Do farm kids have a home court advantage?

Some might say America achieved its greatness on the back of the farmer.

In 1954, 23 million Americans called farms and ranches home. 54 million Americans total lived in rural areas, more than a third of the total U.S. population at the time. Those rural citizens lived in close proximity to farms and most must have known at least one family who claimed agriculture as a primary livelihood.

The world has changed. Today, less than 1 percent of Americans live on farms, approximately 3 million people. Most crops are raised on commercial farms rather than family operations, and many more Americans live in urban areas. 59 million people now live in rural areas, but because of population increase, that constitutes a little less than a quarter of the total U.S. population.

This shift has drastically affected the way Americans live. But has it affected us on a more subtle, biological level?

Over the past few years, groups of researchers have published several studies linking exposure to farm germs to lower incidence of allergies and asthma. A study published in 2012 in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology linked exposure to “farm dust” with lower rates of allergies and asthma, supporting the “hygiene hypothesis” for the genesis of allergies (which I’ve written about before). The hygiene hypothesis is still just that— a hypothesis, untested— but a new study may provide the farm dust connection a little more support.

The study, conducted by researcher at the VIB institute in Belgium and published in the journal Science, linked the exposure to farm dust to the production of a protein called A20, which stimulates the production of protective membranes. The researchers exposed mice repeatedly to farm dust and found that they were protected against dust mite allergies, the most common allergy in humans.

An illustration of protein A20, which controls immune responses. Original image from the journal Nature.
An illustration of protein A20, which controls immune responses. Original image from the journal Nature.

Upon testing humans, the researchers found that patients with dust mite allergies and asthma had an A20 deficiency. While this is not definitive proof, the connection is a strong enough one to hint that A20 plays an important role in protection against allergies.

Importantly, as well, is the methodology. Allergies have long been thought of as a one-and-done deal: if you have one, you’re a goner. You can’t have any contact with that stimulus as long as you live. If you’ve ever known someone with an allergy for a number of years, you know this not necessarily true— allergies can weaken and strengthen, as well as seemingly come and go.  With the high incidence of allergies in American children today (nearly one in five Americans has a significant allergy to something) a better understanding of the mechanics of allergy will be critical.

Some might also say that growing up on a farm brings a host of fringe benefits. The physical activity associated with farm work may help maintain a more normal body weight, and a study published in 2008 in the journal Clinical Practice and Epidemiology in Mental Health found that caring for animals in a systemic way, like on a farm, can help improve mental health. A group of Norwegian researchers recruited individuals who had never lived on a farm to care for animals for a 12-week period and noted statistically significant mental health improvement afterward.

However, there are disadvantages, too. Making a living on a farm is a lot harder than it used to be, between the cost of fuel and electricity, new sanitation requirements, equipment costs and medical care for people and animals. This personal essay published this year in Salon provides one California farmer’s anecdotes of how hard it is to run a small farm ethically but still provide good pay and healthcare for herself and her laborers. Many farmers, according to the USDA, obtain the vast majority of their income off the farm and use some of that income to support the farm’s operation. That financial stress, as well as the physical labor, can take a toll on the body. Long-term stress can shorten the life, sleep and damage the body’s organ systems. Women can suffer infertility and hormonal fluctuations, and men can suffer erectile dysfunction. Both sexes can lose sleep.

So before jumping off to run a farm (as many young adults are doing), think about the consequences of what it takes to run one. Yes, the loss of the massive agricultural upbringing that many Americans knew could have effects on our bodies, but simply trying to reverse the effects of industrialization does not work either. Instead, revising farm policy to encourage better nutrition and a better living for farmers could be a way to merge the post-industrial world and the former agricultural world into a place where we can reap the health benefits while not suffering through the stress of a policy environment that does not encourage farming by individuals.

P.S. I now live in Alaska! While that is exciting, I now have limited access to the Internet. This may inspire some interesting posts about how Internet access affects our lives, I may not be able to post as often. So bear with me, have some patience. I do intend to continue this blog! Thanks for reading.

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