- Author: Daniel K Macon
Some of you probably know what my family has experienced over the last 10 months. I won't rehash it all here - if you're interested, I invite you to check out my personal blog at www.flyingmule.blogspot.com. Needless to say, 2023 has been quite a year.
The purpose of this blog post is to share some thoughts and observations about the vulnerability of first-generation ranchers to medical and other crises. And hopefully, to help us all have reality-based conversations about the connection between our own physical well-being and our ability to farm or ranch. I hope others will weigh in on this conversation.
To make the long, painful story short, 2023 has been an awful year for my family. In late January, Samia, my wife of 33 years, underwent emergency brain surgery. In February, just prior to a second brain surgery, she was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. She passed away in mid August.
I'm blessed to have really good health insurance through my job. When I checked my health insurance portal this evening, I found that they had been billed nearly $1.7 million since January 1. While they had negotiated a discount of just over $1 million, they'd paid out in excess of $600,000 (so far - I just received another ambulance bill today). We can (and should) debate the merits of the U.S. healthcare system in another space; in this post, I want to talk about health insurance as it pertains to small-scale farming and ranching.
Samia and I started Flying Mule Farm shortly after we moved to Auburn in 2001. Our first commercial farming endeavors were selling pumpkins in the fall and potted daffodils in the spring at the Auburn Farmers' Market. I soon realized that I was better at raising livestock than plants, and we started raising sheep in 2005. I worked full time and ranched part time until 2011, when I jumped into sheep production with both feet - quitting my other jobs!
I was 44 years old - middle-aged, but still invincible (in my mind) - even though I'd broken both arms in a fall from a stack of straw in 2007. And as an invincible middle-aged rancher, I debated whether health insurance was a necessary expense. Fortunately, Samia insisted that it was - especially since our growing daughters needed to see a doctor each year. But I still grumbled about the premium payments.
In 2009, I started helping our local extension office teach a multi-week farm/ranch business planning course. We always forced new producers to think about difficult things like paying themselves, like generating profit, like taking a vacation now and then. And we talked about health insurance. Farming and ranching, after all, are very physical occupations - especially at the scale typical here in the Sierra foothills. I always offered the example of my broken arms - we all laughed and moved on to more important things.
But as my family has lived through the last 10 months, I have realized that if this had happened when I was self-employed, it would have broken us - physically, emotionally, and financially. I've realized the importance of insurance. When I was self-employed, our out-of-pocket maximum was beyond our means (to be fair, a higher premium was also beyond our means). Yesterday, I met with a young beginning rancher and asked about their insurance. “I don't have any,” was the reply.
These decisions are very personal for all of us - I get that! But with the benefit of hindsight, I also realize now that I would have done everything possible to dig up the means to pay for Samia's treatment regardless of our insurance status. And that without insurance, I undoubtedly would have fallen short. The decisions that our family had to make in the last 10 months were difficult enough; deciding which bill to pay (or not to pay) - and losing a business (and our home) in the process - would have been even more devastating./span>