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Still too many close calls and safety issues for farmers

The COVID-19 pandemic fallout – in particular, the food shortages we’ve experienced in some commodities, due to either increased demand or decreased processing capacity – is expected to escalate pressure on farmers to produce more food.

But realistically, how much additional production can we expect without jeopardizing farmers’ safety and sustainability?

Sustainability is the underlying touchstone in agriculture. Many definitions and characteristics of sustainability are out there – some call it a journey, a moving target, a perpetual effort, something you never fully achieve, something that’s impossible without widespread collaboration and inclusiveness.

Sustainability also requires profitability. Simply put, an unprofitable operation is unsustainable. And if we as a society are unwilling to pay for sustainability, we’d better be willing to accept food insecurity, along with environmental degradation, employment downturns and the whole whack of problems associated with it.

And who wants that?

Sustainability can’t be jeopardized… and neither can farm safety.

Most lately, farmers have been blessed with superb planting weather, the best in years. Thankfully, farmers haven’t had the kind of pressure that comes with trying to plant amidst rainfall and other trying conditions, as they hurry to get seeds in the ground.

In fact, the Canadian Agriculture Safety Association (CASA) says seeding and harvest are among the most dangerous times of year, because many producers are working long hours and are racing against the clock to get the job done.

They can’t count on good weather. And in food insecure situations, there’ll be even more pressure to make sure they get a harvestable crop.

We know from past research that farming is one of Canada’s most dangerous occupations. Already, a significant portion of Canadian farmers report having had an incident resulting in an injury or close call on their operation.

On Tuesday, Farm Credit Canada, the country’s biggest agricultural lender, released results of a study conducted in February that noted seven out of 10 producers had a safety issue at some point in their farming career.

A quarter of them said the issue occurred within the past year.

And that has CASA worried. The organization, a non-profit group formed in 1993 to respond to health and safety issues in agriculture, says farm safety too often becomes a priority after an incident… but notes that even then, they don’t necessarily change farmers’ behaviour.

“It’s unfortunate that it sometimes takes an incident or close call to motivate producers to put in place farm safety measures,” says executive director Marcel Hacault. “It’s even more unfortunate if they don’t take action to prevent incidents from happening again.”

The survey also showed that producers who have had a safety incident on the farm are no more likely to access safety information or develop a safety plan than those who haven’t had an incident.

However – and the organization sees this as a bright spot – a growing number of producers recognize their work is not done safely all of the time.

“Awareness is usually the first step toward taking preventative action,” Hacault says. “It’s not only obvious dangers that pose risk. There are often hidden hazards that can harm you, an employee or a family member.”

So, is adherence to a written farm plan a necessary step towards sustainability? The Farm Credit Canada survey showed that 70 per cent of the farmers who had such plans felt they were effective in preventing injuries.

Farmers don’t want any more rules or legislation telling them what to do on their own farms. They have enough of that now. Farm safety needs to be something they engage in willingly.

But it’s definitely a necessity. As CASA says, it only takes one moment of distraction, fatigue or complacency to change a person’s life forever.

“Producers have to remember that the most valuable asset on any farm are the people who do the work,” says Hacault. “By taking care of ourselves and those around us, we are contributing to our long-term success in both business and life.”

And sustainability.

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