An awful lot of farmers I know over the age of 50 need hearing aids. Same goes for my friends in excavating, construction, cabinet making and a number occupations involving running loud machinery all day, every day. So far, my hearing is pretty good except in places with a lot of background noise. In which case, I only catch half of what is said, at best. In other words, don’t bother trying to have a conversation beyond who’s buying the next round with me at a loud bar. I’ll probably smile and nod like your story is funny even if you’re telling me about the untimely death of a relative. That’s awkward for both of us.
    Growing up, I don’t remember there being many options for hearing protection beyond the giant yellow marshmallows. I could squeeze those and sometimes force them into my ear canal only to have them pop out when I turned my head. They would hit my sweatshirt hood and fall into the grain auger never to be seen again.
    There were also orange and black earmuff-style hearing protectors that weren’t at all comfortable to wear and didn’t seem to actually stop much, if any, of the noise.
    Given the options available, I didn’t go out of my way to protect my hearing as a kid or even into my teenage years. In my teen years, I liked listening to music while doing field work, but none of our tractors had functional radios. I had a Walkman that could play tapes and the radio. I would crank it up to its maximum volume to hear the music over the whine of the old New Holland 499 mower conditioner. I don’t think that was a particularly good idea for keeping my hearing.
    I’m sure I’m not the only person on the planet guilty of doing something like that, and apparently it continues to be a problem. My iPhone informed me a while back it now has the ability to let me know if I’ve listened to music at too high a volume for too long. If someone bothered to program iPhones to shout, “Turn that down or you’ll go deaf,” then today’s youth haven’t changed substantially.
    Thankfully, 3M and a few other companies must have taken a look at their hearing protection products and asked their own employees why no one willingly wore the crappy products they produced. I imagine a smart person saw that people would like to both not hear the full volume of the piece of equipment they were running but would like to hear some music at a reasonable volume as well. From this dramatic leap in thinking, where they decided to actually provide customers the product they’d been asking for all along, was born hearing protectors with a radio. Soon you could get ones that plugged into a phone or MP3 player to listen to news and podcasts. You didn’t have to plug them in at all, and they could wirelessly communicate with Bluetooth. Finally, they made hearing protectors with a microphone so you could answer phone calls without taking them off. I have to say with the quality and features of today’s hearing protection, there’s not much of an excuse not to be wearing it when doing noisy work. I wear a pair of headphones all day because I like to listen to music and audiobooks while I work. The fact my hearing is protected is just a bonus.
    I’ve written about this in a lighthearted way, but seriously, hearing loss sucks for everyone. It’s extremely frustrating for the person who can’t hear and just as much so for the people shouting at them hoping they’ll accurately hear what they are saying. I’ve made sure my kids and employees understand the importance of hearing protection. Encourage yours to protect their hearing as well. And don’t forget: You are never too old to protect what hearing you have left. Until next time, keep living the dream and occasionally crank up those tunes and sing along.
    Tim Zweber farms with his wife Emily, their three children and his parents Jon and Lisa by Elko, Minnesota.