As the county ag literacy coordinator, I’ll often ask students to describe what a farmer looks like. Regardless of the grade, the class or the school, the students describe a farmer always wearing the same three articles of clothing – boots, overalls and a straw hat.
Their description doesn’t stray far from what they’ve seen in many children’s books, and today that image persists as the classic, romantic picture of the American farmer. However, there was and is a purpose to all those clothing items, particularly the straw hat.
Farmers are outdoor workers. Whether sun, rain, sleet and snow, farmers will spend a good chunk of their day outside, and while all the elements can be challenging, the sun can be particularly brutal. Today, we know the dangers of prolonged sun exposure. The use of sunscreen, swim shirts, and hats is no longer a fringe movement, but has been accepted by society.
For farmers, however, the straw hat was the first avenue of sun protection. The hats are designed with big brims to cover, the neck, the shoulders, the face and the ears. The popular baseball cap style does little to protect from sun’s rays. Because of their straw structure, the hats are light weight and airy, serving to cool the farmer on hot summer days.
After a skin cancer scare, my grandfather started wearing a straw hat and long-sleeve shirts, even on the hottest summer days. He chastised my dad, who always wore a seed corn cap, pointing out the lack of coverage the style of a baseball cap offered. Then one day, a straw hat showed up for Dad.
These days, when my dad or brother spends hours on an open-air tractor cutting hay, raking or baling, they wear a straw hat. My son started working in the hayfields in earnest this summer and I did a quick search for a kids’ straw hat, but came up empty. He dutifully, however, applied the sunscreen I sent with him.
Straw hats, obviously, aren’t the total solution to sun protection. We’ve all heard the recommendations of applying sunscreen (broad-spectrum, SPF 15 or higher every two to three hours). But for farmers, recommendations go further:
- Plan outdoor work for times when the sun’s rays are not as intense (before 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m.).
- Use tractors with cabs or outfit open-air tractors with shades or umbrellas while doing fieldwork during the day.
- Wear light colored clothing, including pants and long-sleeve shirts.
- Wear sunglasses to protect your eyes.
- Apply sunscreen to areas of the skin that are exposed, including lips. Lip balms with an SPF 15 are recommended.