Weeds: The dangers of farming are never far away

There was a day in October I could see six combines running from our own field where we were starting in corn. Harvest had gotten off to a slow start. A frustrating, rainy stretch limited farmers to a few sloppy days. Then in mid-October the sun proved it still existed, and we had a welcome dry spell of ten days.

For those days (and nights) farmers could ignore markets, politics, and injuries to the Vikings’ secondary. There was single-minded laser focus on getting the crop out of the field. As the six combines in my sight evidenced, it was all hands-on deck.

Each of us farmers have our own fields and responsibilities. Most of our time is spent alone on the seat of a combine, tractor, or truck. But the season of harvest is something we all share. There is immediate connection with any farmer I meet at the elevator. You can think of us as a big team stretching across the corn belt.

One terrible day the “team” here in Brown County was dealt two tragic losses. On Oct. 17, within hours, John Hoffman and Kaleb Fischer suffered farm injuries that led to their deaths. Every farmer when they heard of those, felt a wrenching in the pit of their stomach. It was deep sadness, but also the knowledge that such could happen to any of us.

I didn’t know John or Kaleb. I know people who did, and all the reports I heard over the next days about the two men were filled with positives and tributes. One at the peak of his career and the other just starting out, they were dedicated to this craft of farming. More importantly they were good and decent neighbors and friends. One loss like that tears at the heart of our community; two is almost unbearable.

We know this can be dangerous work. Plants, soil, and weather can be fickle, unpredictable things. When the tools we use are large and powerful machines, there are sure to be hazards.

Logging, mining, and farming top lists of the most dangerous jobs. That is true of farming year-round. When you add the pressure of harvest, the risks ratchet up. When I was young, “harvest” stretched over months. Haying, grain harvest, silage all took place before October. Now most fields are corn and soybeans, and the months are reduced to weeks. The calendar and impending winter breathe heavily on our necks. Those of us around for the Halloween Blizzard of 1991 have that implanted in our brains.

In off-farm jobs I’ve had, there is time and emphasis devoted to safety training. Friend Scott Surprenant is the Safety Coordinator for Mathiowetz Construction Company, and he spends many hours prepping for Safety Week each winter. OSHA is the butt of jokes and complaints, but it has made workplaces safer and saved thousands of lives.

We really don’t get training in this farming thing. We learn from our fathers. When we purchase a new machine, we get an hour with the mechanic who delivers it. We might compare notes with other farmers. My operator manuals are ragged and grease-smudged in the settings and maintenance chapters; the safety section still has crisp white corners.

I was twelve years old, home playing with my brother, when someone, I’m not sure who, called my mom to tell her she needed to come the hospital right away. Something had happened to my father. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with Dean and knowing this was bad. We were an age when we weren’t left alone much, so we knew it was serious.

Sometime later, probably minutes which felt like hours, my sister came to get us. We found out my dad had lost his right hand in a combine accident. That didn’t even make sense to me at the time. I would come to know the consequences of that single moment in my father’s life over the next thirty years.

That’s the thing about accidents. A part of a second changes everything forever. Dad would go on to adjust to farming with a prosthetic hook where his right hand had been. He milked cows for ten more year and helped with field work ’til he was in his late eighties. I came to take for granted that we had a “hammer” and “pliers” with us when we worked together. I’m sure he would have rather had a hand. Looking back, I probably don’t appreciate how difficult it was for him.

It was often said back then that you could tell the farmers in a crowd; they would be missing a finger or some other part. I remember hearing that and looking at my open hands and imagining life without all of those. Corn pickers were especially sinister. They are rare today, but I just googled corn picker and saw that a 27-year-old Indiana man was killed by one last week. Thankfully, farm equipment has been made safer. More of us are complete.

I try to be aware of risks as I go through my day. This time of year, I have to crawl atop bins. As my wife and I begin to consider a time one of us won’t be here, I jokingly begin with, “If I fall off a bin…” I have made Scott the highly unpaid Safety Consultant for Krzmarzick Farms. He has me thinking “three points of contact” while I am climbing with three of four limbs always on something solid. I appreciate that.

Certainly this time of year can be stressful. But every farmer knows that even in the midst of it, there are moments that catch our breath with their beauty. A setting sun, geese flying overhead, the crisp air of October: there are these times of overwhelming grace when we know we are blessed to be doing this work, sharing in creation’s bounty.

I step off the combine after shutting it off. Usually some machine is running, so stillness is rare. There is the rustling of corn leaves in a cool breeze. I stop myself; this is one of those moments of blessedness. Then I think of John and Kaleb and offer a prayer for their families. I wish so much they could have more days to do this work and moments like this in a corn field.

Then I go to get the grease gun from the back of the truck.