets at her state assemblyman, Republican James Gallagher, a rice farmer who is popular in agriculture circles. Gallagher opposes Governor Newsom’s statewide mask mandate and is fighting a court battle against the governor’s efforts to require counties to enforce state policies on masks and other emergency coronavirus orders in order to get funding. Brown says her long history of speaking up in agriculture circles has helped prepare her for the experience of pushing back against conservative farmers who still think COVID is a hoax. “At this point, I give zero fucks,” she says.
For Halverson, she’s had no choice but to make peace with the divisiveness in her community, and try to understand the other side. “We understand the frustration, and the idea that [people] don’t want to believe that this can be happening,’” she says. “But the science is there.”
To get by, Halverson has learned to avoid wading too deeply into arguments, despite the fact that numerous studies show that masks reduce the spread of coronavirus for the people wearing them and those on the other side of them. Instead, she focuses on reframing the conversation. She recently told an anti-masker, “when you put a mask on to go to the grocery store or the implement dealer, what you’re saying is, ‘Hey, I care about you. I care about the community.’”
Natasha Paris, the farmer in Wisconsin, chuckles bleakly at that example and adds, “that wouldn’t work here.” She’s learned to live with a constant level of stress in public places.
The stress gets to Halverson, too. “You feel like you’re walking on a tightrope,” she says.
Despite what happened at the pasture walk, Paris says she won’t stop speaking up. “I’m not afraid to raise issues. I’m known for that,” she says. No matter how frustrated she feels, Paris hopes to continue mustering up the courage to recommend that events be postponed and remind people of the state’s mask mandate.
Despite the differences between her beliefs and those held by conservative farmers, what keeps her coming back is her affection for their shared community. “I really care about agriculture,” she says, “and I really care about farmers being successful.” And sometimes her dogged pursuits pay off. She may live in a “very red county,” but Paris recently learned the results of her county farm bureau’s election for vice president. She won.