Surviving a sick day as a small farmer

Published Jun 20, 2018 

Sick days. Most occupations come with a set of them. Call in to get the day off. Get caught up later. But what about sick days for farmers? Unfortunately, the growing season doesn’t provide any. We have to make space for themselves ourselves.

Last week, our family had a sickness hit some of the members. Some especially meaning me, though it also hit a few of our kids along the way. I lost three days to it, but we didn’t loss control of the farm in the process. What did we learn from getting hit at the height of the growing season? Let’s take a look.


First and foremost, the more complicated you make your farming operation to operate, especially until you can have additional help, the more difficult things will be if you go down during the growing season. Thus, the KISS rule, Keep it simple sir, is vitally important to small operations.

Having to care for ten crops vs twenty can make a big difference when hired help or friend or family member needs to step in. A few species of animals are easier to care for than a few handfuls. Since my older kids and wife step in to run the show when I am sick, it helps to keep things simple.

I don’t say this to slight them - generally speaking, I would put my 12 and 10 year old up against most 18-25 year olds in terms of work ethic and common sense. Instead, it is a reminder - if they struggle with taking over the operation when I am ill, then someone else is going to have an even harder time. Keep it simple so that others can succeed in your stead.

Don’t let tasks build up

This relates to keeping things simple. Don’t let tasks build up is the kind of advice that is “easier said than done.” I know a number of farmers who went into an illness with a long list of “I will get around to that” only to then get buried for the entire season because of a stomach flu or other late spring bug that took them out of action for a week or so.

Perhaps it is a fix to a watering system or a piece of equipment. Or some fence issue. Or insert issue X here. Things that you can handle okay because you can easily work around them, but that will really hamstring anyone who has to step into your shoes for a few days.

Again, I don’t know what it is for your operation, but I know that a few times we have paid a heavy price for delaying an important but not pressing task, only for it to turn into a big problem when I was ill or away from the farm. To give one example from our own experience, I invested in drip irrigation this year for our high tunnel, since we finally have sufficient square footage filled in with quality soil to make hand irrigation too onerous and impractical. I made a mental and physical note to get the irrigation material ordered in February, but didn’t actually get this task done until April. That meant that I was trying to put in the drip irrigation in the midst of also dealing with the very mean spring we have had, along with travel and work engagements.

You can see how much good almost $200 of drip irrigation is doing me at the moment.

Surviving a sick day as a small farmer

That resulted in me not getting it in even still, and thus having a great deal more daily work than I should to manage the high tunnel, but also being flummoxed trying to figure out how to get it properly installed in a tunnel with of stuff at various stages of growth, harvest, and turnover. Part of this is because of our overall inexperience high tunnel growing (we are on year two), but all of this is compounded because I left a particular task build up, since it was important but not urgent.

Now, the task is urgent, but much more difficult to figure out how to properly do - I have dozens and dozens of plants in the way. Lesson learned! Don’t let tasks pile up. Especially take advantage during the off season to keep the growing season under control.


A few modest investments can make unexpected interruptions far more easy to handle. Take watering. If all it involves is turning on a main line or a few other simple steps, then not only are you saving a great deal of time each day (and remember, time is money!), when things go wrong, someone else will easily be able to take your place.

Animal watering can and should also be automated as much as possible. Another option is to make the work as easy and infrequent as possible. For instance, set up two 300 gallon IBC totes instead of one tote or a few 50 gallon barrels to offer water to pigs, sheep, or similar animals.

Technology also makes high tunnels and many other areas of a farm automatable. While the cost may seem high, between the labor savings, flexibility and freedom it provides alone these investments are worthwhile. And, they make life infinitely easier when sickness or something else goes wrong.

Automation is a price we are willing to pay to let us get away to the lake for a day on occasion or take part in other such activities. Also, it is often far less expensive than needing a full time farm sitter.

Create Buffers for When Bad Things Happen

With the extreme heat, we are spending most of the midday indoors. Over 100 degrees with the heat index makes outdoor work pretty dangerous at this point. So, I am getting caught up in the office. That involves a lot of time online.

The internet is an interesting thing. Earlier today while working, one of my kids accidentally kicked the router, disconnecting the power. There went the internet.

The online writing program I use immediately became unavailable. But the streaming sports service keep going for over two minutes. The loss of power and time it took for the router to cycle back into service didn’t bother it at all and I experienced no interruption to the game I was listening to. Why? Because it had a buffer. The service was smart enough to know that in order to run smoothly, it should store up some data ahead of time in case the connection became slow or otherwise interrupted.

You should strive to do the same on your farm. What does a buffer look like? Well, perhaps you raise beef or pigs that get rotated through paddocks. Instead of having just one paddock set up ahead of time, why not two or three? While you want your animal feed to be as fresh as possible, do you really want to have only two or so days worth on hand?

There are many ways to buffer your operation, and operations are too diverse to give exact suggestions that would apply to everyone. But everyone can find ways to ensure that they aren’t always running right up against the risk of going off the rails. Create a buffer.  Maybe it is pre-positioning piles of mulch or straw for spreading.  Or applying compost to beds a few weeks ahead of actual planting if time permits.  Or getting trellising set up in your high tunnel before your tomatoes go into the ground.

Prioritize and Plan

During the growing season, everything seems important. But not everything is equally important! What is most important? Well, only you can know for your operation.

When a person goes down, you need to know what are the actual priorities, not just the perceived ones. What absolutely must be picked or planted? What animals absolutely must be moved? What tasks must happen and can’t wait until next week?

A strong farm plan will help make this clear (and a large farm should have a good, outlined plan for their growing season). Such a plan will become invaluable if a key member of your farm team goes down with illness.

This also naturally leads to the next section - paper protocols or farm manuals.

Paper Protocols

We operate under the assumption that we will need to be gone during the growing season and thus, need someone else to oversee the farm for a few days. So, we have “paper protocols” - written instructions for whoever is going to take care of things while we are gone. If you have followed the tips listed above - keeping things simple, automating as much as possible, etc. - then this list shouldn’t be overly long or complicated.

Yvette Stafford of Maplebrook Farm in Virginia is putting together a beautiful manual that keeps their bases covered for when travel, illness, or some other issue takes them away from the farm.

It doesn’t have to be this nice and this structured, but doing it on a computer and printing it makes additions, changes, and improvements far easier than just jotting things done.  Trust me, you will end up making many changes and improvements, especially after the first few times you use it. So I highly recommend you make your farm manual with a computer program of some sort and then print it instead of going straight to paper.

Call in the cavalry

If at all possible, make sure you have some people you can call on to lend a hand.  It is best if they have previous experience at your place.  There is a trade off between farmer and non-farmer friends, in our experience. Farmer friends will need less instruction and generally do better helping when the time comes.  They will have far less questions and will also often be able to figure stuff out without having to get you involved.  At the same time they are often hard to get because if you slammed since it is growing season, so are they!

Non-farmer friends will need more help, but that is why I listed this point last. The more you have followed the above advice, the smaller the issue of having a less experienced hand step in to keep things running semi-smoothly. So your pool of possible help or labor expands immensely by having a simplified, streamlined operation.

How do you handle being sick during the growing season? Especially if you are a produce or similar producer who has a great deal of weekly work that involves direct contact with your products, does that factor into your planning to ensure you don’t make a customer sick?