Ever hear someone say something along these lines: “I can’t imagine not farming. I’d rather die than not farm?”

Those who have farmed for any length of time have probably heard a family member make a comment to that effect. Deborah Reed, an ag nurse who specializes in gerontology (the study of aging), hears it often from both farmers and the farm families with whom she works.

“Part of the problem is that many farmers don’t retire,” Reed said. “A lot of the generic things that we see as remedies and solutions for the main workforce don’t resonate too well with people as they begin to hit later midlife. There is not a standard retirement age nor performance evaluation criteria. Farmers say, ‘We work until we drop.’ They work because they like it.”

Farmers who wish to remain active well into their later years can often do so if they take care of themselves and remain aware of the risks involved with routine farm activities.

Moonlighting farmers

One factor that complicates the issues surrounding aging farmers is that half of all farmers hold a job off the farm, often clocking around 35 hours/week off the farm, which means that they are essentially working two full-time jobs. Reed said that despite a full schedule and little free time, farmers often report that farm work reduces the stress of their off-farm job, perhaps because they have more control of the farm aspect. As farmers retire from their off-farm jobs, most increase their on-farm activity and continue farming to an advanced age.

“When an older farmer claims to be retired, don’t assume the dictionary meaning applies,” Reed said. “They aren’t really retired. Farmers are defined by the work they do – it’s a psychological issue.”

Reed said that 50 is the average age at which farmers begin to experience age-related problems. Most farmers of that age are still working full-time on the farm, and many continue to hold jobs off the farm.

No longer a peak physique

One of the most significant issues regarding aging farmers is decreased physical ability due to normal aging or injury coupled with farmers’ strong desire to remain independent and continue performing farm tasks that they may no longer be able to do safely.

Older farmers are at increased risk for injury due to slower reflexes and stiff joints. Even farmers who have remained fit and active their entire lives begin to experience some degree of atrophy in the muscles as a result of the normal aging process. Arthritis, especially age-associated osteoarthritis, results in natural slowing down, and this slowdown can lead to unsafe performance of tasks.

Reed said that farmers are second only to commercial fishermen when it comes to the rate of cataract development because most farmers don’t wear sunglasses. Farmers also have a high rate of skin cancer, including the potentially fatal melanoma, due to years of sun exposure. T-shirts and caps provide only minimal sun protection, so farmers should be screened regularly for signs of skin cancer.

Many farmers take prescription medications to manage various health issues, and some medications include warning labels regarding equipment operation. Family members should check that older farmers who are using prescription drugs are taking them as prescribed and heeding precautions and warning labels.

Slips and falls represent some of the more common serious injuries in many older farmers. Ensure that older farmers work on good footing and stable surfaces, and provide aids such as handrails and grab bars as needed. Reaction time, balance and range of motion are inhibited in many older farmers, so it’s important to compensate with measures that will ensure safety. Farmers who cannot move quickly or easily should avoid tasks that require quick reaction time.

The use of utility vehicles on the farm along with good planning and frequent communication throughout the day help reduce the risk of fatigue that can lead to injury.

Safety hazards a concern

When asked about safety hazards and risk for injury, older farmers tend to list factors extrinsic to themselves, such as the potential for getting hurt on equipment, not being able to move safely among cattle and working under stress. When family members are asked what they perceive as the biggest safety risks to older farmers, they list intrinsic issues such as the health status of the farmer (balance issues, vision, limited mobility), long hours, working alone and stress.

“The common denominator is stress,” Reed said, “and stress can lead to depression. Family members and older farmers have different perspectives, but the stress factor is common ground.”

Stress can lead to or exacerbate physical illness, and is the precursor for depression. Farmers will say that they don’t want to be told that they can’t do something anymore, and don’t want to be told to read pamphlets or take self-assessments that tell them when to stop doing certain farm tasks.

A farmer who was once able to move quickly away from a protective cow should be aware that he may not have the reflexes he once had and adjust his activities accordingly.

Stress reducers

What can be done to reduce stress and the risk of injury for older farmers who have a strong desire to continue working? Reed suggested several options:

  • Increase the use of four-wheelers and utility vehicles. Be careful with this choice, however, as these vehicles can be the source of accidents if the farmer is impaired.
  • Consider communication devices such as cell phones and walkie-talkies to help everyone stay in touch and be safe in all areas of the farm.
  • Suggest that everyone – not just older farmers – make daily work plans and have scheduled check-ins.
  • Delegate more demanding tasks to others.
  • Make sure machinery is maintained so older farmers don’t have to perform risky repairs.
  • Help farmers do more thoughtful planning to conserve energy. Fatigue is a leading cause of injury among older farmers, so encourage older farmers to stop and rest if they become fatigued.
  • When possible, recruit young people who have sufficient strength and maturity to help with certain tasks.

If formal transfer of the farm to the next generation is an underlying source of stress, don’t wait to start planning. Most successful farm transitions take place over a period of several years with a team that includes all family members, a loan officer, an attorney and an impartial person to moderate the discussion.

Accumulated stress from years of avoiding issues among family members can have disastrous effects as farmers age. Conversations should include active listening with no interruptions, and all participants should strive to clarify statements and avoid inaccurate interpretations of others’ statements.

Since farming isn’t associated with a standard retirement age, most younger farmers intend to continue farming indefinitely and without any thought of stopping.

Enter into discussions

Try to deal with issues as they arise rather than avoiding them or putting off a discussion. When discussing areas where conflict might arise, avoid using inflammatory statements such as “You always” or “I never.” Families who find themselves in a situation in which civil discussion is difficult or impossible should seek professional guidance, perhaps in the form of a mediator, to initiate productive conversations.

Reed said that farmers tend to take advice more seriously if it’s directed at how to avoid hurting others. “They don’t care if they die in the field,” she said, “but if they think they’re going to hurt someone else, they sit up and listen.”

Despite claiming that they love what they do, farmers have one of the highest suicide rates of any occupation, and older farmers are at the highest risk. “Males are at higher risk than females,” Reed said, “the same as it is in the general population.”

Why? Perhaps it’s a farm that has been in the family for several generations and no one is interested in continuing, or a farmer realizes that he can no longer maintain everything he has worked for throughout his lifetime. Most farmers simply cannot imagine stopping what they’ve been doing for years, which leads to depression and potentially suicide.

Stress management should involve all family members who are involved on the farm – not just older family members. Discussion and planning tasks ahead of time benefits everyone, and results in better distribution of the workload. Regular meetings can make it easier to broach topics that have been avoided as long as all family members can freely express their views without being criticized.

Heavy and repetitive work throughout a farmer’s lifetime can result in physical problems that prevent normal activity. Farmers who take care to minimize joint stress and strain during their younger years may be able to continue farming longer than those who haven’t taken the same care.

Touchy discussions often come back to one central concern: What can we do about the senior family member who insists on doing tasks he can no longer safely perform? Reed said that it isn’t the amount of work or financial return the farmer receives, but rather the ability to contribute meaningfully to work. This means that to preserve the older farmer’s ability to perform meaningful work in a safe manner, some adjustments might be necessary.

“We know that the injury rate for farmers overall is three times higher than all other occupations,” Reed said. “But older farmers have fewer non-fatal injuries than young farmers. They’ve adapted through the years, and have accumulated knowledge that helps them avoid some of the problems younger farmers don’t have experience to avoid. But when older farmers are injured, their fatality rate is more than two-and-one-half times greater than that of younger farmers, and they’re more likely to have longer and more expensive hospitalizations.”

Stress reduction, open communication and creating a safe work environment are the keys to helping the aging farmer continue working. Organizations such as the National AgrAbility Project (http://agrability.org/) help farm families find solutions to many of the problems facing aging farmers.

Although many farmers prefer to wear caps, switching to a brimmed hat and sunglasses can help reduce the risk of cataracts and skin cancer.

“If farmers no longer have their farm life, it’s a separation from the very essence of their being,” Reed said. “Farmers are defined by the work they do. It really is a psychological issue.”

Cover and Photos by Sally Colby