A lifelong Midwesterner, University of Iowa faculty member Brandi Janssen brings a unique blend of agriculture and anthropology to her new role as director of Iowa’s Center for Agricultural Safety and Health ( I-CASH).
“I come from both an ag background and a social science background,” says Janssen, who grew up on a cattle farm in Missouri and has lived in Iowa for many years. She graduated from Grinnell College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in anthropology, then went on the University of Iowa where she earned an Master of Arts and a doctorate in anthropology. She joined the UI College of Public Health as a clinical assistant professor of occupational and environmental health in May 2014.
The overarching goal of I-CASH is to make farms and farming safer, and much of Janssen and her colleagues’ work centers on prevention and education programs.
“More people are killed and hurt in agriculture than in any other industry in our state, but it doesn’t have to be that way,” says Janssen. “We want people to say, a farm should be a safe place to be, and not, oh well, if you farm, you’re going to get hurt. We want to encourage that culture of safety.”
Janssen believes one way to promote that message that is through farmer-to-farmer communication.
“I think it’s really important that farmers talk to each other. The social science literature tells us that a farmer is usually a credible source of information for another farmer,” says Janssen. “For example, people telling their ‘near miss’ stories [of accidents on the farm] can be very powerful tools. Farmers sharing stories with each other is a powerful way to improve the safety culture on farms.”
In addition to her family farm background, Janssen has worked closely with Iowa farmers while conducting her dissertation research.
“My research focused on local food production and how local food producers in Eastern Iowa meet all their different markets, how they interact with the conventional farming system, and how much overlap there is. I spent a lot of time on farms, working with and talking to farmers.”
She also has served as the president of Field to Family, a local nonprofit dedicated to developing new markets for local farmers, and as the Iowa City Community School District’s Farm to School Coordinator.
Janssen was named director of I-CASH earlier this year after the retirement of longtime director Kelley Donham, professor emeritus of occupational and environmental health.
“I-CASH is unique. It’s a product of legislation—we’re here because the Iowa State Legislature identified this need for agricultural safety and health,” says Janssen. “It’s not just an internal center, our job is to engage throughout the state.”
Created in 1990 and based in the UI College of Public Health, I-CASH is collaboratively run by the UI, Iowa State University, Iowa Department of Public Health, and Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. In addition, the center’s advisory board is made up of some 30 representatives from private and public agricultural health and safety organizations from across the state. “We have a really diverse set of participants who sort of drive the program,” says Janssen.
“Agriculture is one the most important industries in Iowa, yet one of the most hazardous,” adds Mark Hanna, a member of the I-CASH Board of Advisors and agricultural engineer with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. “Advancing measures to protect the health and safety of Iowans working in agriculture ensures a better quality of life for these workers and our entire state. Collaboration among state groups provides an infrastructure to help support ag safety and health efforts.”
Although the center is currently in the midst of its strategic planning process, Janssen anticipates the continuation of its most successful programs. Those include funding small grants for projects aimed at youth injury prevention, a roadway safety campaign to prevent crashes on rural roads, and ATV safety.
“We also need to attend to aging farmers and beginning farmers,” Janssen adds. Beginning farmers are defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as those who have been farming less than 10 years. Nationwide, about 25 percent of farmers fall into this category.
“Farmers are aging and retiring, so we need a new crop of farmers to take their place,” Janssen explains. “There’s a lot of anxiety about it in the state —can we maintain our production? There’s a growing number of beginning farmers, who tend to start on smaller tracts of land, and many are doing a mix of crop production and direct marketing. A lot of them aren’t lifelong farmers, so it’s new to them as well. We need to address their needs.”
Janssen adds that beginning farmers tend to be more diverse than older farmers, with more women and people of color entering agriculture.
One aspect Janssen enjoys about her move to public health is seeing the process of basic research move into action.
“[Public health] goes from really hard science to people like me, social scientists who work with a specific population. I’m thinking about how we translate messages and how we use research to either affect people’s behavior or develop systems that are better for them. It’s a remarkable opportunity to see that whole process, to go from basic research to ‘how does this operate in the real world?’ You have to be scientifically oriented, but you also have to be culturally competent. It’s interesting and exciting to think about things that way.”
During her off hours, you’re likely to find Janssen playing banjo, bass, or guitar as part of a duo with her husband Marc Janssen or with one of several area bands that range in style from early country music to old-time bluegrass and early New Orleans jazz. Although her husband is a longtime musician, Janssen learned to play several instruments as an adult, practicing in the evenings after their two kids went to bed.
“When the kids were little I thought, why don’t I learn to play the banjo? There’s not much else to do; you know, you’re not going out anymore,” she says with a laugh. “It just kind of developed. It’s been loads of fun.”