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Lessons from the Land: Tools (Assets & Liabilities)

by Groundswell Center for Local Food and Farming

The Groundswell Center for Local Food & Farming and the Cornell Small Farms Program are teaming up to create a new column called Lessons from the Land, which captures and share the stories of and lessons learned from farmers, homesteaders and land workers around New York and the Northeast. We want to hear stories from growers of all types and sizes, on real topics, that matter!

Each issue has a theme, and upcoming themes and deadlines can be found at http://groundswellcenter.org/lessons-from-the-land/.

Submissions of 400 – 800 words are requested, and can submitted at the website above.

We will publish only nonfiction submissions. Feel free to submit your name, farm name, city and state or submit your piece as “anonymous” if it allows you to be more honest.

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Murphy’s Law of Farm Country: 
You have been either bumping over that small stubborn stone or hooking your plow or cultivator on it for years. You finally say to yourself, “that is enough – I am going to get rid of that pest once and for all.” So you get out your shovel and dig around it a bit and find that it is not as small as you thought.

Back to the barn you go, and get a pry bar to get it out of the ground. Soon you realize there is nothing to pry on so you decide to dig deeper, deeper and deeper. Now this stone appears to be a small boulder. Thinking better of all of this manual work you return to the barn again and bring out the tractor with the bucket on it. After considerable digging on all sides you finally reach the bottom. It becomes evident pretty fast if you try to lift it you will probably will break something or stand the tractor on its head.

The only way to get it out is to dig a ramp on one side, hook a long chain on it, and drag it up the ramp. Finally the stone is out and you need to find a close permanent home for it and you are left with a good sized pit that can not be filled with the dirt you dug out.

The farmer’s version of Murphy’s Law is that the stone that you try to remove is always bigger than you think. (Kind of like a iceburg.)

Gary Gates
Mathew 25 Farm, Tully, NY

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It was a hot September day, and I was on the top of the hill, a round bale on the back of my ’58 John Deere 420, with just a baseball cap between me and the sun. This was my first time back on the machine since it was serviced and a new battery put in two weeks prior. It was time to move the round bales from the hay fields to the winter area of the property. Before I got on the tractor, I did notice that the battery seemed to be too big of a model. The previous battery had fit perfectly into the recessed area, but the new one was much longer. I fired it up, let out the clutch, and away we went bouncing through the fields.

I had been working for about 30 minutes, and had put a good dent into the hundred bales I had to get off of the field, when I looked down at my feet on the pedals. Suddenly, a fountain of flames began streaming down onto my feet and engulfing the controls. I had never seen anything like it but my instincts took over and I went into critical mode. I put the tractor in neutral, and pulled the break as I simultaneously swept my legs to the side and jumped off the tractor.

By this time the flames were beginning to creep upwards and lick the battery and surround the fuel tank, but I was more concerned with the flames on my boots. After putting out my footwear, I grabbed a couple of important tools out of the utility box and for some unknown reason the very empty pail in the bucket and began to run down the hill towards the barn. I called 911 and explained the situation and where to meet me. After the dispatcher and I spoke for what seemed like an hour, I called two friends to also come to the farm as this fire, with the dry conditions and heat, could quickly spread to the fields, destroying my hay and possibly my fences.

I stood at the end of the road watching the deep black smoke rise as the local fire chief pulled up. We decided to call additional units as the engines could not make it out into the field and we would require the mobile units they use for extinguishing brush fires. Being a firefighter, I had already donned my gear and the chief and I drove into the field to begin the plan of attack, but before we arrived at the scene, the sky opened up and a deluge of rain began pouring down. The bout of heavy rain had just extinguished the fire as the emergency personal began to arrive. I lost the tractor, but I was unharmed and the fields were spared as well.

I mention this incident as a reminder of how dry it is outside right now. There is an elevated risk for brush fires and with so many of us making hay we need to take precautions while working. Do you have a fire extinguisher on your tractor (I didn’t), have you spoken with your insurance agent about your coverage lately (I wasn’t covered), and have you ever practiced emergency evacuation maneuvers on your machinery to find any snags or issues with your exit (I hadn’t). Each season delivers new dangers to farmers and we all know it’s not if something will happened, but when. Please be safe out there.

For those of you interested, further investigation revealed that the positive battery terminal was contacting the gas tank which melted the tank and allowed the fuel to run over the battery and ignite both me and the tractor. Although I was not covered by my insurance plan the gentlemen who had made the repairs fixed the tractor for free, although it hasn’t really ever run the same since.

Jason Detzel, Owner Operator 
Diamond Hills Farm, Hudson New York

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I think of my body as my most versatile tool, or more accurately, a complex set of tools working together. Consider my hands. They allow me to grip, grasp, zip, button, hold, type, open lids, turn screwdrivers, and hold a steering wheel. With them I can touch, sense, and connect. Without them I could not grasp a hammer or a hoe, pick beans, or give a hug. I could not milk my goats or scratch them under their ears. As I walk out to the barn this morning, I am aware of my feet on the ground, knees bending, hips supporting. Carrying a pail of apples, my hand, elbow and shoulder work in synchrony.

My eyes take in the morning sunrise. I smell familiar barn smells, I hear the goats call out to me. How well our bodies work! How much we take for granted this intricate interplay of brain, sensory organs, and cellular synapses, muscles, joints, cartilage, and tendons, breathing and circulation. Sometimes things go awry. I work with Maine AgrAbility, a program dedicated to farmers who are experiencing pain, illness, or injury. Our staff goes on farm to assess farmers’ needs and observe their working routines. We can suggest small changes that add up to big dividends. We can recommend assistive technology—tools to assist with their work and accomplish specific tasks.

For example, Phil is a veteran who broke his back while serving in Iraq. On most days he rates his pain as a 7 or 8 on a scale of one to 10, with ten being severe pain. Phil loves his animals. Farming gives him freedom to be his own boss and set his own schedule. He sees farming as a way to serve his community and his country in a new way. He rejects the medical model, which to his mind, pushes pills and would have him lying on a couch all day. AgrAbility suggested adding rear-view mirrors to Phil’s tractor so he doesn’t have to twist to turn around and replacing a worn out seat. He has found that wearing shoes with good support adds to his daily comfort. Taryn farms with her husband. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 25 years ago, and has been in a wheelchair since the early 1990s. That didn’t stop her from raising three children and keeping the farm records. Her wheelchair has been an incredible mobility tool, but over time, she became housebound when she could no longer transfer into a car. She and her husband, Mason, received a loan for a wheelchair accessible van.

Now Taryn can stay connected to her community. She accompanies Mason when he makes egg deliveries and plans to sell farm products at the local farmers market. Soon after I started to milk goats, I developed arthritis in my hands. My hands are stiff and painful. I drop things and struggle to open a doorknob or remove a jar lid. What to do after making a sizeable investment of time and energy with my goats? As a small operator, I couldn’t justify the expense of a milking machine. I have traded milk for milking labor, used the WWOOF program, and now employ a hired hand and she literally saves my hands. During a lifetime of bumps and scrapes, everyone experiences ailments of one type or another. No one can avoid the natural aging process.

How to keep problems at bay? AgrAbility has a few recommendations: Be mindful of what your body is telling you. Are you thirsty? Drink water. Hot? Rest in the shade. Feeling rushed and stressed? Breathe. Avoid doing work in awkward positions. Keep the height of work between the knees and the shoulders. For tasks that require several hours, set up a work station so that you can alternate between sitting and standing. If an activity has multiple tasks, rotate jobs about every 20-30 minutes to avoid overstressing any one group of muscles. A body that functions well is a priceless tool. Take care of it and reap a lifetime of rewards.

 Names have been changed to protect privacy

The Ellen S. Gibson  
Maine AgrAbility

Comments

One thought on “Lessons from the Land: Tools (Assets & Liabilities)

  1. Michele Phillips says:

    Excellent article. Especially the part about how changes made can help those in pain, etc. still keep farming. And having a fire extinguisher on the tractor.

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