PERLEY, Minn. - Paul Houglum knows farming has taken its toll on his hearing.
In mid-March he was hauling grain to the local elevator, emptying wheat from bins with a large vacuum machine.
"It's a very loud machine," says Houglum after stopping the task. "The new ones have gotten better, but they're still loud."
Noise is "one of the things you try to put up with" as a farmer, he says. "You try to wear ear muffs or ear plugs when you're doing it. But, there's certain things you have to hear, too. There's times you don't using hearing protection as much as you should."
Houglum, 66, lives east of Perley, Minn., in Norman County. He raises barley, wheat and soybeans. He quit raising sugar beets last year, and his son-in-law raises them.
Over the past 10 years, his hearing has declined. He had his ears checked last summer, and they thought he should have hearing aids, so he's been getting used to them for several months.
"Honestly, my wife made me think I had to have them," he says, laughing that there were instances where he understood things "totally different" than what his family members had actually said.
With six of eight grandchildren living nearby, his wife, Carol, says she got tired of being an unwilling interpreter when Paul couldn't hear his younger grandkids with higher-pitched voices.
"I'd say, 'No, they didn't say 'Where my toys?' They said, 'Where did the boys go?'" she recalls.
She says the couple went to turning off the radio in car trips to and from town. She half-jokes that she offered an ultimatum: "I might've said something like 'You go in and get hearing aids or I'm never speaking to you again.'"
David Kruse, owner of Sheyenne Hearing Service of West Fargo, N.D., says he's seen a lot of ag-related hearing loss since he started in 1987.
Farmers born from the 1919 through the 1930s had particular problems with high-frequency hearing loss, which usually was noise-induced. Tractors in that era didn't have cabs, and there were big mufflers coming out of tractor hoods. Farmers often were deafer in the left because they'd turn to the right to watch the implements they were trailing.
Tractor cabs came along and eventually gained insulation, but too many still provide a "dismal drone." Today, farmers especially need hearing because of new agricultural technology.
"They want to hear all of the buzzes and beeps, and bells - the warning systems that let them know when a hopper is full or something is plugged up."
Kruse says many combines still have 85 decibel noise, and exposure to that for eight hours or more continuously is going to "wear down the hair cells in the cochlea, going to destroy those nerve endings, and it's going to cause a hearing loss that - more often than not - they don't realize until it's almost too late."
Once hearing is lost, Kruse says delaying action on getting hearing aids can cause farmers and others to dissociate with friends and family. The most common sign of damage is asking for people to repeat things or wanting the television turned up louder than others. People should get checked out by a physician, audiologist or hearing instrument dispenser.
Lewis Maynard of Hillsboro, N.D., one of Kruse's patients, says his family has a genetic predisposition to hearing problems, but his work on farms and in trucking has contributed to his nearly total hearing loss.
"You lose different pitch sounds, sound levels, due to the loud banging. If a farmer bangs a hammer, the pitch, the decibel would damage your hearing," Maynard says.
The Houglums talked about hearing aids before something happened.
"When we were traveling together in a car - which we do a lot because we live out in the country - he could not hear me. He would have to turn and look at me to read my lips, I'm assuming. Or we would have to turn the radio off."
Paul says he paid just over $4,000 for the pair of hearing aids. Batteries aren't so expensive but must be replaced every week or so.
"It makes talking to my grandchildren more fun," he says. "They can't understand why grandpa can't hear all of the time."
Kruse acknowledges hearing aids are $4,500 to $5,000 per pair. Some insurance plans cover 100 percent, some 80 to 90 percent. Today's digital signal processing hearing instruments can do "more things than the human ear can do by itself" with directional microphones.
Hearing devices used to be big and bulky behind the ear or in eyeglasses.
"Now we have instruments so small that they're practically invisible," Kruse said. The days of "virtual reality" hearing instruments is just on the horizon, giving blood pressure information or detecting a fall, linking with smartphones to summon help.
Prevention may be part of the cure. A company called Etymotic Research in the past couple of years has put out a product called ETY-Plugs that reduces all sounds evenly by 20 decibels so that speech can be heard clearly, but reduces the sound for many industrial and recreational activities.
The company is well-known for making high-fidelity earphones and earplugs for musicians, says
Wayne Staab of Dammeron Valley, Utah. He does research and development on hearing aid products and taught at North Dakota State University in the late 1960s.
Staab studied sound levels in and around agricultural equipment, taping "dosimeter" instruments to various locations inside and outside farm machines. There are two kinds of noise, Staab says. There's" impulse noise," such as a gunshot, and "steady state noise," such as driving a tractor all day. The impact is indicated by the "cumulative dose" of noise and involves formulas based on length of exposure and interruption.
Staab says it would be good if farmers had ear plugs hanging in convenient locations in and around workplaces. He says farmers tend to have an independent mindset.
"People have their own ideas about what they can and cannot get by with," he says.
Cheryl Skjolaas, agricultural safety and health specialist at the University of Wisconsin Center for Ag Safety and Health, says there is a considerable diversity in noise exposure by farm type. Farming and fishery has the second highest prevalence of hearing loss history behind construction, with 22 percent of farmers reporting hearing problems.
She says an app is available for assessing sound levels through the National Institutional Occupational and Safety and Health Agency, a sister agency to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Chandran Achutan, an industrial hygienist with the University of Nebraska Medical Center, College of Public Health in Omaha, Neb., says combine cabs are getting quieter, to maybe 85 decibels in many cases, but some exposure comes when the farmer gets out of an idling machine. Augers and grain vacs aren't getting quieter as quickly.
"Farmers still have a hazardous level of noise, but probably not as bad as it used to be," Akhutan says. "Is a farmer aware of what is noisy? And do they try to keep away from it?"