For the Capital Press

I wouldn't call myself a thrill seeker who hunts for dangerous stunts to try. But somehow our family landed in the fifth most dangerous industry around.

There're plenty of lists that look at labor statistics, accident rates and fatalities, but they usually run something like this on rating occupational danger: fishermen, loggers, aircraft pilots, steel workers and then us, farmers and ranchers.

I thought I was playing it safe by not doing the bungee slingshot at the state fair or parachuting out of a perfectly good airplane. Turns out, just heading out the door each morning as a rancher puts me at above average risk for death and injury.

I could find a less dangerous occupation like office worker, but I don't think I could stand the paper cuts. Or we could reduce the risk on the farm or ranch some by how we do our job.

I don't suppose it'd be recommended today, but I was 9 years old when I started working in the hayfield as a scatter raker. The tractor I started on was a "B" John Deere.

Safety features meant it had fenders and a steering wheel to hang on to. But it was probably safer than a lot of today's newer machines. It had a hand clutch to stop the tractor and change your gear. No shifting on the fly. If Dad put me in third or fourth gear, he knew I wouldn't be going too fast. The rake had few moving parts, no power takeoff shaft to watch out for. The job of "scatter raker" was not the most demanding job in the hay stacking operation, but I felt pretty important out there.

I used to dig a lot of fencepost holes as a kid. Our old fashioned ways made it pretty safe. No automated spinning post augers, just a clam shell hand-operated post hole digger. The only moving parts were my arms.

I was fortunate to grow up with horses instead of four-wheelers and dirt bikes. Sure, horses are big strong animals, but they have a brain and most good ones don't want to hurt you or step on you. I've lost track of the guys I know who spent a lifetime with horses injury-free, just to get hurt bad by a four-wheeler later in life. A horse will avoid a washout or a bull hole, but those machines will let you drive right in at whatever speed you want.

I'm sure I still did a lot of dangerous, stupid stuff as a kid, but I was able to work alongside Dad in relative safety. We were never in such a hurry that he couldn't take the time to point out the most dangerous things for me to look out for.

Today we know there're lots of dangers on the farm and ranch. The machinery has more safety decals and warnings, but it's also bigger, more complex, more expensive and less forgiving.

It's hard to find a job for a kid to do that's safe. There ain't much summer fallow anymore, and in terms of safety and economy, it's hard to put a kid on an outfit that cost a quarter or a half a million dollars. Even on our ranch, I no longer have a relatively safe little bullrake for a kid to buck up hay to the stack, and I wouldn't dare put a youngster on a $30,000 hay baler -- too dangerous and too expensive if they mess it up.

It's hard to raise responsible young people without giving them some responsibilities. I guess we need to choose those responsibilities carefully in our fifth most dangerous environment. We may just need a little more time and a little less automation.

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