Safe Combine Profits Make Safer Farms
A combine in action. (Photo by Wesley Hetrick, Flickr, Creative Commons)

Combine corn heads are made so that anything coming into their grasp — like ears of corn, legs or arms — can’t get away. They have two rotating knife rolls with four knives each per row of corn, along with two gathering chains, like giant bicycle chains with fingers that grab and pull. The chains drag ears of corn up to the feeder house where a spiral rotating metal cylinder called a cross auger and another huge set of roller chains called the feeder house chain shoves them into the thresher at the rate of about 25 feet per second. As that happens the knife rolls shred the corn stalks and leaves returning them back to the soil.  

Too many farmers have learned the cruel truth that human flesh and bones are no match for any of it.  

It was during a harvest years ago when the gathering head on my aging combine, the corn head, clogged with a dozen wild sunflower stalks — weeds are the farmer’s No. 1 nemesis.  

Farm accidents are No. 2.  

Those are important numbers because they illustrate the relationships of farmers’ priorities at harvest time. It’s not so much that we don’t value ourselves, but that we don’t put ourselves ahead of the farm. Interestingly, when we teach safety to our kids, it’s the opposite.  

That particular combine of mine had an electric push-pull switch on the firewall. It was yellow to differentiate it from every other control, because it was considered a power take off switch…what we call a PTO. PTO controls are designated to be bright yellow as a safety precaution. That’s because accidental entanglement in PTO’s is a leading cause of farm injuries and deaths.   

To unclog my corn head, I just needed to climb down into the head and pull the sunflowers out. My PTO switch had been sticking. It was 10 years old like the rest of my combine. Sometimes when I pulled it out, the PTO didn’t come on. Sometimes when I pushed it in the PTO didn’t turn off. It was an aggravation. But a new switch would cost money and a trip to town plus the time it took to get and install.  

There were no dead man switches or safety overrides to shut down machinery when no one occupies the driver’s seat like those built into today’s machines. Besides, it still worked if you fiddled with it.  

And I was in a hurry.  

Power take-off (PTO) at the rear end of a John Deere tractor. (Source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

So I slapped the switch with the palm of my hand to push it in and kill the PTO, opened the cab door and stepped onto the top of the feeder house — the thing that connects the head to the combine where the feeder house chain is housed. Just as I was about to jump down into the head I realized the machinery wasn’t coasting to a stop but still turning full speed. The switch had malfunctioned…again.  

It wasn’t long after that when one of my neighbors lost his life in his corn head when he slipped and fell in just the way I might have.  

A few decades ago it wasn’t unusual to see farmers with one or maybe two artificial limbs. They were victims of the older harvesters, tractor mounted corn pickers that grabbed an arm so quick you could barely see it disappear. Back then everyone wore yellow fuzzy cotton chore gloves. They were warm and cheap…and almost seemed made for amputations via spinning shafts and drive chains.  

There one second, gone the next. 

It’s not that farmers don’t know or understand risks. It’s that like most people who confront their own mortality, we never think it will happen to us.  

There was no Occupational Safety and Health Administration then. But even with OSHA around today, farm accidents still occur partly because the agriculture industry as a whole has always opposed oversight and regulation in any form. In OSHA’s stead have always been university extension, farm groups, and machinery manufacturers who try to inform farmers of risks to make them more aware.  

For farmers, the notion that government cares about us is laughable. If my government truly cares about me the why is so much wrong with my world? 

A few years back OSHA asserted that children under the age of 12 should not be allowed to work on the farm. That angered family farmers and their organizations, because they see farming as a way of life. Working on the farm is a kids right of passage. Even if they never choose a farming occupation as adults, farm kids start observing and helping Mom and Dad almost as soon as they can walk. Thats why big business values farm kids.  

It’s for their work ethic.  

Eventually the OSHA requirement was dropped for all farms except those required to pay the minimum wage to farm workers. In other words Corporate ‘farms’.  

But as an article recently published in the Atlantic points out, not all farm accidents are family affairs. One farm featured in the expose seems to be using their small farm exemption in a way that assures they won’t be held accountable for the deaths of three part time workers in two separate events.  

Farms, particularly dairy and livestock farms, are usually short on capital and profits — they don’t have the money to replace aging equipment or make improvements of the type OSHA might mandate. And just the hint of recurring fines can throw a farmer into panic.  

OSHA says they want to visit farms only to make safety audits. But what if the cows need feed but OSHA tagged the silo unloader and threatened a $10,000 fine? Those fuzzy yellow chore gloves are a ticket to amputation. But they’re $10 per bundle cheap as opposed to $25 per pair leather. And they sure aren’t OSHA approved.  

Farmers don’t trust the government not to impose outlandish penalties for some things once they’re invited onto the farm. That’s because farmers fear the government more than the real risks that surround them every day.  

We make our choices based on what we can afford. But a farmer like the one in the Atlantic article, who knowingly sends farm temps into dangerous circumstances they can barely understand, is not the same as a financially strapped family farm making do with what they have. What that amounts to is a farmer who can pay someone else to risk his own life.  

Farmers use old outmoded and sometimes dangerous machinery because it’s the best they can afford. The cows have to eat but so do the kids.  

The OSHA dilemma portrayed by the Atlantic article highlights opportunists over family farms. The reason small family farms find themselves in dire straights is because they lack the ability and the opportunity to compete fairly against big monopolies in seeds, livestock, poultry, and pesticide-pharmaceutical corporations. Give them, the farmers, fairer marketplaces and new opportunities, and they’ll spend their gains for improvements to their farm and the way they make their living.  

Let them know success and suddenly life, and another sunrise, matters more than anything.  

 Richard Oswald is a fifth-generation Missouri farmer from Langdon. He is membership and policy director for the Missouri Farmers Union.

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