Rise of hobby farms: More grow­ers maimed or killed

The Hazleton Standard-Speaker - - FRONT PAGE - BY RICK CALLAHAN

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,...

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