Love of rural life linked with sharing health options

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Farm Forum

“If you’re going to be a farmer, then we want to give you the tools to be the best farmer you can be,” a principal told kindergarten students in one of the rural schools recently.

And if young people want to live on a farm or in a rural area, options exist to provide them with help. Two rural women combine their love of farm life with encouraging opportunities for young people in rural areas.

“I love going into the communities,” Brenda Merkel, 39, of Leola said of her work with Northeast South Dakota Area Health Education Center (NESD AHEC). “There is a common belief that students should come back to live there. If these young people are going to live in rural areas, they need to understand the health care choices that exist and how it will impact their lives.”

Rachel Haigh-Blume, 37, project director for NESD AHEC, says the program is a way to ensure local emergency medical services and local health clinics stay functional rather than having everyone live in large cities like Aberdeen, Sioux Falls and Rapid City.

“We want the young people to have an opportunity to have a career as well as giving them a chance to earn a living wage in their small town without having to spend money to drive to a job,” Haigh-Blume said.

Five days a week, Haigh-Blume drives 62 miles from Tulare to Aberdeen and Merkel travels 38 miles from her farm home near Leola. They then travel across the northeastern part of South Dakota, covering 10,000 square miles, working to create a better understanding in the communities of why it’s important to give back to South Dakota.

The NESD AHEC program combines the duo’s medical background with teaching. In her job, Merkel says she uses her training as a respiratory therapist. Even if young people are not choosing a career in health care, she encourages them to think about what health care resources exist and how that will impact lives.

Focusing on under-served populations, the NESD AHEC program works with communities to nurture interest in health care careers among youth as well as supporting those students. Haigh-Blume and Merkel show instances where lives may be impacted in the future, serving in towns that need workers at an assisted living center or need volunteers as first responders.

Work appreciated

The teachers in rural schools appreciate the program, Merkel said. “We show the students that if they are in an accident, who the medical people that will be at the scene. Then we talk about what happens and what medical personnel will be interacting with them as they go from scene to ambulance to examining room, lab, surgery and maybe rehab.”

Merkel stresses that the more education students have, the better trained for life they will be.

“When going into these towns, we do see we make a difference, if nothing else, in the awareness,” Merkel said. “It reaches down to kindergarten. We talk about the subjects to take when in high school and where to go to school. Our program is all about providing answers to questions they may have.”

“We want those young people to know that if they are going to stay and be farmers, that they can also serve as an EMT,” Haigh-Blume said. “Those on farms and ranches should be worried about what will happen if they get into an accident and have to wait an hour for an ambulance to arrive.”

In addition to working with the schools, NESD AHEC partners with smaller communities to get medical residents to live and to train in rural areas. Mentorship programs in Milbank and Mobridge connect the resident with community liaisons to encourage them to stay in the location. That might be by taking them hunting or introducing them to some of the special attractions in the area.

In small towns, NESD AHEC may help coordinate schooling and payment options and loan repayment programs to increase the community’s ability to attract a nurse for the local nursing home. Another program offers certified nursing assistant classes for $350, which is a third of the normal cost.

The NESD AHEC was developed under a grant received by the Sanford School of Medicine. Supporting entities include: Presentation College, Northern State University, Lake Area Technical Institute, Prairie Lakes Health System and Avera St. Luke’s Hospital.

Not living in Chicago

“I was never going to live on a farm,” Merkel said. “Then karma hit me. I fell in love with Derek. Now I wouldn’t be anywhere else.” Merkel grew up in Redfield and planned on living anywhere but South Dakota.

Working with Derek in their cattle and grain operation, Merkel says there is a lot of learning going on. “When we do calves together, I don’t always understand where to physically stand. I want to know, ‘what is the ultimate goal’ — I don’t know that intuitively.”

“I do pride myself on being a professional gate opener,” she said, “And I remind Derek that every successful farmer has a wife who works in town.”

Merkel thinks there is more understanding that women can take over farms. She sees that there is a lot of modeling going on. Merkel said girls in rural areas have grown up going to salebarns and tractor implement dealerships with their dads, and communities are used to seeing women in these places.

While Merkel works off the farm for now, she said, “We have discussed, if Derek needs help, I can be there. If he needs an extra hand, I want to be the farm partner without the farm expense.”

“I thought I was going to be in Chicago at this point in my life,” she said, “I didn’t expect to be here, but I love every minute of my job and I love my life.”

Making adjustments

Rachel Haigh-Blume grew up on a farm, and her husband, Brian, has farmed all of his life. Brian’s passion for agriculture was evident in 4-H and continued after high school when he went to college. On weekends he came home to farm; the farm is his life.

Like many others, Brian is now focused on putting crops in the ground for their grain/livestock operation and handling their feeder calf business.

When it comes to working on the farm, Haigh-Blume explains, “I try to help, but I need to be social,” Haigh-Blume said. “When you spend 3 hours together and only say 5 words because you are in various tractors or not around each other, it’s hard for me, but it’s what he loves.”

She said that Brian knows she need socialization and encouraged her to take this job, but “he doesn’t understand what my job really is.”

“He’s good at farming,” Haigh-Blume said. “He carries all those numbers in his head about seed and fertilizer. He knows his cows by heart. He’ll tell me what to do to sort out those calves, but I don’t know them all by heart, so it is a lot harder than he thinks. I do help by doing some of the technical stuff. Brian now knows he can use Quick Books, but still keeps a notebook in each tractor.”

After she graduated from respiratory training, Haigh-Blume was part of a traveling program. She’d be gone for four months, and then have two weeks off. Working in Maryland and Wisconsin was a totally different world. “In Baltimore, there were wards of AIDS patients,” she said. “I’d be assigned to do therapy with four floors of patients.”

On one of those breaks from traveling, she met her husband, and then she eventually decided that living in South Dakota would be OK.

The amount of money that is needed for running a farming operation is a worry for Haigh-Blume, “I can’t help it. I’ve always been worried about borrowing money. Brian will tell me what we spent for fertilizer and it is amazing. If it were up to me, I’d wait until I had the money in my pocket before purchasing land or cattle, so I would never have any.” Haigh-Blume said she remembers her dad made payments when she was growing up, “but I had no real clue about the costs until I married Brian.”

Haigh-Blume said leaving makes you appreciate what South Dakota does have to offer. “If I knew I was going to be experiencing a serious illness, small town South Dakota is where I’d want to live,” Haigh-Blume said. “The people go all out to help at fundraisers and getting people to appointments.”

For these two women, the advantages of rural life far outweigh the advantages of the bright city lights. Through their rewarding jobs, they help young people understand their options and celebrate the quality of life in rural areas.