Rise of hobby farms: More growers maimed or killed
INDIANAPOLIS — Phil Jacobs was just a teenager when his parents bought a scenic Kentucky farm with hayfields, forests, creeks, trails and a view of the Ohio River. Decades later, he still spent time there, maintain- ing the property as a second job and using its campsite for family getaways.
The Lawrence burg, Indiana, anesthesiologist was removing dying ash trees in June 2015 when his tractor overturned as he was pulling a tree up a hill. He died instantly, at age 62. The trac- tor, which dated to the early 1960s, had no rollover protections.
“The farm was a very important part of my husband’s life,” said Jacobs’ widow, Joyce. “If he had any time off, we went to the
The risk of serious injury or death has always been a par t of f ar ming. But the nation’s growing embrace of small-scale production of local and organic crops is drawing more amateurs into the field, and inexperienced growers are increasingly getting maimed and even killed, often by old, unsafe machinery. Experts say some novices have little appreciation of the occupation’s dangers.
Up to a quarter of Indiana’s 115 farm fatalities over the past four years have been on small operations that include so-called hobby or lifestyle far ms, which are often run by people who entered farming from other lines of work, according to research by Purdue University farm-safety expert Bill Field, who has tracked farm fatalities for nearly four decades.
Those deaths — nearly 30 between 2013 and 2016— represent a disproportionately high percentage of Indiana’s total far ming deaths, given the state’s widespread com- mercial farming operations, Field said.
Over the years, Field has served as an expert witness in more than 100 lawsuits that included the deaths of a surgeon, an FBI agent, a lawyer and several other professionals who traded white-collar careers for far ming. Many were rookie farmers killed in accidents that people raised on far ms and mindful of farming dangers would likely have avoided.
That includes the death of a man who entered retirement with dreams of starting a Christmas tree farm in the Northeast. He bought a brand-new tractor and began clearing land, seemingly oblivious to the dangers posed by far m equipment. Two months into retirement, the man was killed in a grisly accident when he was pulled into the tractor’s power takeoff shaft — a rapidly spinning device at the rear end of the tractor that sends power to attachments.
“He retired on Se pt. 30 from a government job and was dead by Thanksgiving. I don’t think he had a clue what he was doing with that equipment,” said Field, who investigated the death as part of a lawsuit filed by the man’s widow. He declined to disclose the man’s name.
Chris Holman moved to Wisconsin from Oregon nearly a decade ago to pursue a Ph.D. in world languages. He ended up ditching academia for the far ming life even though neither he nor his then-girlfriend, Maria, had any agricultural experience.
The couple, now married with a young daughter, bought 41 acres and founded Nami Moon Far ms, which specializes in pasture-raised hogs and chickens, as well as eggs, honey and vegetables.
They knew full well that agriculture can be dangerous, so Holman repeatedly screened farm-safety videos. But he still nearly had a serious accident the first time he tilled a field.
As his tractor was rolling along, the tiller trailing behind it snagged on a boulder hidden in the soil. The tractor’ s front end immediately began rising off the ground and came a split-second away from flipping over onto the cab where he was seated.
“Maybe it was just dumb luck, but right in the heat of the moment, I hit the clutch and had just enough time to bring the front end back down,” recalled Holman, 40.
His tractor had some protections — a rollover bar and a reinforced cab. But hobby far ms are among the only places in the U.S. where cheaper, older tractors without such safety features are still in use, said Frank Gasperini, executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers.
Jacobs’ tractor was one example. He had researched buying a new, safer machine, his widow said.
Tractor rollovers are the leading cause of death on smaller f ar ms, Gasperini said, and some be ginning farmers who buy older tractors have little or no safety training. They often toil alone at odd hours—sometimes while weary from working at off-farm jobs.
Gasperini war ned in a July article in the Journal of Ag romedicine that “very small, subsistence, part-time, non-traditional and hobby farms will continue to pose significant challenges” to the safety of U.S. agriculture.
The total number of farms in the U.S. has been declining for decades as large commercial far ms keep getting bigger.
But small farms are on the rise, buoyed by the popularity of locally grown produce and meats, farmers’ markets, organic foods and far m-totable production.
Jamie Houdek, with his wife, Lisa, at his side, talks at his home in Little Falls, Minn., about his recover y after he lost his right hand to a corn picker in November 2013 on the 60-acre hobby farm where he raises beef cattle.
In this Januar y 2014 photo, Madison Houdek watches as her father, Jamie, demonstrates tools he uses to eat and use a computer tablet since losing his right hand to a corn picker on the 60-acre hobby farm where he raises beef cattle near Little Falls, Minn. The nation’s growing embrace of small-scale production of local and organic crops is leading to more farm injuries and deaths among amateur growers. Exper ts say some novices have little appreciation of the occupation’s dangers.