Accidents Happen

In a list of the most dangerous industries where accidents happen the most often you’ll find agriculture. Farm workers’ fatality rates are seven times higher than the average for other jobs. Considering the dangers—from the moving parts on machinery to high voltage power lines to animals that far outweigh the farmer—it’s easy to see why many folks end up in the emergency room or hospital. Though taking your time and being aware of the dangers can reduce the risks, you can still get injured from a moment of carelessness.

On our farm, my grandfather almost amputated his little finger, when he reached inside a new baler to clear a plugged piece of hay and learned that there was a second cutting knife where he thought there would only be one. But, aside from that, we never had any serious injuries beyond the usual cuts, scrapes, and bruises that are a part of farming life. Nevertheless, I learned many lessons from an assortment of close calls.

In a couple of them, I (surprise!) wasn’t involved.

A John Deere 4030 we bought in the early 1970s had a transmission issue: it could jump out of gear when it was going downhill with a heavy load. Dad’s solution was to push in the clutch and apply the brakes to hold the tractor in place as he went downhill—and then release the clutch, once he was on level ground. Mom said her solution was to look for a safe place to steer the tractor, if it did pop out of gear. When she was baling hay with the tractor at a farm we had rented, the hitch pin on the hay wagon popped out, as she went over a high spot in the field, and the wagon rolled forward, hitting the rear of the baler and bending a safety bar. Fortunately, that was the only damage, and we were able to keep baling that day.

During spring planting in the mid-1970s, our John Deere 530 caught on fire due to faulty wiring. It was on a Saturday morning, and I was in the house, watching cartoons, and never heard the fire trucks arrive. When I came out a few hours later, it was all over, and no one would believe I hadn’t heard a thing. (I remember Dad having the tractor repaired and riding through town with him when he took it to a body shop for repainting. That was fun.)

Dad took a lot of time and patience to teach me how to operate our equipment safely. I also spent time in tractor safety courses in elementary school and through 4-H, so I had a good idea of what to do and—more importantly—what not to do.

However, like any new driver, I had to test a few limits.

One that taught me a valuable lesson occurred when I was hauling round bales. I had driven up the slope of a field to spear one on the front fork of our John Deere 2640 utility tractor. Rather than sensibly take the time to shift into reverse, back up slowly, and make my turn to head across the slope back to the shed with the loaded bale, I engaged the clutch, putting the tractor in neutral and letting it freely roll down the hill. After all, a quick twist of the wheel and I’d be ready to go across the slope. Everything went fine until that darned Isaac Newton and his laws of motion came into play. The momentum of the 1,500-pound bale didn’t stop when the tractor did, and all that torque played havoc with the bolts that held the loader to the tractor. Needless to say, they weren’t engineered for that sudden application of force. They sheared, letting that side of the loader pierce the side of the tractor. I didn’t panic, quickly shut everything off, set the bale down, and walked home. After chores, Dad came out to examine the tractor, and we decided to see if we could drive it back to the building. A few repairs and we were good to go. I didn’t try that stunt again.

Another incident involving a round bale happened at my godfather’s farm, when I was hauling bales up a steep slope in an especially dry year. As I drove up the hill, the bale slid off the rear fork too quickly for me to set it down and resecure it on the fork. It rolled down the hill, flattening a six-foot wide swath of corn before hitting a small mound of dirt, taking a hop, and rolling over a nearby pasture fence. One of the men I was working with saw what had happened and commented, “Could have been worse. Could have been me.”

The disadvantages of living on a farm in the rolling hills of southwestern Wisconsin became apparent when I unhooked a hay wagon above our machine shed and didn’t take the time to either block a wheel or turn the wagon tongue uphill to prevent the wagon from rolling. I went around our corn crib and started to back the baler into the machine shed, when, all of a sudden, the wagon came barreling down the hill between the shed and the crib, smashing into the side of the baler. Fortunately, the main impact came on the large rubber tire on that side of the baler, so I was spared the expense of replacing a bale chamber that would have been smashed out of line, making it unusable. Whew!

One of the last accidents I recall on our farm came when Dad was picking corn on a hilly field near the buildings. One of the chains that held the gravity box to the running gear fell off, and, as I watched helplessly from near our corn crib, I saw the box tip up and then topple over, slamming into the ground with a mighty, reverberating bang. Despite the crash and aside from a few dents to its upper edges, the box was fine, and all we lost was a few bushels of corn.

While each of these mishaps had their scary aspects, the important outcomes were that (a) no one was seriously hurt and (b) lessons were learned. What did you learn from your days on the farm and visits to the school of experience? Tell us in the comments below.

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