INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Far from the clatter of cities, the nation’s farmers are
assaulted every day by the earsplitting squeals of hundreds of hogs, the
roar of tractors and the incessant whine of grain dryers during the fall
An estimated one-third of the nation’s three million farmers have some level
of hearing loss caused by their inner ears’ daily bombardment from sounds
that can rival a rock concert’s sonic impact. Even farmers still in their
20s can end up with the muffled hearing of someone in middle age if they
fail to protect their hearing.
“You just can’t get away from the machinery. We’re driving those tractors
and they’re so goddamn loud,” said Tom Duerst, a 55-year-old Wisconsin dairy
farmer with partial hearing loss he attributes to farm noises he was exposed
to in his youth.
Many farmers are on their own when recognizing their elevated risk of
hearing loss, because only the largest U.S. farms operate under federal
workplace safety regulations. Though the risks have been known for decades,
only more recently have nonprofits, university researchers and federal
agencies focused on trying to educate farmers and their children how to
avoid hearing loss by wearing sound-cutting earmuffs or ear plugs.
Design changes in farm machinery, such as tractors, has made some equipment
run quieter, but many still use older, noisier models. And livestock - such
as hogs and chickens - packed into barns still produce the same cacophony of
noises; a squealing hog, for example, can be as loud as a running
To nudge farmers to protect themselves, farm extension service educators
often highlight sobering noise-impact facts at trade shows or conventions.
And 4-H programs and some Future Farmers of America chapters use online
resources to urge the next generation to wear earmuffs or ear plugs to ward
off noises such as operating a tractor without a cab - which can damage
hearing in only 15 minutes without protection.
Duerst recalls spending hours as a youth around rumbling tractor engines and
loud milking machines on the 500-acre dairy farm he now co-owns near
“That was just normal when you were a kid. That was just life,” he said. He
is certain now those noises are the cause of his partial hearing loss.
In his late 20s, Duerst began using earmuffs during clay pigeon shoots. He
realized the same equipment could protect his hearing when he operated an
open-cab tractor. Now, all of the farm’s tractors are equipped with
headphones that are permanently attached by cords for convenience - and as a
constant reminder to use them.
Grain farmer Charles Schmitt, a 63-year-old who farms more than 2,000 acres
of corn and soybeans near the southwestern Indiana town of Haubstadt, said
he also suffered hearing loss in his youth from exposure to tractors and
other noises. He’s worn protection for about five years, as does his son.
Schmitt said most of the machinery he uses these days isn’t as loud as
“Sometimes you’ll get a piece of equipment that’s louder than it ought to
be. It’s a blast compared to what most people are used to,” he said. “When
it’s loud we either stay a little farther away, or add to our hearing
Implement manufacturers have started making quieter tractors and machinery.
Deere & Co., which makes John Deere tractors, has added sound-dampening
panels to the roofs of their tractor cabs and incorporated sound-absorbing
laminated glass and other features, company spokesman Ken Golden said.
While the general adult U.S. population has seen improvements in hearing
since the 1970s, when federal workplace safety rules began, the threat to
farmers really only entered the national spotlight in the past five or so
years, said Gordon Hughes, director of clinical programs for the National
Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.
Hughes said repeated exposure to noises in excess of 85 decibels -
comparable to the sound of heavy city traffic - damages tiny nerve endings
called hair cells inside the cochlea, the inner ear’s pea-sized hearing
“This is all cumulative, not just one day, but the next day adds more, the
day after that adds even more. And farm activities tend to be repetitive,”
Hughes estimates more than a third of the nation’s three million farmers
likely have some level of noise-induced hearing loss, but noted it’s a
conservative figure as some research suggests nearly three-quarters of
farmers have some level of hearing loss.
Billy Martin, an audiologist at Oregon Health & Science University in
Portland, said more farmers than ever are aware of the risks, but many
others don’t seem to recognize the threat or the easy steps they can take to
protect their hearing.
“The culture can be sort of like, ‘Don’t worry about it, it’s just part of
life and if you get hearing loss, well your grandfather had hearing loss and
his father before him did - it’s part of the deal,’” Martin said.
Research published in 2006 found that 2,700 male farmers from mostly
Illinois, Indiana and Iowa had dramatically higher levels of hearing loss
between the ages of 20 and 60 than people who don’t work in loud
Most of the data came from hearing tests performed on farmers who attended
the annual Farm Progress trade show during a 10-year period ending in the
James Lankford, a now-retired professor of audiology at Northern Illinois
University who co-authored the study, said when those farmers’ sons watched
the tests, they were stunned by the degree of their fathers’ hearing loss.
“The younger farmers, the ones who were going to take over the farm,
realized how significant a hearing loss they could face by working without
ear protections,” he said. “... It was really enlightening for them.”
“Keeping It Down On the Farm":