As a girl growing up with my two brothers and my dad, I learned to tow and launch a boat before I got my license. I rode a motorcycle, four wheeled, and learned to drive out of a skid on a wet curve before I was 16. My brother was determined to raise me as a strong capable girl. Little did I know this experience would fare me well later when heavy equipment and farming came into my life.
I was working at a Buddhist monastery as a gardener. It was a rare situation to be trained in the skills needed as the monastery was under construction – a job mostly reserved for male talents and strength. I was sent there as the only woman among 28 men. At the time, I was married to one of them, but that didn’t get you a job there. Wives and husbands didn’t necessarily live together. I was given a large project of planting a very long hedge. They commented, if I could just drive the tractor, how much easier it would be to plant the half mile of pond edge. I said,” Well, can’t I learn?” “But you’re a girl !” This was 1985 and “city girls” didn’t commonly do these things. However I learned quickly to barely drive the tractor. It was easier for them to let me do it. Later I helped mow the orchards, disc and rototill. I learned to work with the men. They eventually gave me a lot of respect for being such a hard worker, strong and not defined by gender boundaries.
It was easy to rely on what a man said about equipment rather than listening to my own best judgment. While working at the monastery’s farm, I helped auger holes for posts and plants we were putting in. We needed 432 large, deep holes for big 15-gallon size plants and posts to set in concrete. I was working with an ancient Ford tractor and there was little money or time for parts or repairs. The brakes barely worked and the auger bit was so dull that sometimes, the only way to get it to dig was to jump on it. At the time, the macho guys would take the safety devices off a lot of the equipment. From this I learned: Always ask, when learning about new tools, if there has been anything removed.
I didn’t realize that the safety shield had been removed from the auger. If too much force or a hard object stops the auger from turning, it’s shear bolt can break. Digging the holes, we occasionally broke this shear pin, the area where it is on the auger is usually covered by the safety shield. We had run out of pins. Being way out in the country, two hours from town, we used what was on hand. I asked one of the other workers and he thought some threaded rod would work, bolting both sides. I relied on his confidence and ingenuity. The ends of the threaded rod stuck out past the bolts with rough metal edges. I pointed and said, “Shouldn’t we cut that off ?” He thought, “No need,” and I listened to him.
On that foggy morning using the auger, I was working with a new volunteer. He was upset that he had not yet received his stipend check and thought he was being taken advantage of. He was wearing many layers of clothing as we were working on a windy steep corner and it was cold. I was focusing on trying to hold the tractor, with bad brakes, in place on this steep edge. If I pushed with both feet and all my weight off the seat, I could hold the tractor steady, engage the PTO( the power take off, which turns the auger) and drill. My helper was in the back by the auger, directing the location and helping it to dig by jumping up and down on it. Being angry, he wasn’t focused, and having to deal with the brakes, I wasn’t focused. His coat sleeve got caught in the threaded rod of the turning auger, and I didn’t see it right away. When I did, it seemed like such a long time before I could get the auger stopped. His arm broke as it was turned into the auger, and his shoulder ripped badly. He was twisted into the auger. I called for help loudly, but was in shock.It’s still difficult to recall, it’s like a horrible dream to envision this memory and what it took to untangle him.
There were so many safety issues I wasn’t aware of and the people who should have been weren’t communicating about them. As the equipment operator, I was the responsible one. The man is alright now. After two surgeries, his arm and shoulder are relatively OK. He stayed at the monastery for the rest of his volunteer commitment of time.
I learned many lessons from my experience there as a gardener, that I take to heart now that I am applying my skills and creative energy to developing my own farm. Financial constraints contributed to the lack of proper parts for necessary repairs, working brakes and even the bad mood of the volunteer. Allowing inexperienced people to drive equipment or machines is risky and should be done under the supervision of a skilled operator, after several hours of careful instruction, with particular regard to safety and prevention of accidents. I’ve reflected upon my personal responsibility in the situation involving the injury of a coworker. I realize using heavy equipment isn’t always the way to complete a job, especially when the equipment is in poor repair. Maybe we should have just hand-dug those holes. Maybe my reflexes were not fast enough. Perhaps someone with more experience should have been behind the wheel.
Now I’m married to a equipment operator who is a real perfectionist. He drives the heavy equipment on our farm. He grew up on his families prune farm using equipment and he has good instinctive reactions in questionable situations.