Farmer down: The sacrifice that comes with your food


When you think of a dangerous job, what is the first image that comes to mind? A police officer in a shootout with the bad guys, or maybe a fireman running into a burning building while everyone else is running out? People understand the inherent risks of law enforcement officers, firefighters, and even soldiers. Our media does a very good job of letting folks know when one of these brave men or women falls in the line of duty. It’s important that we know when that happens. I think honoring these brave men and women for their sacrifice is absolutely necessary, or we will forget those who serve us.

But the list of people we keep in mind should go deeper.

Did you know the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics consistently lists farming as a Top 10 most dangerous job in the United States with farmers and agricultural workers having 574 fatalities in 2018 alone? This number does not include farmer suicides, which are three times higher than the national average. Law enforcement and firefighters do not make the top 10 in work related fatalities, yet the media narrative in this country compares their occupations to warzones, while the farmers’ daily routine is often romanticized as easy and laid back.

It is National Ag Week, and while it celebrates our accomplishments, it does not necessarily honor our sacrifices. I don’t know very many farmers who haven’t lost a loved one or know of a fellow farmer killed while working the land. Also, almost any farmer I meet has that one, two, or many stories about when they almost were killed working the farm. I have had a few close calls, and so have my kids who actively work the farm.

So what do we need to do to stop accidents from happening? Should the American farmer have the OSHA inspectors ready to walk the farm and machine shop? Hang up safety first posters with every danger that a farmer might encounter? PPE requirements based on California’s Proposition 65? Of course not. While farmers strive for safety and care about their wellbeing and that of their loved ones and workers, I — nor most farmers — are asking for more safety regulations.

When I do public speaking and know the crowd is not made up of a lot of folks in agriculture, I often address farmers being hurt or killed in farm accidents. The overwhelming response from the general public is they had no idea that this happened and considered farming a very safe job. Why wouldn’t they? The public only gets views of idyllic farmscapes with happy cows or they get a view of “industrial” farm scenes that are purposely portrayed to show a corporate environment where no family farmers could exist.

Happy cows? Most of the time, but have you ever had a cow you thought was bluffing and decided today was the day she was going to put you in the ground? What about a frustrated motorist speeding around you, not caring about your safety or that of other motorists? The everyday dangers can be intimidating yet it is a part of farming. I want all tractors with rollover protection and every farmer that enters a grain bin to be wearing an entry kit and have an observer. I want PTOs that won’t catch clothing and every driver to pass farm equipment as if it was their loved one driving it. While we are at it, I would love to see hogs that don’t bite, cattle that don’t charge, and horses that don’t kick.

That would be a perfect world. Unfortunately we don’t live in that world, and people need to eat.

This is not a call to action for more regulations on farm safety — it is actually the opposite. When we have a third party or government official saying our safety is their responsibility, all kinds of bad things will start to happen. From pointless procedures that eat into our already busy day to complacency because of the overemphasis on safety.

I had the privilege of having Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs fame visit my farm. His show, Returning the Favor, had featured the work we do around hunger. Besides being the most down to earth celebrity you will ever meet, he also gets it when it comes to getting the job done. Mike sat at my kitchen table drinking coffee and talked of his exploits on Dirty Jobs. Mike very much has the experience to speak on safety, as he has been in and worked on almost every type of hazardous worksite in America. He emphasizes “Safety Third.” This does not mean to not be safety conscious or not make safety a priority. It does mean to take responsibility for your own safety and use commonsense.

Farmers do not need third parties or government officials making our safety their job. As Mike said, “If anybody tells you that your safety is their responsibility … they are not protecting you, they are protecting themselves.” When safety becomes a target or is ranked as the most important thing, then it helps drive complacency.

Farmers want to be safe and do everything the right way, but they are not interested in “shows” of safety that will only add inefficiencies and still not affect the safety outcomes of their operation. We as farmers are not asking for more safety regulations. We are asking people to understand the sacrifices we make to bring the public their daily bread.

Brenda Schoepp said, “My grandfather used to say that once in your life you will need a doctor, a lawyer, a policeman and a preacher, but everyday, three times a day, you need a farmer.”

This is not a call for safety, because we all try to be safe. We want our kids to be safe. We want to make it home at night, but unfortunately, because farming is dangerous, that does not always happen. This is a call for remembrance for the sacrifice the American farmer makes for you. Some heroes wear badges, some wear helmets, and a lot today are wearing scrubs. The heroes I look up to and emulate are wearing Carhartts and a lot of sweat on their brows.


Jonathan Lawler operates Brandywine Creek Farms in Indiana and is an advocate for hunger relief and agriculture. He is working on a TV show called Punk Rock Farmer coming in the spring. His motto is FARM OR DIE.

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