Puzzle pieces laying over a city building.
Updated: March 15, 2023
By Neith Little

The human element: rights and responsibilities, safety and stress

The human element of farming is too often overlooked, but vitally important. It is, after all, why many people farm in the first place: to feed people, to employ people, to provide a good quality of life for oneself and one’s loved ones.

This chapter will help you learn how to proactively protect the physical and mental health of yourself, anyone else working on your farm, your customers, and your community. It will also talk about how to work towards the long-term sustainability of your farm by engaging your community and planning how you will pass the baton.

Many of these topics could benefit from a full chapter on their own, and much has been written about them already. This chapter will focus on putting these topics in the context of urban farming. Additional reading is recommended on the topics most relevant to your situation.

Physical health and safety

Physical farm safety risks are very specific to individual farms. Urban farms might need to consider safety related to small-scale farm equipment, hand-tool ergonomics, heat and sun exposure, air quality, pest control products (including organic sprays!), and youth on the farm. A farm task safety audit can help you think through tasks specific to your farm, and how to reduce the risk of injury. All farms should have an emergency response plan, and include it in trainings for workers and volunteers.

Mechanized equipment used on urban farms might include small vegetable tractors, walk-behind tractors, tillers, lawn mowers, weed whips, carpentry tools, and chainsaws.

Figure 1: NEVER clear a jammed or clogged piece of equipment with your hand. Photo by Neith Little, UMD Extension.
Figure 1: NEVER clear a jammed or clogged piece of equipment with your hand. Photo by Neith Little, UMD Extension.

There is a lot to learn about how to use these tools safely, but the most important safety tip is to take your time and take breaks as needed. Tractors and power tools are unforgiving of the mistakes that you will make when you hurry or push yourself beyond exhaustion, hunger, and heat stress. Never, ever, try to clear a jammed tiller or mower with your hand.

Tool banks or hardware stores that rent out power tools may offer safety classes for those borrowing tools. In the links at the end of this chapter, the Power Tool Institute has a great one-page safety tip sheet and Penn State Extension has guide to the most common riding tractor safety risks.

Ergonomic considerations will save you literal pain in the future. Back and shoulder injuries and chronic pain (work-related musculo-skeletal disorders) are common among farmers and farm-workers and can be disabling. But these injuries are preventable. You can practice good form and adapt tools and workstations to make lifting and carrying loads and performing repetitive physical work safer. For example, something as simple as choosing harvest totes with handles can make the tote easier to carry and reduce the risk of back injury. For more principles of ergonomics, and case studies of adaptations, see Simple solutions: Ergonomics for farm workers by Baron et al. (2001).

If you are in a leadership position on your farm, it is important that you set a good example by proactively taking care of your body and working with others to lift heavy items. You might consider adopting a restorative physical practice such as stretching, yoga, or tai chi. Strength training in the off season, particularly of the core muscles, may also help prevent back strain.

Implementing health and safety measures is wise, but certain minimum measures are required by law. Maryland Occupational Safety and Health (MOSH), a division of the Department of Labor and Licensing Regulation, sets and enforces standards for workplace safety and health. MOSH standards for agricultural work largely mirror the federal Occupational Safety & Health Act standards, which set the baseline measures to reduce and manage safety risks associated with use of heavy machinery (e.g. tractors) and also include basic requirements for hygiene and drinking facilities. Specific regulations are listed in OSHA Part 1928: Occupational Safety and Health Standards for Agriculture. See the links at the end of the chapter for this reference, as well as articles to help you understand whether you are complying with MOSH standards.

Heat-exposure and sun-exposure are health risks for anyone who works outdoors. Safety precautions are necessary to reduce the risk of life-threatening illnesses such as heat stroke and skin cancer. Everyone, regardless of skin tone, can be at risk of developing skin cancer, and should take precautions to minimize sun exposure.

The risk of heat-related illnesses is increased by high humidity and inside high tunnels. Certain individuals may be at higher risk of experiencing heat-related illnesses, including older individuals, infants, and people with circulatory or heart conditions. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has published a chart to guide employers in managing the risk of heat-related illness. For more and up-to-date information, visit https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/heatstress/index.html

Figure 2: Heat risk management guidance table from OSHA
Figure 2: Heat risk management guidance table from OSHA

In urban areas, air quality is an additional risk to consider when working outdoors. Air pollutants such as ozone and particulate matter vary from day to day depending on weather conditions such as wind speed and atmospheric inversions. The US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) monitors air quality and offers an online Air Quality Index forecast: https://www.airnow.gov/index.cfm?action=airnow.main

When using any pesticide, even products labelled for use on organic farms, you must follow the instructions on the label. The label should include safety precautions to take.

Certain pesticides are only available for purchase to people who have undergone advanced training: these are called Restricted Use Pesticides. In Maryland, people who are allowed to purchase Restricted Use Pesticides must be certified by the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

Other, general use pesticides are available for sale “over the counter” so to speak. These include organic products commonly used by urban farmers, such as neem oil, Bacillus thuringiensis (BT), kaolin clay, and concentrated vinegar. These products should still be treated with respect and used according to labelled instructions. Farms or businesses that use pesticides likely will need to comply with the Worker Protection Standard (WPS). For a quick introduction to your responsibilities under the WPS, see the UMD Extension factsheet “What Farmers Need to Know about the Worker Protection Standard” by Little and Everhart (2019).

If youth are an important part of your urban agriculture work, it will be important to consider their safety, and what learning and working experiences are developmentally appropriate for their ages. Penn State Extension has a very helpful article on children and safety on the farm, with a table showing appropriate farm work tasks and safety risks to consider for different age ranges (Murphy 2014).

Keep in mind that the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and other state laws impose limits on child labor, such that minors may only work outside of school hours and youths under 16 are generally limited to non hazardous job duties. Hazard-based limitations are set by age brackets and may require prior certification or training. For more information, see Child Labor Laws in Agriculture: What You Need to Know.

Additionally, soil contamination is a risk that disproportionately affects youth. So testing for metal contaminants like lead is advised in particular for farms and gardens where youth will be visiting and working. For more on soil contamination risk management, see the Production chapter.

For the above risks, and for others more specific to your own situation, a safety audit can help identify sources of risk and ways to reduce that risk. The article linked above on youth on-farm safety has a template for one kind of safety audit, that helps the reader walk through the steps of a specific activity to identify where injuries could occur. Another kind of safety audit template is a checklist of common farm safety risks (Runyon 2009).

Proactively planning to reduce safety risks as described above is meant to prevent injuries and emergencies. But the final step in being prepared is to have an emergency response plan, and to clearly communicate that plan to visitors and as part of employee and volunteer trainings. Look back at the topics described above and consider which could result in an emergency situation at your farm or garden. What would you need on hand to respond to that situation effectively? What actions would you and others on your team need to take to protect people’s safety? For example, if you needed to direct emergency first responders to your location, do you know the street address of the location where you work? Does everyone on your team know the address? Is it visible from the road?

First aid training might be worth pursuing. If you want to be able to respond with first aid in an emergency situation, be sure to keep your first aid certification current and understand the duty of care that you enter into once you begin administering first aid (Williams 2017). A wilderness first aid class might be more relevant to the types of injuries and illnesses you could encounter working outdoors, such as heat stress and sprains.

Mental health and stress management

"I need to fix the problem, I don't have time to de-stress." That’s how I felt about stress management until very recently.

However, no matter how hard you work, life is going to continue being stressful. And farming can be a particularly stressful profession: long hours of both physical and social labor, with unpredictable weather and financial challenges.

The chronic stress of dealing with these challenges can, over time, negatively affect your physical and mental health. When you remain constantly in a “fight-or-flight” stress response state for a long period of time, the elevated levels of stress hormones in your body can cause long-term changes in your body that increase your risk of heart attack or stroke.

And if you spend all your time on the farm feeling worried, angry, frightened, and discouraged, over time you will no longer want to farm. The pressure and risk of burnout is greater the higher-stakes your farm goals are, whether your goals are to make a full living from farming or to address big systemic problems in your community through your urban agriculture work.

This means that problems on the farm require a two-pronged approach: both working towards solving the root cause of the problem and working to take care of yourself regardless of the outcome. Regularly working to get your mind and body out of stress mode is a productive use of your time.

University of Maryland Extension has gathered farm stress and mental health resources online: https://extension.umd.edu/programs/agriculture/program/integrated-programs/farm-stress-management/stress-management

For help finding a health-care provider relevant to your needs, check out the Maryland Network of Care website: https://portal.networkofcare.org/Sites/Maryland They have a surprisingly intuitive web-tool for finding mental and behavioral health care providers and not-for-profits.

Health insurance

Finding and paying for health insurance and health care is an enormous challenge for entrepreneurs.

Many farmers say that getting health insurance coverage for their family is the primary motivation for someone in the family working off-farm. A national survey of farmers found that 41% of farm households get their health insurance from an off-farm employer, 28% directly purchase a private policy, and 24% use a public health insurance program such as CHIP, Medicare, or Medicaid. Patching together health insurance coverage from among the many options available can be confusing and expensive. In 2016, farm households paid, on average, $659 per month on health insurance premiums (Becot and Inwood 2019).

For those farmers who are employers themselves, finding a way to support their employees’ health care can be an even bigger challenge. The Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP) is a program through the federal Health Insurance Marketplaces to help small businesses offer health insurance to their employees. Health Reimbursement Accounts are another option that offers the employer tax advantages (Pippidis 2018).

Despite the challenge, health insurance is a very important risk management tool. Farming is a physically taxing profession, and an injury or illness can quickly put the future of the farm in jeopardy.

University of Maryland Extension gathers health insurance information for farmers online here: https://extension.umd.edu./programs/family-consumer-sciences/health-insurance-literacy/farmers

In particular, the article “Farm Operations and Health Care Insurance” by Maria Pippidis, does a good job of explaining the options and key concepts.

Employees and volunteers

A farmer has certain responsibilities towards anyone working on their farm, which are legally defined by local, state, and federal labor laws.

It is important to understand that there are important legal differences between employees and volunteers. Additionally, for profit businesses are not supposed to accept volunteer labor, and even not-for-profit farms may run into legal trouble with volunteers and unpaid interns.

But wait, you say, farms host volunteers all the time! Some farms offer “sweat-equity” CSA shares which discount the share price in exchange for volunteer work on the farm. Other farms offer unpaid “internships” or “apprenticeships,” occasionally providing lodging and food to these interns. And, famously, the WOOF program matches voluntourists with organic farms around the world.

However, labor laws, like the minimum wage and workers compensation rules, generally do apply to farm interns and volunteers. There are good reasons why we have labor laws. They are meant to protect workers from exploitation, abuse, and unsafe working conditions.

You might have the best of intentions towards people working on your farm. But good intentions are not enough. Whether your farm is organized as a for-profit or not-for-profit, failing to understand and comply with labor laws exposes your farm to legal and financial risk.

If your farm has employees, volunteers, interns, apprentices, or anyone who works in exchange for food or lodging, you should learn more about labor laws and consider how to manage your farm’s responsibilities and risks. Conversely, if you are a farm worker, it’s also a good idea to learn more about your rights under labor laws. Even if your farm has no paid employees, it’s worth learning more about labor laws.

Here are three references that will help you learn more:

Hiring and retention:

Every urban farm or garden depends on a handful of committed people fighting for its continued existence. Unfortunately, garden manager positions are usually unpaid and paid urban agriculture positions are often funded by temporary grants. This leads to burnout and turnover among the people the farm depends on most.

One part of addressing this problem is to use some of the risk management strategies identified in the marketing and financial chapters to work towards better financial stability for the farm and those it employs.

Additionally, clear communication and effective training can help reduce stress on the farm and improve job satisfaction.

See the list at the end of this chapter for resources on hiring the right person in the first place, how to conduct interviews, training new employees, and the tax and legal paperwork when you hire your first employee.

Customers, protecting their safety and your liability

When you sell a product, you have a responsibility to the safety of the person to whom you sell it. Selling food or agritourism experiences requires particular safety precautions, legal compliance, and liability considerations.

Every farm should assess food safety risks and adopt practices to reduce those risks. Basic food safety risk management practices include training anyone working on the farm to wash their hands, cleaning and sanitizing tools for harvesting, storing produce at appropriate temperatures, restricting animals' access to places where fresh produce is growing, and waiting 120 days between applying manure and harvesting. Good Agricultural Practices is a voluntary certification program. The Food Safety Modernization Act is a federal-level food safety regulation which is mandatory for farmers above a certain sales threshold. To learn more about food safety, see the UMD Extension food safety page here: http://extension.umd.edu//programs/agriculture/program/fruit-vegetable-production/food-safety

Figure 3: Urban agriculture businesses where customers come onto the property, such as garden centers, farm stands, and agritourism operations, should consider purchasing premise liability insurance. Photo by Neith Little, UMD Extension, taken at Walther Gardens, Baltimore, MD.
Figure 3: Urban agriculture businesses where customers come onto the property, such as garden centers, farm stands, and agritourism operations, should consider purchasing premise liability insurance. Photo by Neith Little, UMD Extension, taken at Walther Gardens, Baltimore, MD.

Customers may visit the farm to purchase at a farm stand, pick up a CSA share, or enjoy an agritourism experience such as pick-your-own or on-farm events.

Many urban farms serve as community gathering places and experience a large volume of foot traffic. Clear signage and well-marked paths are important to guide farm visitors to the places where they should be, and steer them away from places where they might get hurt or trample produce.

In addition to doing your best to protect the safety of all visitors to your farm, it is a good idea to consider purchasing premise liability insurance. The Agriculture Law Education Initiative has helpful guides to understanding farm liability: http://umaglaw.org/publications-library/

The Maryland Insurance Administration has both a guide to farm insurance and a list of insurance agencies that offer farm insurance: https://insurance.maryland.gov/

Neighbors and community engagement

Community engagement is particularly important for urban farms, because urban farms have more neighbors in closer proximity than rural farms, and because community benefit is central to the mission of many urban farms.

Neighbor relations, because you can’t not:

Whether for-profit or not-for-profit, outdoors on a vacant lot or indoors using artificial lights, an urban farm by definition is surrounded by neighbors. Having a good relationship with those neighbors can at minimum prevent nuisance complaints, and in worst case scenarios can save the farm when emergencies strike or developers come knocking. Get to know your neighbors, and be a good neighbor yourself. Be aware of farm activities that might disturb neighbors, such as smells, noise, and traffic and work to minimize their impacts. Beyond that, cultivate relationships with neighbors and listen to their input on ways the farm can be an asset to the community. When conflicts do arise, consider making use of mediation services, such as those offered by the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

Community engagement, if you want to do something about food deserts:

Many people get into urban agriculture because they have a deep desire to solve problems they see in the world, particularly the paradox of hunger in the midst of plenty. Different people call this problem by different names: “food deserts,” “healthy food priority areas,” “food swamps,” “food apartheid,” “food mirages.” These different terms are part of an on-going conversation about the history and causes of why some communities have grocery stores full of staple foods and fresh produce and some communities do not.

This conversation has been explored more thoroughly by others and additional reading is recommended at the end of the chapter, but it is important to recognize that the existence of hunger in the United States is a complex social issue that goes far beyond access to grocery stores. A common first instinct is to think “I will grow more food, and sell it, and that will help solve the problem of food deserts.” But in 2019 in the United States we produce plenty of food. Food deserts are not caused by a shortage of food, but by much more complex interactions of who owns land, who has access to education and jobs, and the history and politics of how things got that way. So if an urban farmer’s primary goal is to address food access in a community that does not have it, they will need to do more than just grow food and sell it, they will need to work on community economic development and community empowerment. That requires real community engagement work.

The first challenge someone embarking on a community engagement effort will encounter is that other people are people. Anyone who cares passionately about their community will already have their own ideas about what it needs, and will probably already be working towards the changes they want to see, investing their limited free time in their own community work. So it is unrealistic, to say the least, to expect to find engaged community members who will take up your ideas and invest their time and energy into making them happen as you envisioned them.

Community engagement, honestly undertaken, means recognizing other people’s agency and being prepared to build something together that will surprise you. It’s hard work, it takes time, and it requires very different skills from those needed to grow food or run a business. Cooperative community development is the kind of work Extension has done for the past 100 years, and our colleagues who take this part of our work most seriously have written down how they do it. Rutgers has a particularly helpful collection of training materials on how to conduct collaborative community assessments, which is a great place to start: https://njaes.rutgers.edu/evaluation/resources/needs-assessment.php

Transition planning

Transition planning, also called succession planning or estate planning, means having proactive conversations about whether and how your farm has a future beyond you.

For a community urban farm, transition planning might include

  • working to improve the common problems of burnout and high turnover among not-for-profit farm managers and leading volunteers;
  • identifying and training future leaders;
  • building consensus among community members about the value and purpose of the farm in that community;
  • establishing a not-for-profit organization that can be responsible for the farm long-term;
  • and finding ways to protect the land as green space through re-zoning, purchase, or a land trust

For a for-profit urban agriculture business - whether a back-yard market garden, a high-tech indoor growing operation, or an independent garden center transition planning might include

  • evaluating whether the business has the potential to continue beyond the management of the current owner;
  • brainstorming what the current owner would see as a positive outcome (scaling down, selling the business to fund retirement, getting bought out by a larger company, seeing the business continue under new management);
  • quantifying the net worth of the business;
  • talking with the people with an interest in the business (heirs, partners, long-time employees, investors, community members) about what their expectations and hopes are for the future of the business;
  • if operating as a sole proprietorship, considering other business structures that might better facilitate transferring the business to new owners;
  • figuring out how the business fits into the owner’s will;
  • and learning about state and federal estate taxes.

All types of farms will need to do three things:

  1. Clarify goals. What is the main purpose of the farm currently? For what purpose does it need to continue beyond current management?
  2. Make good recordkeeping routine. This kind of planning will pay off even in the short-term, if the farm manager has an emergency and needs to ask for help temporarily.
  3. Seek help from an attorney and an accountant. An attorney’s advice will be invaluable when dealing with wills, estates, business incorporation, and more. A tax accountant will be invaluable to both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations

For more resources on farm succession planning, see the end of this chapter.


Managing the human part of a farm is likely to be the most complex part of a farmer’s work, and is likely to require skills outside the prior experience of many farmers.

  • Plan how to minimize physical health and safety risks, including equipment-related injuries, heat and sun, air quality, and pesticides.
  • Learn about your legal responsibilities to protect the safety of everyone working on your farm, but in particular youth and employees.
  • Invest time in stewarding your own mental health and explore health insurance options for small businesses and self-employed individuals.
  • If your farm has employees, volunteers, interns, apprentices, or anyone who works in exchange for food or lodging, you should learn more about labor laws and consider how to manage your farm’s responsibilities and risks. Conversely, if you are a farm worker, it’s also a good idea to learn more about your rights under labor laws. Even if your farm has no paid employees, it’s worth learning more about labor laws.
  • Consider food safety risks and risks to visitors to your farm, and explore liability insurance options. For small farms liability insurance is often less expensive than you would expect!
  • Cultivate good relationships with your neighbors, and if your urban farm is mission-focused be prepared to dig deeply into the work of community engagement.
  • Plan for the future of your farm with transition planning, including identifying what the farm’s future could look like after you leave it, keeping good records, and seeking help from an attorney and accountant.

Additional resources and literature cited

Updated clickable links are available in the digital version of this guidebook at https://extension.umd.edu/programs/agriculture/programs/urban-agriculture

    Physical health and safety:

    Laws about workplace safety on the farm:

    Mental health and stress management

    Health insurance

    Employees and volunteers

    Customers, protecting their safety and your liability:

    Neighbor relations and community engagement:


    Hunger and food deserts

    Succession / Transition planning:

    • The Farm Transition Planning section of the Ag Law Education Initiative’s publications website has helpful articles on choosing an attorney, talking with family members about estate planning, understanding estate tax law, calculating net worth, using conservation easements, and even navigating divorce. http://umaglaw.org/publications-library/