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Work Just Got a Whole Lot Easier for One Million Female Farmers

by Mark Hay

August 26, 2014

When Ann Adams and Liz Brensinger left their day jobs to become farmers in New Tripoli, PA, they were quickly introduced to the constant aches and pains that go hand in hand with modern agricultural labor. As the two women soon realized, despite all the mechanization and science utilized in farming these days, at its core it’s still a brutally physical task, and one that is uniquely and especially taxing on female farmers. Rather than chalk this up to the natural order of things, or some unavoidable work hazard, though, the ex-public health worker and former nonprofit consultant figured out that the problems they and other women were experiencing stemmed from using tools designed for men, who typically have more upper body strength, narrow hips, wider shoulders, and larger grips. So they did the only logical thing: Over the course of several years, Adams and Brensinger secured nearly half a million dollars in U.S. Department of Agriculture Small Business Innovation Research grants, measuring the angles, postures, and energy expenditures with which women use tools, and hiring an agricultural engineer and a therapist to work through the data with them. In 2008, they started Green Heron Tools, a company ranking and selling female-friendly gear, and this year they’ve made a breakthrough with the new HERShovel, a four-pound, angle-bladed, large D-handled shovel, designed specifically for women’s bodies.

The HERShovel is one of those rare, brilliantly simple solutions to an age-old problem. Women have long been a vital part of the agricultural workforce, and in the last three decades, the number of women running American farms has almost tripled, jumping from five to 14 percent between 1978 and 2007. Maybe a century ago, when mass replication was necessary and markets were a little harder to tap, it was defensible, or at least logical, to produce one-size-fits-all tools. But in the modern era, with over 300,000 female farm owners and one million female farm operators in America alone, it’s absurd that the HERShovel is the first dedicated-by-design farm tool for women.

HERShovel

Unfortunately, the farming world has never paid much attention to design, and most agricultural tools weren’t really constructed with the comfort of any farmer, male or female, in mind. Since 2001, agencies like the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have tried to promote ergonomics (the study of the best fit between tasks, tools, form, and the human body) within the agricultural sector. They’ve issued reports and tip sheets on modifying tools and tasks to combat the astronomical rates of muscular-skeletal disorders among agricultural laborers. And they’ve made a consistent, compelling case for the benefits of making simple changes to these tools—over the course of their lives, half of all agricultural workers will report chronic back pain, versus a third of all other manual laborers. These conditions can cost farmers up to $168 million per year in health and worker’s compensation costs, not to mention loss of productivity. Yet despite the fact that agriculture consistently misses the industry’s safety targets for lingering, work-related pain and disorders, there has been little groundbreaking innovation in the field over the past few years.

Some of this has to do with ergonomics proponents repeatedly suggesting the same cheap, but hard to enforce, behavioral changes, like wearing gloves or changing one’s working posture, that avoid total design overhauls. Some of it is can be attributed to entrenched mindsets. Adams and Brensinger, among others, have reported that men and women alike actually expect farm work to be awkward and arduous. And some of it is the systematic entrenchment of those expectations into law, with agricultural labor often exempted from proposed worker’s health changes.

Fortunately, over the last few years, some industry players have slowly lurched into action, designing lines of ergonomically-sound soil knives, hand plows, pruners, and other basic tools. Some of these, simply by dint of their efficient and friendly design, are approved by Green Heron as women-friendly. Green Heron Tools is also working on ever-more female-focused tools, like the upcoming lightweight, battery powered, adjustable-height rototiller. Now, the question is how to make these tools (or DIY how-to guides) cheap and available beyond niche markets, to those who need them most. Early projects, like a community-based program for the design and distribution of specialized hoes in Ghanaian farming communities, promise to address chronic health concerns for women and other vulnerable groups. But they desperately need to be publicized, funded, and scaled up if they’re going to make any kind of dent at all.  

Photos courtesy of Green Heron Tools

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