We can become so absorbed in the beauties of a farm landscape and its Currier and Ives appeal that we overlook the dangers. According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, farm accidents take about 1300 lives a year. I am a naturally cautious person and think of the dangers all the time.
Not that I always make good decisions. In 2006 I was alone, climbing high on the frame of my barn under construction. A storm had blown in and I was attempting to cover the roof frame with tarps. The tarp in my hands, attached at one end, was billowing and snapping like a sail in a hurricane, almost lifting me off the heights. My heart pounded. In my mind I heard the voice of my father saying mildly, “Sweetie, is this smart?”
I’d like to think I’m wiser now.
I am almost always alone at my farm. DH pushed me to get a cell phone in case of emergency, but due to his grueling work schedule I can rarely reach him when I call, even in non-emergencies. The same is true for most of my peers. Last year when I was worried about being cornered by my bull Georgie, I put my retired friend Allen on my speed dial, knowing he would be home in his kitchen and, even if he could do nothing himself, would immediately send help. I never called but having the possibility of rescue in my pocket was reassuring.
Now there is no one. It gives me pause.
As do these short, sober videos produced by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture. I strongly believe anyone who works on a farm should take ten minutes to watch them both.
There are common threads to all the interviews: I was tired. (Or, I was in a hurry.) I didn’t think. I wasn’t really paying attention.
It would be hard to overstate how often on the farm I am tired, in a hurry, or not paying attention.
About five years ago I read a beautifully written, heartbreaking book about a family farm. The author’s father and brother were experienced farmers who loved the land and knew machinery inside and out. Both were killed in farm accidents, about twenty years apart — one caught by his jacket and pulled into a combine and the other crushed under a machine as he was doing routine maintenance and the hydraulics failed.
One of the deceptive things about farm machinery, especially tractors, is that they are increasingly designed to be operated by people without experience. Thus you can be lulled into thinking that because you know how to drive a car, you’re safe. I learned to use a tractor running a Ford 3000 from the 1960s. No safety fenders, no roll bar, no shield on the PTO.
PTO, you ask? Power Take Off. Though at the time I was warned to keep my hands away from the PTO, this was not emphasized unduly. No one said, that PTO can kill you in less than one second.
The caption of this official warning photo reads: “This is a pair of coveralls stuffed with straw. A small tractor is hooked up to a hay baler that operates at 540 RPM. If someone wearing a hooded sweatshirt got too close to the rotating shaft, the strings on the hood could get wrapped around this shaft. Operating at full speed, the rotating PTO and driveline could wrap 7 feet of the hood string around the shaft in 1 second! This is much too fast for a person to do anything.”
Farmers regularly lose arms and legs to PTOs. Women with long hair are scalped. They are the lucky ones, as just as many are killed instantly.
Meanwhile a roll bar gives a measure of protection if a tractor rolls over. In the photo at right, the mannequin “survives” due to the roll bar. Roll bars were not standard issue until the 1970s. Allen’s Uncle Forrest was crushed and killed when his tractor tipped over on him in the 1940s. Thousands and thousands of old tractors without roll bars or other safety features are still in the fields and available inexpensively on Craigslist. I had a 1951 Farmall for a few years myself.
I’ve been considering all this a lot recently, as I’ve dreamed of owning another tractor.
I’ve mentioned in these pages my habit of mentally tuning out, “switching off my brain” when I’m working on repetitive tasks. Unfortunately this habit is often not deliberate. I’ve written about being lost in thought and never noticing that I’d left behind the noisy manure spreader I was towing. Likewise, circling around the field, rolling in my grass seed, only to come upon the big steel roller in front of the truck — I’d dropped that, too, unnoticed. Very funny at the time, but in other circumstances this absentmindedness could be deadly.
The other day I ran into Allen’s son. Last month he came and towed away the ’93 pickup his father had repaired for me to use off-road. The old truck had worked perfectly all summer, though the steering did seem to become more and more “floaty” and odd. I didn’t focus on it much — too busy, and it wasn’t going off the farm anyway. “If you can drive this,” I told Luke, studying to get his driver’s license, “you can drive anything.”
I was slightly perplexed when sometimes the truck was in gear yet wouldn’t go forward. Still, quite often my usual attitude with vehicles — cut the engine, think hopeful thoughts, and maybe it will behave properly next time — actually worked. I used the truck almost every day. However at the end of the summer I decided that it probably should go for parts.
Now I asked Allen’s son cheerfully, “Did you ever figure out what was wrong with the truck?”
“Frame was rusted through. Whole thing was broke in half.”
The entire frame of the truck was broken in half. Oh dear. Well, I had noticed something was slightly off.
Nevertheless it is occurring to me that maybe I’m just not the machinery type. Maybe if I am able to save up enough money for a tractor, the very smartest thing I could do would be to hire someone else to run it for me a few hours a week. This would cost me some pride and perhaps about $500 a year. I’ve mentioned the idea to Leon already.
I am thinking of it as life insurance.