This month marks a rather auspicious birthday for our youngest daughter. Margaret is turning 16 and cannot wait to be a fully licensed driver.
Of course, she is no different from many kids her age. I was no different, either. A driver’s license meant the opportunity to get out of the house on my own terms and time schedule, to see my friends and do things without being tethered to my parents. It also meant getting a job, a paycheck, and freedom.
As a farm kid, Margaret has been driving all sorts of equipment from a pretty young age—younger than perhaps many non-farm parents would think is appropriate. She started driving our electric golf cart around our fields at the tender age of seven. She was maybe ten years old when she eagerly volunteered to drive the skid steer and move hay bales while Dad baled. She now wraps bales using our New Holland TS110 and gladly drives our cars or pickup truck up around the farm.
She is fearless.
Much of this confidence is due to her experiences on the farm. She can parallel park, use her side mirrors, even back up a trailer—which is far more than I can say for myself 10 years ago, much less at her age. She has even started “shopping” for her first vehicle.
My husband Peter remembers learning how to drive his grandpa’s little John Deere 2020. He was 12 or so at the time and would spend summers on his grandparents’ beef and grain operation in Willmar, Minnesota. He loved to help mix the cows’ rations and feed them, all under Grandpa Heymer’s watchful eye.
Before driving the tractor, little Peter would ride behind the seat, standing behind Grandpa while pulling the mixer. In retrospect, it was an extraordinarily dangerous place to be. If he had slipped, he would have fallen onto the spinning PTO or slipped under the heavy tires.
All of these scenarios are dangerous, of course. And despite best efforts on the part of their parents, farm kids are often exposed to potentially hazardous situations.
I believe I have written about this before—how farm families a.) are accustomed to using the equipment on their farms and over time become relatively comfortable with a certain measure of risk and how to manage it and b.) teach their children who are exposed to these risks how to stay safe, allowing them to learn and help on the farm as their age and abilities increase.
That is not to say farm accidents do not happen. They absolutely do. In fact, according to the US Government Accountability Office, more than half of the kids (ages 15-17) that died in work-related accidents from 2003-2016 were working in agriculture. Considering that such a small minority of the population works on farms, this is an alarming statistic. Operating machinery or driving ATVs and other vehicles accounted for a large portion of those fatalities.
Growing up in town, I did not learn how to drive until my dad took me out for my first lesson in our 1981 Ford Escort station wagon. Simultaneously driving manual transmission, checking my mirrors, obeying traffic laws, and avoiding accidents was stressful! I had no concept of my vehicle’s size or its power, and curbs seemed to appear out of nowhere for me to hit. I was unaccustomed to listening to the engine and understanding when to shift gears. The entire experience could not have felt more foreign. Meanwhile, my dad chuckled at me the entire time; he knew I would get it eventually.
Ask anyone who grew up on a farm about their experiences and I think you will hear how much they loved the freedom, the opportunity to add value by helping out, and working hard. They also likely gained an enormous amount of confidence in their physical and spatial abilities. It is where they learned the mechanics of engines large and small—and how to pull things apart in order to fix them. There is a can-do, independent streak woven into every farm kid.
It is hard to watch as our youngest daughter grows up and takes those big, next steps. But we have given her 16 years of responsibilities and learning opportunities. Our Margaret is more than ready to pass the written exam and prepare for her road test. She is better prepared than most!