We’re very pleased to feature this guest blog, originally written for the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture . . .
By Tara Caimi
When it comes to farming and gardening, danger may not be the first word that comes to mind. But according to Katie College, farmer at Stony Creek Valley Farm in Dauphin County, PA, the risk of injury is probably higher than most people think.
Since getting into farming approximately nine years ago, Katie has learned many lessons, which she shares in her other role as motivational speaker on the topic of farming as an encore career. Katie talks about the physical and emotional tolls of entering farming without having a background or history in it.
“I came into farming sideways,” she says, having started smaller with homesteading. “I wanted my kids to learn about raising food and respect for the environment and land.” As production on her homestead increased over the years, Katie’s farming aspirations grew, but she acknowledged her physical limits from the beginning.
With a degree in music education, Katie started out as a teacher. In her 40s, she suffered an injury that required her to wear a back brace for six months. By the time she considered farming full time, she knew she’d have to approach it from a different perspective. “I started out farming as not a perfectly healthy and fit 50-year-old, so the whole concept of health was on my mind,” she says.
The Weight of Farming
Some farmers, especially those who grew up in farming families and people entering at a young age, don’t view the work with their long-term health in mind. “I have many friends who grew up in farming and they’re so nonchalant about it. They just do what they do, and I think, wow that’s a long-term shoulder injury waiting to happen,” says Katie.
According to Liz Brensinger, co-owner of Green Heron Tools, which specializes in designing ergonomically appropriate tools for women, injuries resulting from heavy lifting are a major concern. “Whether it’s feed bags or large hay bales, or buckets that are full of milk or water or whatever; it’s just really hard on women,” she says.
In an online survey of a cross section of almost 300 women livestock farmers across the country, says Liz, “Forty percent of respondents reported having some kind of injury that interfered with their ability to do their work on the farm or take care of their animals, and almost in every case in our survey, it was some sort of musculoskeletal disorder.” She added, “A lot of women made a specific connection between their injury and having to lift heavy stuff.”
Heavy lifting isn’t the only farm-related activity that poses danger. According to results of a Farm Safety Survey by The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, “Agriculture ranks among the most hazardous industries. Farmers are at high risk for fatal and nonfatal injuries, work-related lung diseases, noise-induced hearing loss, skin diseases, and certain cancers associated with chemical use and prolonged sun exposure.”
Just as important as the physical concerns, but perhaps more frequently overlooked, are the emotional and psychological aspects of farming. “I’ve had three batches of turkeys killed by foxes this year,” says Katie. “You feel guilty and try to make sure it doesn’t happen again. These things all weigh on us and take a toll in ways that the supermarket [job] would not.”
She understands, from first-hand experience, the weight of responsibility that comes with farming. “We feed the world,” she says, stressing the inherent difficulty of prioritizing down time and self care.
“Rest is a four-letter word to a farmer,” she says. “I run into so many people who think it’s a character flaw to sit down in the middle of the day. But machinery overheats and when it does, we let it rest for a while. We don’t let our own bodies do that.”
Your Number One Tool
Katie points out two dangerous perspectives: powering through a task and thinking it can’t be done. The best solutions—those that limit potential for injury while allowing desired goals to be reached—involve analyzing tasks and finding the most efficient ways to accomplish what needs to be done.
“When I started farming, I went to a feed store and they were loading the feed bags into the car. I said it’s going to take me a while to get these out. I couldn’t lift that 50-pound bag, but I could scoop half of it out at a time—the job could be broken down into increments.”
Sometimes tasks need to be altered according to a person’s abilities. “Just believing you can do it isn’t enough,” Katie says. “You have to approach it honestly and logically.”
It all boils down to the individual, self-knowledge and the tasks required for any given job. “We’re all different,” says Katie. Based on years of experience and countless interactions, it is clear that there is no “prescription” or one-size-fits all solution. Physical abilities are bound to change over time.
“At my age, I know I can’t do the heaviest type of work I do on three consecutive days,” says Katie. “I can do two days. It comes down to knowing yourself and your limitations.”
For both Katie and Liz, injury prevention is the key to a long and healthy lifestyle in farming. At Green Heron Tools, Liz and her partner, Ann Adams, focus on scientifically designing tools that function well for women and, by extension, help to prevent injuries.
“Women play a huge role in food production worldwide, and women’s bodies are so different than men’s.” Women, for example, have less upper body strength and are more susceptible to vibrations. “People say that they [farming tools] were designed for the average person,” says Liz, “but the average person is a man.”
The results of women using tools designed for different body types include everything from less efficiency to a range of musculoskeletal and other types of injuries. Considerations when choosing a tool, whether it is for farming or gardening, according to Liz, include height, grip, weight and anything that contributes to the best body fit for the individual.
“We spent almost two years on research and development to come up with our shovel [a shovel-spade hybrid scientifically designed for women],” she says. “We joke that it’s the most researched shovel in all the world, but it might be true.”
Still, Liz acknowledges that the most fundamental element of staying healthy while farming or gardening does not have to do with equipment. “Your body is your number one tool,” she says.
Sustainable Farm, Sustainable Farmer
Prioritizing self care is easier said than done, even for someone who touts the importance. “I’m very resistant to doing good things for myself,” says Katie. That’s why I speak on this topic, and it’s why I say I’m not a role model. I’m on the same journey—a fellow traveler.”
She constantly reminds herself of the long-term goals and how her actions today will affect her abilities down the road. “When I’m pushing myself too hard, I think, wait. Will I be able to do this for 20 years? Will I be able to dance at my grandson’s wedding?”
Sustainability is a key motivator for Katie. “I think about how passionate we all are about the word sustainable,” she says, “but what do we apply it to—water, soil, overall environment? We don’t often apply it to our own selves.”
She adds, “If I’m not taking care of myself long term, then I’m really not understanding what sustainable means.”
For those resistant to the idea of self care, Katie speaks in terms of economics. “An injured farmer is an unproductive farmer,” she says. She doesn’t get many arguments about that.
Bartering for Good Health
Katie employs a team of experts to address her particular health needs and advises others to do the same. Components of the team will vary from person to person and may include a primary care physician, massage therapist, personal trainer or chiropractor. “We swap/barter services,” she says of some of her team members, making the approach more affordable.
Community is also important. “People who go into farming from another career—as I did and so many people do nowadays—it’s especially important they find people they can talk to and lean on and learn from. You have to find your tribe,” she says.
Liz stresses the value in varying tasks, especially for gardeners. “Don’t do any one thing for too long, and don’t stay in any one position for too long,” she says. “Do something standing up for a while—do some pruning. Switch it up.”
She adds that weeding is potentially harmful for gardeners. “Sometimes I’ll weed sitting down, or I’ll weed on my knees. The worst position is bent over at your waist.” Of course, using the right tools for your body type, according to Liz, is crucial.
“You don’t necessarily notice when a piece of equipment is wearing down because it happens over time,” says Katie, “and that’s what we allow to happen to our bodies.”
Though going back in time and changing her actions to improve future health isn’t an option, Katie knows from experience that it’s never too late to adjust mindsets and habits moving forward.
“I’m running a 40-member CSA [community supported agriculture operation], and I’m old and I don’t have all the right tools. But I’m looking at it a piece at a time, so I can do it,” she says. “Once you’re honest about yourself and what you can do, that’s where the magic really starts.”