​​Aging Farmers

Farm Health and Safety Theater in Putnam County, Tennessee

Local farm families provide the actors for the Farm Safety and Health Dinner Theater. On May 3, in Cookeville, Tenn., the “actors” were (left to right) Mel Maxwell, Putnam County, and Denise Creason, Margie Hunter and Jimmy Cannon, all of White County. Photo courtesy UTIA. 


COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – Early in May professionals from University of Tennessee Extension and the University of Kentucky College of Nursing teamed together to present a unique opportunity to farmers.

More than 100 people attended a recent Farm Health and Safety Dinner Theater hosted by UT Extension offices from White, Putnam and Van Buren counties at the Jefferson Avenue Church of Christ in Cookeville. The dinner theater is the brain-child of Deborah Reed, an occupational health professor in the UK College of Nursing, and part of a large-scale study funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and led by Reed. She modeled it after the Readers’ Theatre, which was popular during World War II in Europe. Reed uses real stories from real farm families to draw attention to health and safety concerns among farm families. She adapts the scripts to the region where each particular theater will take place and uses select stories from the “actors” who are actually members of farm families from the area.

Scott Swoape, UT Extension Director and Agent in White County, noted that this event was the first time UT Extension in these three counties had co-sponsored an event with the University of Kentucky, and the first with a College of Nursing.

The tailored scripts are realistic and laced with humor to lighten the sometimes difficult discussions that farm families face about aging farmers and health and safety. “Farmers keep a lot to themselves, so they think they are the only ones with health issues or who are dealing with parents whose health and mental faculties are failing,” Reed said. “When we present the story about the hard conversation of taking Dad’s tractor keys, you can hear a pin drop. So, the theater interjects humorous stories to offset the emotional, but essential, components,” states Reed. She would know. Reed describes herself as a Kentucky farm girl. “My own family has gone through so many of the experiences in the play,” she adds.

During scheduled breaks in the action, Reed leads group discussions that address the storylines. “In those discussions it is amazing how the families open up to each other,” she says. “They realize their situations are not unique. It gives them permission to talk among themselves more freely. We can see changes taking place right in the room. Since we invite couples to come, they start talking right away,” she notes.

The average age of U.S. farmers is now 58 years old. Reed says the goal of the theater is to have families increase communication and to reorganize their work so they can farm in a healthier and safer way as they age.

Mel Maxwell, a Putman County cattleman and one of the actors in the Cookeville theater, noted that just reading the scripts made him think more about his own actions on the farm.

After the May event participants thanked the organizers for their efforts to bring the theater to the area. “This is the best thing we’ve had in a long time. It makes you think but it doesn’t preach at you. We are going to pass this information on to our sons who farm with us,” said one unidentified participant.

Swoape added that the program touched some deep emotions. “Farming is among the most dangerous and personal of occupations. Some of the attendees got really emotional as they addressed topics that are difficult for families to discuss. This program was a good way for Extension to address farming health and safety in a way that touches the audience.”

Persons who come to the theater commit to two phone calls afterward to evaluate the response to the play. Each person who completes those calls receives $25. “This is a win –win situation,” says Reed. “We are so glad to be able to partner with UT Extension on this project. It has launched a new energy in the state for promoting agricultural health and safety. We look forward to more collaborative work.”

The theater has been presented previously in Kentucky and in Sullivan County, Tennessee. Reed has funding to present additional performances. For more information on the theater, contact Dr. Reed at dbreed01@uky.edu

Through its mission of research, teaching and extension, the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture touches lives and provides Real. Life. Solutions. ag.tennessee.edu



Patricia McDaniels, UTIA Marketing and Communications, 615-835-4570, pmcdaniels@tennessee.edu