“It’s amazing that more farmers didn’t get killed operating one of these,’’ my friend said while we inspected a restored tractor with a mounted two-row corn picker displayed at a 2019 antique tractor show.
A nightmarish mishmash of exposed gears and chains crowded around the tractor’s seat. A harried operator could easily lose an arm or die in an environment that would have horrified modern farm safety specialists.
Safety did not necessarily take a backseat to innovation in the early days of the iron revolution. When International Harvester Company provided farmers with a moving powerplant when it became the first manufacturer to offer live power take off, or PTO, with its model 8-16 tractor in 1916, few realized that entanglements would kill hundreds of farmers in the decades to follow.
PTOs aren’t the leading cause of accidental deaths and injuries on farms. Tractor rollovers and other transportation accidents are. Installing rollover protection devices on older tractors is expensive, but a national program can help with the cost.
The National ROPS Rebate Program, headquartered in New York state but active nationwide, cash rewards to offset 70% of the cost of installing a rollover protection kit on tractors. Their telephone number is 1-877-767-7748. However, when I called, a prerecorded message said that because of the coronavirus, call backs would be delayed.
Farmers well know the necessity of slow-moving-vehicle signs, and non-farmers know to be patient when they come upon combines, planters and other equipment.
Various farm organizations, agribusinesses and volunteers have worked for years to raise awareness through farm safety programs designed to reach young people. Farm Safety 4 Just Kids — an organization founded by Iowan Marilyn Adams after her son died in a farm accident — has earned national recognition for her efforts.
Still, accidents cause far too many injuries and deaths. Most everyone knows the steps needed to make a farm a safer place. Employees must be made aware of potential dangers, emergency numbers posted, and children kept away from danger. Stress and rushing up the ante, which means farmers must take breaks even when the harvest rush is on.
The statistics are staggering — on average 416 farmers and workers die, which amounts to slightly more than 20 per 100,000. But statistics are hardly adequate when lives are lost.
As a reporter, I have covered the aftermath of farm accidents. A father and mother in tears at the supper table months after their son was lost in a silo gas accident that seared his lungs; a brother who in seconds was maimed by a PTO that lacked a shield; and yet another ensnared in a grain bin.
One can take safety shortcuts without cost for years before disaster strikes.
I spent a long time with the owner of the tractor and mounted picker, imagining how hard it must have been when snow fell, and the north wind blew hard. Dad, who picked many acres of corn by hand, was among the last to get a machine.
He did not mourn the loss of his workhorses, though he kept one on for the children to have and perhaps as a reminder of the way things were. People were killed by horses, too. Some kicked while they were being harnessed and others spooked by thunder.
This year is like no other in farm country. Many county fairs in Minnesota have been canceled and the state fair has fallen victim to the coronavirus. Stress caused by disrupted markets, low prices and isolation makes farmers and their families vulnerable.
I wish the best for all of you. Stay safe, so your supper table will be a place of laughter and not tears. If you find yourself in emotional and physical trouble, reach out. Farm community residents have always been good about helping.
Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minn., with his wife, Kathy.