Farm Safety Takes Caution and Experience

Pay attention and practice prevention to keep yourself secure while doing farm work.

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by Adobe Stock/Dusan Kostic
Operating a tractor in snow takes skill, which requires practice to build. Experience will teach you what’s safe and what’s dangerous.

Farmers have one of the highest rates of workplace accidents. As an older farmer, I have battle scars that put me in that statistical column. I write from personal experience with farm accidents, both mine and others’.

Some 20 years ago, a farmer friend died in an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) rollover while he was out in his pasture checking cows. I’ve ridden ATVs for many years, and just this spring, as I was riding slowly through some tall grass to check the cows, my ATV tipped on its side and pinned my leg underneath. Fortunately, my cellphone summoned help. I could’ve become another statistic.

My worst farm accident happened while I was cutting firewood. You know the saying: “There are old loggers, and bold loggers, but no old, bold loggers.” I cut a midsized tree, perhaps a foot in diameter, but didn’t step away fast enough as it fell. It fell right onto an old stump, which kicked the butt up and whacked me in the face. It gave me a concussion, knocked out two of my teeth, and hamburgered my lip and jaw. It was a close call. To this day, I don’t know why anyone would engage in boxing. That hit to the face was enough for me.

Then, I lost the tip of my right pinky when adjusting the chute on a square baler. It buckled as I adjusted the support chains, and it pinched off the fatty tip of my finger. That injury doesn’t bother me, but the shorter finger can make typing difficult.

One of my earliest sets of stitches came from a chainsaw accident. Running an old-style 1960s McCulloch with those early bulbous bars, I had a kickback incident, and the chainsaw sliced into my shoulder. I knew I’d been cut, but I didn’t look at it until I got to the house. I went in and asked Teresa to get a bandage so I could go out and finish — I was in a hurry because we were leaving the next day on a trip.

When I finally looked at it, I nearly fainted. Peering at my own white meat through that deep incision wasn’t too appetizing. We learned something that day: When you walk into an emergency room and say “chainsaw,” they don’t make you wait. It was just bad enough to scare the living daylights out of me, but not bad enough to hit any tendons or bone.

Those are injuries that happened. Numerous others were close calls; I walked away, but could’ve been killed. The first significant close call happened when I was in my late teens and mowing some hay. A groundhog caught my attention. I quickly stopped the tractor, hopped off to dispatch him, and, to my horror, watched the tractor roll down the hill, over a cliff, through some trees, and into a creek. Fortunately, the tractor was unharmed, but the mower needed some serious repairs.

Farm accidents like the ones I’ve described occur because of four basic issues.

man wearing a red helmet and green jacket holding a chain saw cutting a felled tree during winter


Knowing the limitations of a machine; what can happen as a result of an action; how an animal will respond — all of this takes skill. Acquiring skill takes repetition. That’s the foundation of mastery.

Almost anyone can jump on a tractor, put it in gear, and drive down the lane or out through a field. But a skilled operator has driven that tractor in snow, in rain, uphill, downhill, pushing something, pulling something. You can’t Google experience. All you can do is repeat, repeat, repeat, in different conditions.

How much can you put on a trailer before it’s overloaded? What does “park on the level” mean? A few close calls are necessary to instill respect for a piece of equipment’s limitations, and knowing when a situation is unsafe requires being in a lot of different situations.

One of my rules is to always park my truck or tractor for a quick getaway. When I work in the woods, I always turn my truck around before I park so I can jump in and go if something happens. If the ground is slick, I always park facing downhill so I won’t get stuck. Don’t put yourself in a tight spot.

Knowing what a “tight spot” is means you’ve been in a few. If you’re a novice, think ahead before turning off the engine. Realize that you’ll probably get yourself into a tight spot because of inexperience, so carry a cellphone to summon help. The biggest problem with tight spots is that we feel stupid for having gotten ourselves into them, so we try to be heroic and extricate ourselves to keep our shame private. And that’s when something rolls over on us. Don’t be heroic; call for help.


Just like it does on highways, speed kills on the farm. When I cut my shoulder with the chainsaw, I was in a hurry because Teresa and I were going away the next day. That frenzy, coupled with thoughts of being elsewhere, absolutely enabled the accident. Had I been more methodical, more in my normal rhythm, I’m confident I wouldn’t have caught the tip of the chainsaw on an adjoining tree.

Slow down when you’re in a ticklish situation. And that doesn’t mean slipping the clutch without changing gears. One of the single biggest lessons I teach to our farm interns is to, when backing up an implement with the tractor, throttle back, drop to first gear, and take your time. Revving the engine and staying in fourth gear reverse is not the way to back the manure spreader into the barn.

Camping Latern

Improper maintenance

Axes, hatchets, chainsaws, knives, hoes, and mattocks — all edged tools — need to be sharp. When they’re dull, you’ll have to apply more force, and that force is what will make things glance off or break. A chainsaw should pull itself through the cut; if it doesn’t, sharpen it. If you’re cutting meat or processing chickens, a dull knife is an accident waiting to happen.

From lubrication to putting the little check clip in the hitch pin, properly maintained equipment, tools, and machinery are much safer than thrown-together make-do. Sure, there’s a place for duct tape, baling twine, and some wire. But working brakes, sound sledgehammer handles, and power take-off (PTO) guards are lifesavers.


On our farm, we prohibit headphones and texting during work hours. Why? Because inattention is deadly. You won’t hear the funny noise in the hay mower. You won’t hear the stampede of cows behind you. In military training, recruits learn “situational awareness.” You cultivate this by looking up and out, not down and in. In our highly gadgeted world, this is a serious problem. We watch screens and look at keyboards — tiny ones, even on watches. The smaller our screens get, the less aware we are of our surroundings.

On the farm, situational awareness means keeping your feet out from under the trailer hitch when you unhook. It means knowing which cow in the herd has an attitude and which one doesn’t. It means keeping your fingers out of places where you could lose one. Hold a chisel or punch with a pair of channel lock pliers, not your fingers. Think about what will happen if the hammer misses.

Never reach into a PTO-powered machine when another operator is on the tractor. It would be too easy for the tractor driver to get impatient and engage the PTO or hit something else, from hydraulics to gear shift, while you’re back there finagling with the stuck hay or clogged spreader beaters. If you’re not the one driving, tell the driver to get off the tractor before you stick your hands in there. That’s situational awareness.

On our farm, in addition to attention, we also practice prevention. Everyone must have earplugs on their person at all times. I don’t start a tractor or a chainsaw without putting in earplugs. I wear a hard hat whenever I’m working in the woods, and that’s protected me from numerous concussions over the years. And we don’t ever wear ball caps; we wear wide-brimmed hats to keep the sun off our ears and necks. My wonderful neighbor Jim died of skin cancer that started around his ears and neck from years spent unprotected in the sun. As soon as the melanoma started, he switched to wide-brimmed hats, but it was too late. He was 30 years older than me. I hope I switched in time.

Finally, for further farm safety, don’t store your gasoline next to the welder, and be aware of other potential fire hazards. Barn fires are often caused by rat-chewed electrical wires and dust. When I read that, I ripped all the electricity out of our barn. When we need power at the barn, we run a heavy extension cord. If you need light at night, use an LED lantern. Keep a fire extinguisher in the shop. Watch where you step, and stay rested … so you can think about where you step. Don’t become another farm fatality. The tomatoes need you.

Joel Salatin is a third-generation, beyond-organic farmer and author whose family owns and operates Polyface Farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley

Profitable Farming

Twenty years ago Joel Salatin wrote You Can Farm, which has launched thousands of farm entrepreneurs around the world. In those 20 years, Salatin’s Polyface Farm progressed from a small family operation to a 20-person, 6,000-customer, 50-restaurant business, all without sales targets, government grants, or an off-farm nest egg. With these two decades’ worth of experience as a full-time farmer under his belt, Saladin has decided to build on that foundation with a sequel to his original book, thereby providing readers a graduate-level curriculum.Order from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Store or by calling 800-234-3368.