It’s One Thing To Know Your Farmer. It’s Another Thing To Serve Your Farmer.

hoophouse gloryA farmer trudges through the last throes of hibernation like a plow through a frozen mat of soil.  It’s not the busiest part of his second year as an independent grower, but he’s getting a few things done to prepare for the third.

He’s filling out an organic certification application.  He’s planting kale seeds indoors so they’re large enough to mature quickly in Montana’s short growing season, but small enough that their root masses don’t tangle and delay growth spurts when they’re finally transplanted outdoors.  And he’s researching a foreign crop; one he’s never cultivated before.  Baby ginger.

But there’s one task he didn’t plan on.  I know, because this farmer is me.

I hadn’t planned on getting my annual wellness exam at the newest Montana Migrant and Seasonal Farmworkers Council health clinic in Lolo, Montana.

My old high school friend, an employee at the clinic, spoke to me about the health care services offered at this clinic at 9801 Valley Grove Drive.  She signed me up in 10 minutes and set up an appointment a week in advance.  But until I was in the exam room, I hadn’t fully grasped the importance of this clinic for agricultural communities in Ravalli, Missoula, Lake and surrounding Counties.

At my first visit, my family nurse practitioner, Neva Oliver, did all the things you might expect.  She took stock of my vitals, my immunization record, the moles on my back; and she sent my blood to a lab for tests.  But she put all of these things into perspective for me.  The information she gleaned from me in an hour’s time will serve as a baseline of data, following me for the rest of my life.  I’m young and fairly healthy, but my body will surely change.  So this data will help future health care providers identify issues early as they arise.  In the meantime, she gave me more immediate things to consider.  Neva’s questions about my exercise regimen this winter have already provoked changes – changes that my New Year’s resolutions failed to invoke.  Not bad for an hour at the doc’s office, huh?

Mine is just one story out of over 6,000 that Montana’s farm workers could tell each year, thanks to the Montana Migrant and Seasonal Farmworkers Council.  But it’s a story that deserves wider appreciation, especially now that a new clinic opened its doors in January in Lolo to expand the good work beyond the geographic scope of clinics operating in Billings, Dillon and Fairview, Montana.

In addition to walking out of my Lolo clinic a healthier guy, I joined the organization as a part-time outreach worker to help spread the word.  Now, I’m talking to anyone who devotes 51% of their work to a host of farm and ranch occupations, including raising field crops, livestock, and nursery trees.  Chances are, if you’re a Montanan, you know someone in this line of work.  And whether they’re young or retired, you have a chance to support them by telling them about the clinic in their area, because the clinics are worth the drive even for rural residents.

Here are a few highlights of our work to mention.  This non-profit organization delivers primary and preventive health care to ag. workers and their dependents, and has done so since 1972.  As of this year the MMC is available to eligible people of all ages on the Western side of the state.  Services at the clinics include complete physical exams; women’s health care exams, family planning; STD screening and treatment; immunizations; treatment of chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and asthma; vision and hearing screenings; mental health services; and dental evaluations, cleanings and varnishes.

The price of these services depends on a client’s household income and no one is turned away for inability to pay.  In fact, what sets this clinic apart from other walk-in clinics in the Bitterroot and Mission Valleys is its affordability and accessibility.  Those words are thrown around a lot these days by politicians and salespeople.  But what ‘affordability’ and ‘accessibility’ mean for patients of the Lolo clinic is that our goal is to break down the financial barriers to care and that the health care providers are able to serve ag. producers and workers outside of their farm schedules by making evening appointments after the last irrigation line is moved and after the sun goes down.

So share this information with someone you know, as my friend did with me.  This simple act – of referring me to the Montana Migrant Council – improved our community food system.  It gave me a chance to step back from my work this off-season; to make sure I’m ready to grow food this year and into the future.  Who do you know who could really benefit from a similar suggestion?  Have them contact the Montana Migrant and Seasonal Farmworker Council’s clinic in Lolo by calling (406)273-4633 or by visiting us online to www.mtmigrantcouncil.org to make an appointment today.

I’m Max Smith for the Alternative Energy Resources Organization. AERO is a grassroots membership organization that’s been building communities by linking people with sustainable agriculture and energy solutions for more than 35 years. Find us online at www.aeromt.org. That’s a-e-r-o-m-t.org.

This commentary originally aired on February 27, 2014 on Montana Public Radio.

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