One balmy summer morning a couple of years back, my wife and I did morning chores by the light of daybreak. I’d taken to feeding the cows and the pigs; my wife delivered rations to the broiler chickens and layer hens. While my path took me along a gravel driveway that ran beside the large-animal pastures, the two sets of chickens were separated by our large kitchen garden, its perimeter at that time guarded by a low (probably 36-inch) row of fencing.
When my path crossed with my tearful wife, I didn’t know that her boot had caught on the low fence and dropped her, heavy feed buckets in both hands, to her knees. All I knew was what she told me: “I fell. My back really hurts.”
The pain intensified over the proceeding days, and an emergency room visit revealed why: herniated disc, nerve damage, probable paralysis if surgery didn’t happen immediately.
Recently my (now-recovered) wife, kids and I had to move two hours down the road in pursuit of the tenable income we couldn’t squeeze out of sustainable farming. My parents opted to take over farm duties, with my family using odd weekends to pitch in on more laborious chores, as well as what we call “tele-farming”: offering input and guidance from afar as it’s needed. We were nervous, but our bank account was bone dry and options were limited.
Things were OK—and when they weren’t, we were close enough to jump back into things. My parents bought a new boar, some gilts and a small drift of feeder pigs.
“Are you sure you want to take this on?” I asked.
“Yeah,” my parents replied. “We’ll be fine.”
Then we learned my dad was in the emergency room with a mysterious malady. The story was slow to unfold, but a doctor finally pieced together a few incidents to deliver a diagnosis: whiplash, minor concussion and severe panic attacks. He’d tripped while doing chores (whiplash), fallen and hit his head (concussion) and, unable to process his state of injury, started to freak out (panic attacks).
My dad’s fine now, but we later learned that, during the time that he was not fine, the brunt of daily chores had fallen to my mom, as they had me when my wife was down with her back injury. So I completely understood what she meant when she said, “We thought we’d talked about everything when we made this decision. But somehow we just never discussed what we’d do if one of us got hurt.”
Farming is dangerous. In fact, along with construction, it’s among the world’s most dangerous occupations. And while it’s true that tractor rollovers contribute the most to that determination (we’ve never even owned a tractor), the general decision to share space with animals, especially large animals, and to go outside daily and face the unpredictable whims of nature in order to work the land raising food is an inherently risky one.
I fully believe the experience is worth the risk, but the first question we famers and prospective agrarians should ask ourselves is, “What will we do if one of us gets hurt?” But, like my wife and I and my parents, I suspect not enough of us do ask this question. And it’s not just our spouses or farm partners who suffer when we go down for the count—our children suffer from unexpected changes, our customers suffer when we can’t deliver our best selves to market, and our livestock will suffer from compromised care.
The point of this article, then, is to get you to ask this question. Your answers will be specific to your situation, but I do have a few pointers to consider as you weigh things.
- Ask for help before you need it. No, I don’t expect you to be psychic, but there’s a good chance that if you’ve opted for or are considering a life spent miles from civilization “out in the county,” you’re not the best at socializing. That’s OK, neither am I, but it’s important to seek out and insinuate yourself into a social network that, if push comes to shove, you know you can ask for help. And after that, convince yourself that you will ask for help if you need it—farm folks are by definition self-reliant, and many are loathe to request assistance when they really need it.
- Learn your limits and be careful not to take on too much. There’s a tendency among new farmers to attempt to do everything. At one point, we’d planned to raise cows, chickens, pigs, rabbits, goats, sheep, turkeys and more on 12 acres. We stopped about halfway through that list, and it was still too much. So instead of wearing out Craigslist seeking every breed of animal and seed species you can find, take a beat to determine what you really want to do and why you believe you’ll be capable of it. And don’t push your workload to your healthy limit, because in a compromised state, you’ll find yourself unable to maintain.
- Don’t get hurt. Easy, right? Why’d I waste all these words? Obviously you can’t safeguard yourself against the chaotic nature of happenstance, but you also don’t have to invite injury into your life. Be careful. I say this as a person who’s done a lot of stupid things that could’ve ended very badly for me and my family. Practice general farm safety at all times, take your time and never get so comfortable that you stop paying attention to potential dangers.