By Michael A. Wiseman
It would’ve been easy to mistake Forsyth Tech’s Stokes County Center for the local feed and seed store Saturday morning. Instead of students and textbooks, there were Carhartts, overalls, flannel shirts, and ball caps. Men wore their working boots. Calloused hands told stories of cold winters and good harvests; phrases like “squeeze chutes” and “crank shafts” peppered those conversations.
And, yes, class was still in session. But rather than the bright-eyed teenager or malcontent twenty-something, farmers were doing the learning. One gentleman in a red shirt raised his hand and advised peers to NEVER run away from a bull. Show-and-tell included cattle nose tongs and demonstrations on how to properly wear earplugs. There was even a live tractor rollover alongside a hay dummy getting chopped to bits.
This was all part of Forsyth Tech’s first ever Farm Health and Safety Institute. The institute, designed to bring our State’s front-line agricultural experts together for a day of workshop-based experience sharing, was an opportunity for the college to raise awareness of its growing agriculture programs. It was dubbed a ‘kickoff-event’ to help get farmers in the door.
“We wanted something that would be interesting for farmers and bring them all together,” said Ann Watts, director of Forsyth Tech’s Stokes County Operations.
And safety is a key issue for farmers. In North Carolina, farming is one of the top three most dangerous occupations; nationally, it’s number one. There were sixteen farming-related fatalities in the state alone last year. So discussing how to prevent tractor turnovers (the leading cause of death for farmers), or how to avoid being hurt by the spinning metal spikes of a pto shaft (which causes more injuries than anything else on a farm) can be a matter of life or death.
Some of the stories farmers shared to illustrate their points could be found alongside any of hollywood’s horror movies: people losing clothes, hair, and limbs. One presenter talked about a farmer whose combine harvester flipped backwards – and while he survived unscathed, the eight hours the man spent trapped before rescue crews arrived were perhaps as harrowing as any injury.
But not all were so grim. A particular workshop discussing personal equipment, highlighted the most basic safety needs – things like protective eyewear, earplugs, and appropriate clothing. For example, did you know that the first hearing frequency lost is the one for women and children’s voices? (So wives, maybe give your husband a break next time?)
Presenter Robin Tutor-Marcom brought out a few excellent points. She asked farmers what the most important thing is to their bottom lines. Audience responses ranged from feed, to equipment, to cattle. Then she followed it with a bombshell: What happens to all of that if something happens to you?
She described it as “a way for them to put the emphasis on the importance they have.” Many farmers recognize and even embrace their job is dangerous, but don’t always see how crucial their own well-being is.
Ann Watts planned the day’s activities alongside both Sally Elliott, coordinator of Stokes Economic & Workforce Development, and Ron Berra, grant manager for the funds which made Saturday’s workshops possible.
The grant is one of many Forsyth Tech has applied for through North Carolina’s Tobacco Trust Fund Commission (NCTTFC), an organization whose goals align perfectly with what Watts, Elliott, and Berra are trying to develop. And the commission’s reach – helping those in the tobacco farming industry (including displaced workers) – far exceeds just tobacco. It also focuses on promoting local markets, making farms safer, and various other farm-related commitments, and has numerous projects under its umbrella specifically targeting education. This includes Saturday’s institute at Forsyth Tech.
Watts described something bigger, though. She outlined a pipeline from classroom to workplace that starts with the work at Forsyth Tech. The ultimate goal? To establish an agricultural training center at Stokes. That training center would include three main focuses: agricultural production (think sustainability and alternative crops); agriculture business (with emphasis on marketing, record keeping, new revenue streams, et cetera); and agricultural science, which could partner with Forsyth Tech’s own environmental science department to tackle the down-and-dirty of farming – including a micro-level scientific look at plant, soil, and water. Even ideas like a sustainable greenhouse, or agricultural medicine, have entered the mix.
There are other considerations as well. Today’s farmers are an aging population – close to 60% in North Carolina are over 55 years old; they’re at greater risk for melanoma and respiratory diseases.
Which is why it’s important for Watts, Elliott, and Berra, with the help of the NCTTFC, to establish these new career pathways. By recruiting students when they’re in high-school, and funneling them through Forsyth Tech to programs at NC State and NC A&T, they can better understand how agriculture is relevant in their fast-paced, technology driven culture. Getting new blood in the pipeline now could prove to be the lifeblood of the entire industry ten years from now. And future grants are necessary to make it happen.
But Saturday was about those literally in the field today. Attendees like CB Marcom, who summed up Saturday’s institute best when he stated, “I’m a typical farmer – I can’t hear, I can’t see the best in the word… Heart surgeries, back surgeries…”
“But I am lucky in one way.” Marcom finished by slowly raising his fingers. “I got 10!”