Aging is a fact of life. In farming, it is also a fact of the industry.
In 2017, farm producers in the United States were, on average, 57.5 years old according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Census of Agriculture. This is older than the average age of 56.3 that the census recorded in 2012.
The same is true in Maine. Even with the growth in numbers of young farmers, the average age of Maine farmers still increased according to that same census, from 55.1 years old in 2012 to 56.5 years old in 2017.
Unlike other occupations, though, aging farmers may not end their careers with retirement.
“Our whole population is aging, but farmers are not the kind of people who retire,” said Richard Brzozowski, project director for Maine AgrAbility, a non-profit collaboration with the University of Maine Cooperative extension that assists people working on farms, fisheries and forestry careers while aging or managing chronic illness or disability.
Just because you are getting older doesn’t mean your farm career has to end. However, there are certain inevitable changes that are better to address head-on for the sake of health, safety and — ultimately — the wellbeing and longevity of your business. Here are a few steps aging farmers can take right away to help manage the transition into this next stage of life.
Meet with your family
Farming is often a family enterprise. Scheduling a family meeting to discuss any changes in your role on the farm will keep loved ones — and business partners — informed and engaged.
“Have the key members of the family meet together and talk about the situation,” Brzozowski said. “It’s sort of like a family decision of who’s doing what. A family meeting might be the best thing to start with because you start the conversation.”
After that first meeting, plan to check in on a regular basis — such as daily check-ins in the morning or weekly meetings to discuss the goals for the week — to help encourage accountability as it relates to your safety.
On the flip side, family members discussing the changes in operations should be considerate when they approach the topic.
“You have to be tactful when approaching people who are older so they can still have a role to play,” Brzozowski said.
Brzozowski suggested opening the conversation like this: “We care about you and we want to include you in the farm, but there are things that are too dangerous for you to keep doing. Let’s make some changes so you’re around for a long time.”
Honestly evaluate — and abide by — your physical limits
As you age, health and safety should be your priorities. Knowing your physical limits and respecting them is essential to avoiding injuries around the farm. Set up resting stations around the farm with seats and benches and use them to pace yourself. Take breaks when you’re tired, and accept that the length of your workday should decrease as you get older.
Brzozowski said knowing your physical limits is especially important for lifting tasks. Refrain from lifting heavy objects. Simple machines like levers, pulleys, inclined planes, wheels and axles can help you complete applicable tasks without overexerting.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help from others in accomplishing physical tasks or just accompanying you on the job to ensure you have back up. This is also a great opportunity to teach the next generation what you know about farming.
Also, your reaction time might be declining, so don’t put yourself in dangerous situations, like handling animals that are larger than yourself. Consider carrying a cane for support or protection.
Use technology to help you out
Powered equipment such as an electric wheelbarrow or wagon can help move heavy loads. Electric or hydraulic lift tables or scissor lifts will help raise your workspaces appropriate heights to reduce strain.
“There’s a lot of stuff out there, a lot of it was designed for people with disabilities but great for people who are able-bodied, too, because it saves energy [and] strength,” Brzozowski said.
For tractors, connecting and disconnecting implements may be difficult. Consider converting equipment to quick hitch systems. Brzozowski admitted that switching to quick hitch systems can be expensive, but for some farmers, it may be worth it.
Brzozowski also said that equipment dealers are a great resource for figuring out helpful tools on the market. He added that the National Agrability Project has a regularly-updated online search engine for adaptive tools.
Keep a to-do list on-hand
As you age, your memory declines.
“People start losing their memory — not necessarily reasoning, but they just can’t think of the stuff they’re going to do next,” Brzozowski said. “You just don’t think as clearly as you used to.”
Checklists can remind you of the steps necessary to complete tasks. Post these checklists for easy access — for example, using a dry erase marker on your driver’s side window — or keep them in a pocket-sized notebook. You can also post notes or signage as reminders.
Learn the signs of a stroke and heart attack
In general, you should stay abreast of your health as you age. Knowing the signs of a stroke and a heart attack, especially when you spend time alone in the field, could save your life.
According to the American Heart Association, the symptoms for a heart attack are discomfort at the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes; discomfort in both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach; and shortness of breath. Women experiencing a heart attack are more likely to suffer from shortness of breath; nausea and vomiting; and back or jaw pain.
The American Stroke Association uses the acronym F.A.S.T. for the signs of a stroke, which stands for face drooping, arm weakness, speech and time to call 9-1-1.
Schedule a hearing and sight check-up
Brzozowski said to be mindful of all check-ups as you age, especially having your hearing and sight checked. These senses are especially important for completing farm tasks or detecting potentially dangerous situations on the farm.
“Those kinds of things help, just so you’re not putting yourself in a precarious situation because you didn’t see something or hear something clearly,” Brzozowski said. “It helps you use your senses better.”
Depending on the results of your eye exam, you might want to consider installing new lights or carrying a headlamp.
“A lot of farmers work in the dark a lot, whether it’s morning chores or late night stuff in the barn,” Brzozowski said. “Wearing a headlamp or being able to see what you want to do, whether it’s in a shop the barn or in the truck.”
For many farmers, farming is more than just a career — it’s a way of life. Being prepared to adapt your practices as you age will help keep you healthy, safe and involved in your passion for farming as long as possible.