by: Bruce and Wendy-Ellen Nittel

Bruce Nittel

Bruce Nittel

My husband, Bruce, began farming/ranching with his dad, Herb, in 1970. Previously he had worked for two of his uncles on ‘dude’ ranches in BC and a farm in southern Alberta near Orion. You could say he grew up surrounded by men who loved to work with animals and the land.

A sole proprietorship is Bruce’s legal entity for the ‘Nittel Family Farm’. Since taking over the farm in 1975, it’s been a job he’s handled mostly by himself—with no others around him. It’s a solo job. This is also the case for most family farms/ranches near our place. And like many farmers, Bruce has had a number of serious incidents around the farm over the years—a testament to the unique hazards and challenges of this type of work.

A scary look at eye safety

One of Bruce’s first incidents as a sole proprietor occurred while he was checking cows in 1982. He needed to put a neighbour’s bulls back into their own field. While he was pulling a fencing nail out from a drop-gate post, another nail suddenly sprang out and the blunt end hit him in his right eye. Bruce dropped to the ground in pain and held his eye—by instinct. He thought he had lost his eye. He drove to his dad’s house and told him the bulls were still in the pasture before returning home. His pupil was as big as his blue iris. Being a tough farmer he did not go to town to see a doctor right away. Bruce made himself supper and called it a night.

The next two days Bruce went to stack bales for another neighbour and had difficulty focusing with his blurry eye. He persevered and managed to get the job done. But his pupil remained dilated and his vision was still blurry. Through the help of some very talented and dedicated doctors, a successful procedure many years later restored Bruce’s vision by removing the damaged lens in his eye and replacing it with an “ocini ring” and a new lens.

A lone fall

When we had our present house moved onto its foundation in 1984, there wasn’t a ‘hole’ for the stairs to the basement. Bruce was cutting the hole into the basement through the factory-installed flooring—again a job done by himself—when the plywood underneath the linoleum broke and he fell onto the cement pad where the tele-posts had been set. Unable to walk from the pain, he crawled to the ladder and out the window. He had to crawl about 300 feet to our original homestead house in order to call his dad to take him to emergency. Bruce had broken his ankle. He was casted and told to stay off his leg for at least a week. That didn’t happen. Bruce still had 80 acres of crop to combine and had to ask his brother-in-law to oversee the pouring of the basement floor.

Pinned in the dark

Bruce was baling overnight in July 2007. Bruce had stepped out of his tractor around 3 am to check if the baler tailgate had completely closed. He stepped behind the baler and the tractor-baler unit rolled back onto his right leg, pinning him under the baler wheel. He tried to dig himself out of his predicament but was unable to free his leg. With his cell phone in the tractor, he could not call for help.

A semi-driver was returning to Medicine Hat when he noticed that the tractor-baler unit he’d passed earlier hadn’t moved. He saw Bruce waving his white shirt and stopped in order to help Bruce at 6:15 am. I was not expecting him home until around 9 in the morning, so I wouldn’t worry until noon as he would typically service the tractor and baler before coming home. Bruce was lucky! He had no broken bones or crushed muscles — only a friction burn from the tire pressing on his leg. A neighbour finished baling the following night.

A winter slip

Bruce loves animals and ensures that ours are fed and healthy. In March 2014 he slipped on ice taking cat food to the barn and dislocated his shoulder. He finished the chore and went to put the feed container back in the old house. When he came up to the house later, I knew he was suffering as he allowed me to cut his hoodie off in our back hallway. We headed to the hospital and Bruce started physiotherapy and had rotator cuff surgery that August. Bruce was told he would not be able to lift the weights he was able to in the past as his shoulder would only have 80% of his former lifting capacity.

Long-term exposure to hazardous chemicals

Bruce began farming before personal protective equipment (PPE) was a normal part of standard farming practice. In past years, it was not unusual for farmers to expose themselves to hazardous chemicals on the job. Clearing a clog in a sprayer tip containing pesticide- or herbicide-infused water by blowing in the hose with their mouth was a customary practice. It was also not uncommon for Bruce to be covered in pink dust after seeding barley with a fungicide he placed in the seeder to kill wireworms and cutworms before they could attack the emerging barley’s root system. It might have been a pretty colour, but it wasn’t pretty in the long run. On another occasion, Bruce was treating cattle for warbles, wearing only gloves for protection, when a leaky nozzle caused Ivermectin (pesticide) to run down his arm and saturate his shirt.

The damage from these chemicals—herbicides and pesticides—did not cause any immediate trouble to Bruce until his white blood count came back as unusual. In 2014, after many blood tests over a few years he was diagnosed with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL), Stage 0. We were told his type of cancer was quite often diagnosed in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan and they sometimes referred to it as the “farmer’s cancer” due to the causality. The plan was to ‘watch and wait’ as research had shown that treatment at this stage was not necessary.

But Bruce’s white blood count continued to rise. We were assured that CLL can be a slow-moving cancer and his oncologist said he would probably die from old age before his cancer. In the years since, blood tests have increased in frequency, and in December 2023, Bruce was at the point where ‘watch and wait’ was over. His blood count was placing him just below the level to consider him to have Stage One, CLL. To treat the cancer, Bruce could choose to take a chemotherapy pill twice a day for the rest of his life, chemotherapy via injection (with many trips to town for this procedure), or wait until his blood count was worse. He chose the chemotherapy pills and his treatment began shortly after Christmas. Only time will tell if this was the right decision for Bruce and our family.

What’s most important

Like other farmers and ranchers, Bruce chose this life because farming is in his blood and a farmer is who he is. We know now that we can’t afford to treat safety as anything separate from the job anymore—”safely” has to be the way we do the job.

Over the past 5 decades of Bruce’s career, health and safety standards and awareness have increased greatly in agriculture and farming, providing greater protections for farmers and other agricultural workers.

Safety is so important and should be an integral part of any farming/ranching occupation. Ensure you are using the latest safety information when working with chemicals and equipment. The life you save may be your own!

Wendy-Ellen Nittel