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North Dakota State University Extension makes an investment in safety

After having a vacancy in the role of farm and ranch safety coordinator since 2005, North Dakota State University has once again refilled the position.

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FARGO, N.D. — At first glance, a childhood token or a possible family movie night favorite is sitting comfortably in a bucket of corn. Woody from the movie "Toy Story" has found himself in a model grain bin, with his signature smile still in tow. But as Angie Johnson simulates the grain bin model, Woody begins to sink in a sea of yellow kernels, his smile slowly beginning to fade as he drowns in the crop.

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Toy Story's Woody acts as a visual representation to how quick grain bin engulfment can happen on the farm. Photo taken Jan. 7, 2022, in Fargo, North Dakota. Emily Beal / Agweek

Unfortunately, many farmers and ranchers have faced the same situation as Woody and found themselves in danger on the farm.

In data collected by Central States Center for Agricultural Safety and Health , there were a reported 11 farm related fatalities in 2020 in North Dakota. However, the Central States Center for Agricultural Safety and Health says there is a strong possibility of more farm related deaths that went unreported. They also reported that South Dakota had eight farm related deaths in 2020.

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The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported eight farming, fishing and forestry related deaths in Minnesota in 2019. That agency also reported that in Iowa, the crop production sector made up the biggest of the occupation fatalities, with 10 workplace fatalities in 2019.

Recognizing the inherent dangers of the industry, North Dakota State University Extension sought, and received, funding to address farm safety during the 2021 North Dakota Legislature. In her new role as NDSU's farm and ranch safety coordinator, Johnson plans to work on prevention efforts to keep the state's ag community safer.

A renewed role

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Angie Johnson in her new role as NDSU's farm and ranch safety coordinator will be working closely with local county Extension agents in an effort to spread education about farm and ranch safety. Photo taken Jan. 7, 2022, in Fargo, North Dakota. Emily Beal / Agweek

NDSU Extension since 2005 had been without a full-time farm and ranch safety coordinator. Before taking over the reins as the full-time farm and ranch safety coordinator, Johnson served in the role part-time while continuing with her work as a county Extension agent.

“We have not had an educator in this role for a number of years, so we’re excited for that,” Lynette Flage, associate director for NDSU Extension, said. “The health and safety of our farmers and ranchers is critical to us. It’s critical to all.”

NDSU is not alone in making farm safety a priority after a period of time without someone focusing on it. The University of Minnesota also has a farm safety and health program, which is overseen by Emily Krekelberg. Krekelberg stepped into her position as the Extension educator for farm safety and health in 2020, a position which had been vacant since 2008. She has a close connection to farm safety and health, as both her brother and father lost limbs in auger-related farm accidents. She said the University of Minnesota also spends a lot of time and resources in the area of rural mental health.

“Mental health and stress management work is so important. We do a lot of work on the topic,” she said.

In North Dakota, Johnson will help educate local county Extension agents on farm and ranch safety, so they can then spread the new knowledge to the agriculturalists within their communities. Greg Lardy, vice president of agricultural affairs at North Dakota State University and the director for NDSU Extension, said Johnson’s new role is instrumental in making sure Extension is getting that safety education out to the front line.

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Lynette Flage says farmer and rancher safety is of the utmost importance for NDSU Extension, and she is excited to see Johnson within this new role. Photo taken Jan. 7, 2022, in Fargo, North Dakota. Emily Beal / Agweek

“Part of the educational effort here will be to help people understand what the risks are and to implement measures that they can use to help mitigate those risks and keep everyone safe,” he said.

Stressors

According to Johnson, a great amount of farm and ranch accidents include tractor accidents, such as overturns and rollovers. Another hazard that is seen quite often in the state are grain bin accidents. In this new role Johnson will be looking for ways to help cut down these specific accidents and share her findings with county Extension agents.

Another stressor for agriculturalists has been the pandemic, which has made it extremely hard at times to get much-needed farm labor.

“The level of stress that our producers are experiencing right now is through the roof. A few reasons are due to the COVID pandemic. Especially when it started, farmers were not able to get labor help. There was a huge labor shortage,” Johnson said.

Mother Nature is a steady stressor for farmers and ranchers, which was more than evident in the last two years. According to Johnson there was a correlation between grain bin accidents and the wet conditions the region was facing in 2019.

“At that time, we started seeing a large influx in grain bin related accidents. That correlation with poor wet conditions, with maybe grain going in the bin, going into storage too wet or out of condition, could be a precursor to why we saw a lot more grain bin related accidents and injuries,” she said.

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According to Johnson, farm accidents that involving grain bins are common and can be devastating. Photo taken Jan. 7, 2022, in Fargo, North Dakota. Emily Beal / Agweek

Elizabeth Huso owns and operates Ridgeline Farms with her husband Scott in Steele County, North Dakota. They take great pride in their safety program and the measures they take to protect themselves as well as their employees on their farm. The Husos report accidents as soon as they happen, no matter how minor. The accident investigation that takes place helps with making sure the specific accident is not repeated. However, as the Husos learned, you can never be too prepared or too careful.

In December 2019, one of Ridgeline Farm’s employees was involved in a serious accident. The employee was caught in a sweep auger in the bottom of a bin.

“We talk about farm safety all the time,” Huso said. “But then here we are, people who are proud of our safety program, and we still had a major accident like that.”

Rural health care

Luckily for the Husos' employee, he was able to receive immediate medical care — a luxury that not all North Dakotan farmers and ranchers can receive.

“If you really take a look at access to rural health care, we’re very limited in North Dakota, and so anytime we can strive to prevent farm related injuries from happening, not only are we looking at saving and improving lives, but we’re really focused on rural health care. The reality is getting to a level one trauma center in North Dakota is tough,” Johnson said.

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Angie Johnson hopes to find ways to mitigate grain bin accidents and share newfound knowledge with farmers and ranchers. Photo taken Jan. 7, 2022, in Fargo, North Dakota. Emily Beal / Agweek

Because of to the spread out rural areas in the western part of the state, farm and ranch safety accidents can be even more deadly due to the lack of hospitals in that region.

"If you’re in western North Dakota and get into a serious farm accident where you need level one trauma care, you’re looking at a pretty significant amount of time to be able to get you . . . the emergency attention you need,” she said. “The last thing we want to do is plan a funeral. So take time to slow down a bit, even when conditions get bad.”

Close to home

For Johnson, this role is of the utmost importance. She plans on using her previous knowledge as a Steele County Extension agent, where she worked for the past seven years, to help teach local Extension agents on farm safety.

Growing up on a farm herself, she knows all too well the dangers that come with living life on the farm. She still faces those dangers every day, as she helps raise cattle, sheep and various small grains on her family’s farm. Her background and knowledge for the agricultural industry and farm life will be a huge asset within her new role.

“By growing up and being immersed in agriculture, I have that perspective. I have seen some accidents. I have experienced some accidents. Being able to really understand the challenges that farmers and ranchers face gives me a really good understanding of how we need to address this problem,” Johnson said.

Demonstrations like the one using the Woody doll are part of Johnson's repertoire. Experiencing accidents on the farm is an event that sticks with producers. But for those who have not experienced the stressful moment of being engulfed by grain in the bin, or haven't seen it happen first hand, Johnson uses Woody to illustrate the realities of grain entrapment. She shows in her presentations how Woody drowns in the corn, which acts like quicksand. Her goal is that the well-known and loved character will stick with the farmers and encourage them to harness up or simply slow down while completing dangerous tasks.

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Growing up on a farm herself, Angie Johnson knows the importance of taking farm safety precautions on the farm. She is excited to serve in her new role as farm and ranch safety coordinator for NDSU Extension and help those within the agriculture industry. Photo taken Jan. 7, 2022, in Fargo, North Dakota. Emily Beal / Agweek

Johnson’s passion is clear to those within NDSU Extension, as it exudes while she visits with faculty, staff and others.

“Angie is very passionate about this area. She grew up on a farm and ranch and still maintains those agricultural ties with her family’s operation. I know she feels very strongly about this and I know she’s got an exuberance that is going to help the program be successful,” Lardy said.

And while it may seem that Johnson is doing a great service to the North Dakota agriculture industry, she looks at it as a way to pay back for everything the industry has done for her. For her, this new role is close to home.

“Agriculture has given me so much and if this is the one way I can give back and really make a difference by helping farmers and ranchers with their farm safety efforts, I am more than honored and proud to serve our growers,” Johnson said.

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