KINDRED, N.D. — It was just another day on the farm in 2008 when Lyndon "Lynn" Wayne Lee slipped into a grain bin and was buried alive by dried corn.
Nobody knows what the 43-year-old’s final moments were like, but to lifelong farmers, grain bins are as common as tractors, and too often taken for granted, said Rich Schock, a volunteer firefighter and close friend of Lee’s.
Lee was alone when he fell, and when crews from Walcott, Colfax, Davenport, Kindred and Casselton, N.D., fire departments as well as Kindred Ambulance, F-M Ambulance and the Richland County Sheriff’s Office, arrived, their combined manpower couldn’t save Lee.
When Schock started as a volunteer firefighter in 2004, "it was more about the brotherhood and camaraderie, getting away from work and hanging out with buddies, putting out fires and doing cool things,” he said. Lee’s death changed his life, however, inspiring him to eventually become the Kindred fire chief and captain of the Sheyenne Valley Technical Rescue Team, a group of “brothers and sisters” who respond to grain bin accidents and work to teach farmers about such dangers.
Their work is becoming more challenging due in part to the ripple effects of the trade war with China, he said. Stockpiles of beans and corn are up 162% and 22% respectively, according to a 2019 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. When greater stockpiling in giant bins is combined with two years of wet harvests, farmers — especially those working on family farms — are facing increasingly dangerous conditions as they deal with stored grain.
Nationwide, 61 grain bin accidents were documented in 2018 that resulted in injury, death or required emergency extrication by first responders — an increase of 13% over the 54 cases in 2017, according to an annual report from Purdue University.
Among the 61 accidents in 2018, there were 30 grain entrapment cases, six falls into or from grain storage structures, seven asphyxiations due to deficient oxygen levels or toxic environments, and 11 equipment entanglements, the report states.
The numbers of injuries and deaths have continued to climb in recent months. From August 2019 until February this year, 21 people have died across the country. Purdue University’s 2019 final report has not yet been released.
In the region, at least six people have died and another person has been injured in grain bin accidents since July 2019.
“I don’t know what is causing the uptick, but I think grain facilities are getting larger, commodities are down, more people are storing,” Schock said.
Lee's death still weighs heavy on Schock's heart, a loss that will never leave him.
"Sometimes, I feel we’re blessed with such a small, tight-knit community. You learn to love these farmers," he said. "You watch these kids at the ballgames, and it’s easier to grab hold of their shirt sleeves and say ‘Please don’t do this.’”
Schock wants to tell them things like: Don’t go into a grain bin alone. Use a safety harness. Lock out and tag out the power source to augers. Check air quality to avoid suffocation.
His rescue team spreads the same message when it can. Schock led the team in a demonstration Feb. 4 at the 2020 Northern Corn & Soybean Expo in Fargo, N.D., to show that grain bins can be death traps.
“The family farmer is the beating heart of America. To read about these things is such a tragedy and to know it could have been prevented …” Schock’s voice broke.
Lee was the friend who brought him into volunteer firefighting. On Christmas 2008, the night before Lee's death, Schock and Lee drank beers and played guitar together.
Wet harvests and bankruptcies
The recent rash of grain bin accidents — 10 in Minnesota since June 2019 — prompted Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz to declare Feb. 16-22 as "Grain Bin Safety Week."
“Farming is one of the most dangerous professions in the United States," Walz said in a statement, "but through awareness and education, we can work together to decrease the number of preventable accidents, injuries, and deaths.”
Charlie Stoltenow, a professor and assistant director for the North Dakota State University Extension Service, said that combining all the factors that contribute to grain bin accidents, and adding in valid fears of losing the family farm, means too many farmers are throwing caution to the wind.
“Maybe you’re familiar with the movie ‘The Perfect Storm,'" Stoltenow said. “You have a lot of perfect factors moving in. You have the trade war, but that’s not the whole cause. You have spring, but that’s not the whole cause. You have a late fall, not the whole cause. Then in general the low commodity prices, and all this comes together to create a crucible of stress that these people are finding themselves in.”
When the trade war with China began in the summer of 2018, soybean prices fell and many farmers, unable to sell beans or hoping for better prices in the future, put their crops into storage.
With 595 family farm bankruptcies nationwide in 2019, up nearly 100 from 2018 and the highest level since 2011, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation, farmers fear more bankruptcies will follow. Even after a recent $80 billion “phase one” deal with China, commodity prices remain low.
With the combination of a late planting season and a wet harvest season, farmers have to check their stored beans for mold, rats and other impurities. Farmers must ensure their stockpiles can still be sold, or face heavy losses. And that's where the danger begins.
“If the crop has to be dried and it’s not the best, spoilage can occur,” said Stu Letcher, executive vice president of the North Dakota Grain Dealers Association. “Spoilage can bridge up and sometimes form a crust, or even create clumps that can plug outlets. People go inside bins to free up the flow, and they don’t realize the situation can be hazardous.”
When Kenneth Hellevang walked the floor during the Northern Corn & Soybean Expo, he listened to farmers. "And there were a number of people that are risking their lives trying to get that grain out of the storage bins. They’re really forced into a situation that is not what they would prefer, but now they are faced with the risk of: How do I get that grain out of the storage bins?” said Hellevang, a NDSU professor and extension engineer focused on grain handling.
"Any time we have wet grain, which we had a horrible harvest year last fall, which is still continuing for corn, we’ve got a lot of wet grain that has gone into storage and in some cases a little snow got mixed in," he said. "I think things are ripe for all kinds of catastrophes."
Little training for family farmers
There's almost no help for family farms when it comes to training people in grain bin safety, Schock said. Farmers know the dangers, but desperation and familiarity force them inside their own silos.
“There are different entities that provide some training to fire departments out there, but there are not many that try to reach out to farmers and growers,” Schock said. “They may be out there, but I haven’t heard of any."
Schock wants to collaborate with NDSU to help family farms, but so far nothing has happened, he said.
“When I was young, they had farm safety camp, but you don’t see that anymore,” Schock said. “These accidents used to happen on corporate farms, but now they’re shifting away. Now the family farm is where the incidences are occurring."
Stoltenow shares Schock’s hopes of helping family farms, but his hands are tied.
“NDSU does not have a farm safety program, and we’re concerned about that, and we’d like to have one. We’ve seen way too many cases,” Stoltenow said. “We’re trying to see if we can coordinate to get the message out there. We’re terribly concerned about so much wet grain that is in the bins and freezing ... and farmers are under stress.”
Dan Neenan, director of the National Education Center for Agricultural Safety at Northeast Iowa Community College, predicts 2020 will be "a particularly bad year. The amount of grain that’s stored, the moisture content when it was put away, is just another issue that is going to exacerbate the problem.”
“Yep, 2010 was the worst year on record in America for grain bin fatalities, which followed 2009 harvest, which was late and had high moisture content. This is now two years running, where we’ve had very late springs and late harvests," Neenan said, expressing worry that a new record could be set. "I’m very concerned with 2020. The grain that’s left will have been there for two years, and it’s going to be very difficult to get that out.”
Since July 2019, at least seven grain bin accidents in the region have resulted in six deaths and one rescue.
Brandon Schaefer, 35, of Albany, Minn., was pulled dead from a storage bin on a farm in St. Martin Township in late January 2020.
A 47-year-old father, Curt Boesl, and his brother, 49-year-old Steven Boesl, were overcome by fumes in early January 2020 on a western Minnesota farm and died. Curt’s 11-year-old son, Alex, also fell ill to the fumes and was flown to a Twin Cities hospital where he later died.
In early December 2019, emergency crews found Gerald Chisholm, 62, of Gary, Minn., dead in a grain bin about 40 miles northeast of Fargo. He was attempting to loosen up frozen corn.
Also in December 2019, first responders rescued Gerhard LaGrange from a Lankin, N.D., grain bin.
In July 2019, 58-year-old Kevin John Anderson fell while cleaning a grain bin at Columbia Grain in Grand Forks County and died beneath 15 feet of corn.
'It felt like cement'
North Dakota has fewer small grain bins these days. Many bins are now prairie giants capable of holding more than 10 times what bins held 60 years ago.
In the 1960s, the state had 760 elevators or licensed warehouses with an average capacity of 170,000 bushels. In 2017, the number shrank to 383 elevators with an average capacity of 1.3 million bushels.
“Family farms of 3,000 to 5,000 bushel grain bins now have 10 or more 70,000 bushel grain bins all in a row,” Schock said, noting that larger bins create a more dangerous environment. “A person can be buried alive, or engulfed, within four seconds.”
The Sheyenne Valley Technical Rescue Team had Adam Redmann sink into a bin filled with dried corn during the Northern Corn & Soybean Expo. Firefighters Adam Carpenter and Rob Dirk worked quickly to free him while expo attendees watched from the sides.
Redmann, a St. Thomas, N.D., farmer, has never been trapped in a grain silo. His family takes precautions, he said, but he’s also fighting mold and moisture, and the stored grain must be inspected.
“The danger is still there, and I never realized what goes into a rescue,” Redmann said. “It felt like cement being wrapped around my body. It felt like the real thing.”
Being entrapped or engulfed by corn or beans are not the only grain bin dangers farmers face, Schock said. Farmers also must deal with suffocating dust, toxins and hydrogen sulfide formations. Flammable and explosive gases can ignite with a spark.
“Some think I’m young enough, I’m fast enough, and that I’m strong enough that it will never get me. Or number two: I’ve done this enough times and nothing has ever happened before,” said Jeff Adkisson, executive vice president of the Grain and Feed Association of Illinois.
Schock plans to keep his friend’s memory alive by continuing to improve the volunteer fire department's rescue tactics, and teach anyone willing about grain bin rescues.
“I would say it was like a void after losing him, and we started getting a few of us together, just visiting. We decided among ourselves to start training better, and become more professional. He harnessed my energy so that I wanted to better myself to prevent these things, and it grew from there.”
Schock wishes he could focus on rescues and training full-time, but he has bills to pay. His full-time job is public works superintendent for the city of Kindred.
“We’d quit a full-time job to do this because our passion runs so deep to help people,” Schock said after the rescue demonstration. “But maybe today, we saved a life."