I was twenty feet in the air, arms and legs flailing, catapulted backwards by the heavy machine. When I hit the ground, landing flat on my back, I couldn’t breath. Above me, the apple trees were in bloom, pale pink and white blossoms, with a royal sky unfettered beyond. My mother ran to my side, screaming. I gasped for air, but I couldn’t make my lungs work. Barely a farmer, I was about to die.
In agony, I finally drew a ragged, crackling breath, then another. I lay still for quite some time, remembering how to breathe again.
We had inherited my grandfather’s orchard a year before, and were learning how to be apple farmers. My grandfather used all sorts of equipment in his operation: tractors, sprayers, forklifts, mowers. Each piece of machinery required an education unto itself. I was fifteen, and though I was learning how these things worked, what I enjoyed most was simply riding around on tractors.
I wish I had studied more. This tractor was hooked to a large boom sprayer. I didn’t know that this sprayer required two rear safety props before it was detached, buttressing the weight of the heavy spray tank. Instead of locking the props, I straddled the draw bar, and pulled the pin. Gravity kicked in. I held on for the ride of a lifetime.
Straddling that bar probably saved my life. I locked my arms, and as the machine violently flipped backwards, I was slingshotted into the air. If I had been bent over the bar as it rocketed upwards, it would have shattered my ribcage as the steel struck my body.
Instead, I sailed twenty feet vertical, and thirty feet horizontal. My mother had the surreal experience of being a spectator, watching her only son flying through the air with the greatest of ease. The ground was a very firm safety net.
Planet Earth is a dangerous place, but a career in farming can be especially risky. Like anyone else, farmers can get hit crossing the street, or slip in the bathtub. Unlike most other people, however, we can also get pulled into the metal teeth of a combine, or be eaten by hogs. Didn’t know that hogs will eat you? Don’t take a nap in a pig stye.
Video games, reality television and extreme sports dominate our entertainment. FarmVille, a video game played by 80 million people a month (article here) somehow entices its audience without cattle mauling experiences, out-of-control brush fires, or tractor rollover tragedies. I can only imagine how an updated FarmVille: Extreme Farming, with the assistance of a couple of 2 a.m. Red Bulls, might end with millions of gamers trampled beneath a stampede of virtual chickens.
In contrast to online carrot gardening, farming is a genuinely dangerous job. CNN, Forbes, and CNBC all list “Farmer” in their Top Ten of deadliest occupations, alongside of fireman, police officer, fisherman and logger. Check out this slideshow at the Daily Beast: America’s Deadliest Jobs. Of course, everyone knows that working with animals can be especially dangerous. After all, isn’t danger one of the allures of the cowboy mystique?
A few years ago, a cow gave birth to twins on our farm. As is unfortunately common, this cow abandoned one of these babies, preferring one calf over the other. She took her chosen calf across the pasture, and left the other to its fate. Circling buzzards alerted me to its presence.
I gathered the tiny, forgotten calf into my arms and followed the mother, hoping they might reconnect. Employing old farm wisdom, I made sure to keep the calf between us, holding it out towards mamma as I would a gift, moving very slowly. The cow seemed receptive, communicating to her baby with soft mooing, stretching her neck to gently sniff the calf. It was all going to work out, after all.
Without warning, the mother cow charged. She lowered her head and crashed into us, flipping the baby into the air like a rag doll. Defenseless, in the open pasture, I ran to a safe distance, relieved to see the mother cow and her chosen calf retreating into the distance. Breathing a sigh of relief, I carried the stunned but uninjured orphan calf home. From that point on, I raised it on milk from a bottle.
As farmers, how can we factor an economic number to these sorts of incidents? No one’s ever heard of a “Bovine Cartwheel” surcharge. If we become hurt on the job, however, production will certainly suffer as a consequence. Insurance covers some of this risk, but only goes so far. A broken leg for instance, suffered at the wrong time, can have repercussions far beyond a single growing season.
I tell our apprentices the same thing each year: Farm because you love it, because you must. At the risk of life and limb, it’s the only sensible answer. A career in farming is akin to a faith-based philosophy. It’s a belief in something greater than financial reward, or even ourselves.
And so, despite the inherent daily dangers, I farm because I love it, and because I must. I draw the line at wearing a crash helmet to work, though. If that day evercomes, I’ll pick a statistically safer job, such as… jumping out of airplanes.
Next Week: Can Conventional and Organic Farmers Learn from One Another?
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Amen, brother, amen.