Experts: Take breaks to relax and enjoy time with loved ones
By TIM HEARDEN
Jeff Fowle knows what it takes to keep fatigue from getting the best of him.
The fourth-generation rancher from Etna, Calif., certainly has a busy schedule. In addition to his cattle, horse and hay operation, he's active in his local Farm Bureau and in a national social media campaign called Ag Chat.
But he finds time to rest when he can, eat healthful foods to maintain his stamina and, most importantly, plans plenty of quality time with his family.
"Really it's not so much getting away from (the work), it's being with the family and involving them, like with my son," Fowle, 40, said. "This summer he's been haying with me. Anytime I have enough room in a tractor ... I take him with me. It's getting them involved. It's not being solo all the time.
"But at the same time, you need to make sure you're taking time to have those opportunities away from doing work," he said. "Take a bit of time to stop and do something with them so that they know that they are the center of your attention, with anything as simple as just going for a walk down the lane, letting them catch grasshoppers to taking time to go fishing in the reservoir or go for a bike ride or horse ride."
Taking measures to prevent fatigue, however, is something that many farmers just don't think much about, even though it's very important, said Bryan Little, director of labor affairs for the California Farm Bureau Federation.
Fatigue is an obvious safety hazard in any occupation, Little said. In Farm Bureau safety training sessions, instructors tell farmers that operating equipment or doing jobs while tired is as dangerous as working under the influence of drugs or alcohol or not being trained properly, he said.
"I can say that," he said, "but that's not to say that any of these farmers I know aren't going to go any less than 100 miles an hour."
With improved technology and safety awareness, "you're a lot less prone to meet a nine-fingered farmer than you used to be," Little said. Farmers know that being around big machines or big animals is inherently dangerous, he said.
Still, that doesn't mean producers don't put themselves at risk, he said.
"One of the key characteristics of farming is you work when the work needs to be done," Little said. "The thing that worries me sometimes is that people are operating these big machines and dangerous equipment who maybe haven't had as much rest as they could have."
With low commodity prices hampering many producers' ability to hire help and with more farmers trying to do everything by themselves, fatigue is definitely a problem, said Michael Rosmann, executive director of the Harlan, Iowa-based AgriWellness Inc.
A person can accumulate a sleep debt -- much like a financial debt, said Rosmann, whose organization promotes mental health in rural agricultural areas.
"If our normal sleep necessity is eight hours a night and we sleep only six, we accumulate two hours," he said. "Usually there's an additive effect. If you do that five days in a row, you accumulate 10 hours of sleep debt."
A sleep debt of 10 hours affects the body in the same way as a 0.08 blood-alcohol level, slowing reaction time, impairing memory and making movements less accurate, Rosmann said. If it worsens over time, sleep deprivation can affect the heart and other organs, including the brain and kidneys, he said.
Caffeine can actually offset a sleep debt, but only to a point, Rosmann said. One effective way to keep the debt low is to take "power naps" of no more than 20 minutes, which leave a person feeling more refreshed.
"It really is a behavior that we have some control over, how much we allow ourselves to rest," Rosmann said. "It's important even though we have obligations like working more because we're having to lay off employees or it's harvest time. We always tell producers that you are in charge of your behavior and nobody else.
"Nobody else is going to invest in adequate sleep but you," he said. "You're actually increasing the risk of injury or illness twofold or threefold by cutting back on sleep."
A person's "ration of behavior" also has to include time for recreation and interaction away from work, he said. Those activities can include talking with trusted people, physical exercise, hard laughter, prayer and physical touch with a husband or wife, he said.
In a recent blog post, rancher Fowle also drew a financial analogy, urging other producers to budget their time as they would their money. Like money, he wrote, time can be wasted. Unlike money, however, more time can't be earned, he advised.
"Similar to money, time has an ROI (Return On Investment) value," he wrote. "It is important that the time you spend is quality time, especially when it comes to time invested with our children."
Part of what determines whether you'll have the energy to endure the grinding work of a farm or ranch, he said, is how much you enjoy the work.
"In any job, if you don't like what you're doing, you're going to get tired a lot quicker," Fowle said.
"It's a sign for those who complain about the hours they put in, whatever job it is, that perhaps it's not the best occupation for them."
AgriWellness Inc.: http://www.agriwellness.org/