Child care options on and off the farm

By Jennifer Nelson, MOSES Organic Specialist

Go to main Farm Safety for Children webpage

Our last farm delivery of flowers and food was a couple of weeks ago, and the first patchy frost conveniently came on the next night. As the farm season draws to a close, I reflect on the wonderful conversations I’ve had with farmers through my work with Children’s Farm Safety at MOSES field days and beginning farmer programs.

I’ve chatted with farmer mamas and papas. I’ve also been very impressed with many conversations with farmers-to-be who don’t have children yet, but are planning ahead. They show wonderful forethought into the reality of raising children on the farm.

A shared sentiment has come up again and again; we love to farm, and we value the great benefits growing up on a farm affords our children. We love the:

  • Wide open spaces to play in
  • Inspired passion, love and respect for land
  • Strong bond with family and land
  • Understanding of the life/death cycle
  • Authentic responsibility to work and work ethic
  • Good health
  • Good relationships with animals

With the wonderful benefits, we also recognize the challenges and risks that accompany farming with family. The biggest challenge we all seem to encounter is balancing parenting with the work that needs to get done. We’re always parenting, even when we’re farming. How do we do both effectively and safely?

Many families choose on or off-farm childcare. The farm situation, and value versus cost for child care differ for all families. In my experience it takes some time and trying different things to determine what is best.

Some families have used a sitter share, where the farmer trades a share of produce or meat in exchange for child care. Some families choose to drive the child for paid off-farm care. Some families choose to hire a caregiver for their children on the farm. Some farm families have a community of farms in their area to share childcare with, each family taking one morning a week.

While there is no perfect scenario, here’s what has worked for our family.

We’ve had both on and off-farm childcare for our son, and also shared child care with another mama. All the situations had plus sides, and some challenges, and were right for us at different times in my son’s development and age.

When he was younger, it worked really well to hire an on-farm caregiver so I could be near him if he needed something. The key to the success of this situation was having good boundaries of what areas on the farm were play areas, and what were work areas. It was really necessary for us to be in agreement with the caregiver on where they could safely play, and not distract us from our work, and what would be an unsafe situation.

We loved that our son could be present with us on the farm safely, with his caregiver always present too. It took a little for all of us to get used to, especially that I (his mama) was there, but not taking care of him. We adjusted in a couple of weeks, and he flourished with his new caregiver. This situation was also a great opportunity to give his caregiver a farm experience, we always tried to send her home with some good veggies or flowers for the week.

Last farm season, as he was nearing four years in age, he began going for care three mornings a week to a caregiver with two other children his age. Especially when we first started, the challenge of the social interaction and new location and relationships have resulted in some really important growth for him, emotionally and mentally.

After a month or two of difficult separations, he began to thrive in this situation, too. He now has a quality, trusting relationship not only with his new caregiver, but also with his new little friends. While it has been more expensive to pay for off-farm care, the value for our child’s growth has been much more than just the assurance he was safely cared for.

Another constant presence (spoken and unspoken) that has informed our parenting decisions, and has proven integral to the choice for our child care is the risk of potential injury or even death on our farm.

Farming is one of the most dangerous occupations, and is especially dangerous for children because it’s the only workplace where children are regularly present. While we recognize that statistically proven fact, in the busyness of the day-to-day reality of getting the work done, we can lose sight of safety first.

Right now it’s working best for our family to have our son in off-farm child care. As he progresses in age and developmental ability, he’ll be more present in our day-to-day work life. Clear boundaries, accountability and teaching, teaching, teaching will be our key tools to guide that process. Stay tuned for a quickly upcoming post on teaching age-appropriate farm activities, guided by my work on the Next Generation Ag Work Guidelines North American Steering Committee, and good old Elementary Education college degree.


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