This summer, a young female farmer posted the following message on Facebook:
My husband is the worst ever at hand signals. Ten yrs. farming together and I still have no freaking clue what he is trying to signal to me. It would help if he actually used conventional signals and not his own secret signal code that nobody can decipher.
Within hours of this post there were 578 comments from farm women around North America. I asked permission to share some of those comments so we could talk about the risks involved when communication breaks down on the farm and recognize the conversation that needs to take place to ease the frustration for farming families.
Misunderstood hand signals are a source of tension on the farm because they are often invented and not shared. In rushed times partners may assume that they are understood but as the post indicates, those on the receiving end of the signal are left bewildered and lost.
Many women just call it quits. In the responding posts, they spoke of walking back to the house in frustration after suffering “the name calling and ridiculous faces.” But most were just tired of “being yelled at” and quit, leaving hubby to his own solutions. As one woman stated, “Over 30 years of trying to figure out which way I was to go… finally I just walked back to the house… it was a long walk.”
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I would assume the walk was also a wee bit sad as we would all prefer to get along with our farming partners.
But the misinterpretation of signals was a common theme as many farmers make up their own hand signals and don’t use a standard set. One young mom thought that middle finger rotated in a circle meant “one more round” and she just kept going on with her swathing. Another talked of the “strange gang signs” that her husband used which only confused matters and ended in some lip reading exercise to save the day.
All women talked about the extensive levels of exaggerated movements and anger that they were exposed to while working with their farming partners.
This causes stress and anxiety, especially when the driver is asked to do things that are unsafe. Excessive verbal abuse and exaggerated body signals caused one gal to be so frustrated that she accidentally dumped her man out of the front-end loader. He wasn’t hurt and she cheerfully chimed in that “after 43 years of marriage, I don’t get the finger any more.” Lesson learned.
I most certainly am not saying that this is solely a male issue nor do I believe all men use irrational man signals and angry words. But as one woman reflected, it “seems to be global. It is especially interesting when he is in a bucket 10 feet in the air. I just say my crystal ball is broken… just yell like he usually does.”
My first question is: What is he doing in the bucket 10 feet in the air?
The unsafe practices of farmers were an underlying theme throughout the comments. We have guys in buckets and on top of buildings. And children “in skid steers and on top of rickety old roofs trying to hook up chains.” This speaks to more than the issue of misunderstood hand signals and gets to the core of safety on the farm.
What conversation needs to take place before we step into the twilight and try to back a truck into a new bin or before cattle are sorted or children are deployed? Some equipment is not meant for the space it is in, lighting may be poor, mirrors may be broken, and the exact location of the machine may not be clear. It is important to light areas, ensure the discussion takes place ahead of time regarding the expectation of the driver and the one signalling. Ensure the children are not playing around the bins and equipment. Sometimes it just takes a few extra tries to do it on our own rather than pulling a young mom out of the house at night with children on her hip for help to back something up.
As for that bucket being 10 feet in the air, I have seen this — with a ladder set up inside! That’s not safe, it is insane. To be fair to the farm children, not participating in the demise of one’s spouse might be a valid option.
And how about those kids “on the rickety roof” — why were they there? As adults we must stop to consider what we are asking our children to do.
There are solutions and it starts with a conversation.
First, what are the expectations of the day? Is someone expected to be called out to help right when the baby needs a bath? If so, what is a fair way of ensuring the safety and comfort of the family during this time? What is going to happen?
Does someone need a spare driver, parts, or food delivered at a specific time? Help moving stock or equipment? Are there cattle to be sorted? Why? Which ones go where? What does that look like and what are the roles and responsibilities?
If there is to be some sort of signalling, then what are the signals that this family uses? Cutting the drama and the temper can make for an enjoyable experience for the one lending a helping hand. It is not fair to ask someone to understand your language without ever exposing them to it.
Farm Credit Canada has a poster with standard hand signals (Google ‘FCC hand signals’). Our family uses another set — but uses them consistently.
And maybe that is the point, whatever the signals are, they should be shared, discussed, and displayed. In all types of farming, it is important to have these little meetings at the beginning of the day and to brief the family if things change.
On the farm, we are all in this together. And respecting the rights and needs of each other by providing a safe, caring environment in which adults and children can flourish is based on respect and communication — be that by word or hand signal.