As farmers age, chances multiply that they will be killed or hurt in an accident on the job. In Minnesota, a quarter of farm operators are now 65 or older.
They keep farming even when their eyesight is failing and their hearts are going bad.
They get back on their tractors after farm accidents have put them in the hospital, sometimes with permanently disabling injuries.
Unlike the rest of the working world, where retirement at age 65 is typical and sometimes mandatory, most farmers keep working. Many die on the job, because they gamble with their aging bodies once too often.
“I think that is a huge piece of the problem,” said Dennis Murphy, a Penn State professor who studies farm safety.
Serious accidents are a concern for farmers of any age, but the risk only increases as they get older. Physical tasks become tougher than they used to be, and often it’s not easy — or even possible — to slow down.
Almost half of the Minnesotans who died in farm accidents in the past decade were 65 or older, according to a Star Tribune review of more than 200 death investigations.
In a small town just west of St. Cloud, pigs killed an 82-year-old farmer after he apparently fell into their pen. According to his death certificate, he walked with a cane and was “subject to dizzy spells.”
On another farm nearby, an 86-year-old farmer burned to death when he stumbled while dealing with an out-of-control brush fire. His granddaughter told investigators she tried to talk him out of tackling the chore because he had trouble walking and had fallen several times recently.
In western Minnesota, Wayne “Pete” Bright lost control of his tractor while crossing a bridge on his property and fell into the river below, where he drowned in August 2013. Muriel Bright said her 84-year-old husband had trouble seeing things in front of him because of a degenerative eye condition.
“He was probably too old to run a tractor,” Bright said. She added that her elderly brother-in-law moved off his farm after the accident because “his wife didn’t want him getting in the tractor anymore.”
Across the United States, older farmers are more than twice as likely to die in an accident as younger workers, according to a 2009 study in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine. More than 1,800 farmers age 65 and older have died in work-related accidents in the past decade, or 38 percent of the U.S. total.
And the farming community is aging with the rest of the population, suggesting that safety will become an even bigger issue. Nationally, the typical farmer was 58.3 years old in 2012, up from 50.5 in 1982.
In Minnesota, where a quarter of principal farm operators are now 65 or older, the average age is 56.6.
Researchers say older farmers often die in accidents that younger workers can survive.
“Lethality increases with age,” said Fred Gerr, a University of Iowa professor who also is a director of the Heartland Center for Occupational Health and Safety.
Older farmers are more likely to crack down on safety violations by others, especially their children, than to follow those rules themselves, according to a Star Tribune review of accident reports and interviews with surviving family members. But almost nothing is being done to raise awareness of the problem. Most safety campaigns focus on accidents involving children, who account for a tiny portion of farm deaths in the U.S.
Ruth Meirick, director of the Minnesota Farm Bureau Foundation, said she plans to make safety among older farmers a priority.
“We’re tremendously concerned,” Meirick said. “A lot of our mature farmers are not practicing what we’re preaching.”
In Minnesota, dozens of farmers have died in accidents related to previous injuries or ongoing health problems.
In 10 accidents, elderly workers were killed while riding all-terrain vehicles, often because mobility problems made it too hard for them to walk or ride a horse around their sprawling farms. Nationwide, ATV fatalities among farmers have increased more than fourfold in the past decade.
One 78-year-old Minnesota farmer slipped off his tractor, apparently because his prosthetic hook was not working properly. He died after being run over by the machine.
A 79-year-old farmer was crushed while working on a tractor in his shed. His wife thinks he probably didn’t hear it slip off the jacks because of hearing problems.
Respect for the land
Ray Guenther was still farming at 82 even though he suffered from dementia.
“He loved farming and he just wouldn’t give it up,” said his wife, Ann Guenther.
Guenther wore his battle scars proudly. He had been bitten by a rabid mink and accidentally shot by a .22 rifle. He had tipped over several tractors. At age 72, he hit his head on the combine, sustaining a bloody wound.
“He always talked about his 13 lives,” Ann said. “But I think that head injury took a toll on him.”
Ray tired easily, and Ann said she was always pestering him to take a nap if he planned to work late. She said he usually followed her advice, except on July 6, 2011, when he went out after dinner to bale hay. Ray fell off the moving tractor, probably because he fell asleep, she said.
“He never had a fear of the land like I do,” Ann said. “I respect it.”
Unlike many older farmers, who often die before help arrives, Ray had a chance to survive his accident. The paramedics told Ann they could revive her husband after his heart stopped and treat his severe burns and crushed bones. She refused.
“He wanted to die on the farm, with his boots on,” Ann said. “A lot of people criticized us because we let him go, but that was his wish. … He’d get so depressed when he went to visit my cousin in the nursing home. He’d come home and say, ‘I never want to go there.’ And I always said, ‘I’ll never do that. I’ll take care of you.’ ”
Some safety advocates have virtually given up on older farmers, frustrated by their lack of interest in mechanical advances and training opportunities.
“I think you have to work on the younger people,” said Murphy, the Penn State researcher. “You can’t think of changing things in the next couple of years. It’s a generational thing.”
Others, however, believe more should be done to reach older farmers and their wives, who are often more receptive to safety messages. In Alabama, farm safety specialist Jesse LaPrade uses graphic photos of accident victims to show farmers the consequences of unsafe conduct.
“Farmers are kind of hardheaded,” LaPrade said. “You have to get through to them and show them the things that are happening so they say, ‘Oh, I guess that could happen to me.’ You don’t want them to have to see these terrible pictures, but sometimes that is the key.”
Some farmers keep working because they can’t imagine doing anything else. Others don’t have a choice.
Low or uncertain incomes make it tough for many farmers to save for retirement. Also, with fewer farm children going into the business, some older farmers feel an obligation to continue working the land.
Wanda Stark said her husband considered retiring until he took a personality test. The results frightened her. “If we moved off the farm, he would not live long,” said Stark, whose husband died last year at age 72 in a tractor accident. “You can’t take farming out of a farmer.”
Tractor accidents accounted for about half of the fatalities involving older farmers, who are less likely to add rollover protection to their aging tractors, which often lack cabs or roll bars that can help a farmer survive a crash. A University of Kentucky survey of more than 8,000 farms in that state showed that one in nine farmers age 55 and older had been involved in at least one tractor rollover.
Ted Salonek Jr. tried to ease his father out of farming by offering to rent his land at a “ridiculous” price. He was worried about the increasing weakness in his father’s arms, the looseness of his grip. But his father wouldn’t take the deal.
“I think my dad held on too tightly,” Salonek said.
In October 2010, Ted Salonek Sr. was emptying the soybeans from one of his grain bins so he’d have a place to put his corn, which was ready to harvest. But the beans were clumping together and clogging the auger, so he went into the bin with a long metal pole to break them up. The 77-year-old fell in and was asphyxiated.
Salonek wasn’t wearing a harness or a rope, even though a warning on the inside of his bin cautioned that such equipment was necessary to avoid suffocation in an accident. In fact, on the day he died, Ted Sr. and his son talked about how a neighbor had recently been rescued by the local fire department after he fell into his bin.
“He said, ‘How could a guy get caught like that?’ ” Ted Jr. recalled.
Salonek’s sons say their father would admonish them if he caught them doing something reckless. But Ted Jr. said his father could be blind to the dangers he faced himself.
“Farmers are mavericks,” he said. “My dad was going to do things his way.”
Ted Jr. admits he had his own near-death experience in a grain silo, when he went in without first clearing out the bad air and was overcome by fumes. A friend pulled him out. A cousin survived a similar incident in a grain bin. But they didn’t swap stories until his father’s funeral. Ted Jr. thinks sharing that information might have persuaded his father to take grain bin safety more seriously, but he said farmers are often too proud and don’t talk about the near misses.
“You don’t say, ‘Hey, want to hear about the dumb decision I made last night?’ ” Ted Jr. said.
Working with disabilities
For 20 years, there has been one place that injured farmers in Minnesota have been able to go to learn from one another’s mistakes. But the admission price is steep. The farmers who belong to this club have lost limbs and suffered other permanent disabilities because of farm accidents.
Since 2010, 152 farmworkers have participated in Minnesota AgrAbility, a federally funded program that helps disabled farmers return to work by finding technology to deal with their limitations. Each year, farmers gather for an annual conference, where they trade stories and share safety tips.
Al Rasmussen, longtime director of Minnesota AgrAbility, said that one farm injury often leads to another sometimes more serious one. “We had to make sure we weren’t putting them at more risk by assisting them to go back to work, even though most of them had no other way to have full-time employment,” he said.
Rasmussen estimated that about half the farmers who have gone through the program in Minnesota have later experienced some type of injury, but he said no one has died in a work-related accident.
Like most farmers, Scott Collier had no idea the program existed until a farm accident left him unable to walk two years ago. He was replacing a tire on his auger when a metal strut collapsed and pinched his spine.
Collier thought his farming days were over, but a county agricultural agent visited him in the hospital and helped him get into the AgrAbility program. Altogether, he has received $68,000 worth of equipment, all of it paid for by the government.
He installed lifts on his tractors and his combine, allowing him to continue planting and harvesting his own corn and soybeans at his farm in Montgomery. He got a $15,000 wheelchair with track wheels that allows him to ride standing up. He uses it to inspect his fields for weed levels without getting stuck, like he did on his first wheelchair.
This past spring, he planted his first crop since his accident. The rows aren’t as straight as he’d like, but it might be his best harvest in years.
“I was nervous at first,” said Collier, 54, who still requires help from neighbors to attach equipment. “But oh jeez, it was great.”
In 2014, AgrAbility’s future in Minnesota looked dismal after the state lost a federal grant that is available to a limited number of states. But the program was saved this spring after the Legislature approved a $1 million grant to Assistive Technology of Minnesota, a nonprofit group that administers the effort. Carol Fury-Fistman, CEO of the nonprofit, is now trying to raise $4 million in private donations.
“AgrAbility is a great program,” said Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson. “It allows people to get back in the combine and tractor with specialized equipment. That is important. But at the same time, our focus here should be on preventing those kinds of injuries.”
ABOUT THIS SERIES
In researching this series, the Star Tribune obtained records from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for all deaths related to crop farming and livestock production from 1992 to 2013, the most recent data available. We excluded cases that BLS officials classified as unspecified because they could not determine whether the deaths involved farming or other types of agricultural operations, such as logging or fishing. The Star Tribune also reviewed thousands of death certificates to identify possible farming accidents in Minnesota. We obtained investigative records from sheriff's departments that responded to those accidents, as well as reports from the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry and the Minnesota State Patrol. We also interviewed more than 100 people who lost a friend, co-worker or relative in a farming accident.
The Star Tribune calculated state fatality rates by comparing the number of farm deaths from 2003-2013 to the total number of farm workers in each state, including all operators, hired laborers, migrant workers and unpaid laborers. Worker data came from the 2012 census conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.