There’s nothing easy about life on a family farm — a point brought home again in the recent Star Tribune series “Tragic Harvest.”
Writer Jeffrey Meitrodt reported that farm deaths in Minnesota are on the rise. From 2003 to 2013, there were 210 work-related deaths on farms in the state, up 30 percent from the previous decade. And the newspaper’s analysis of the 210 deaths found that at least two-thirds could be linked to practices that violate federal workplace rules. Meitrodt’s series also looked at the dangers of outdated tractors, as well as the demographic challenge of aging farmers who are more likely to have accidents.
We’ll never know how many of the 210 deaths could have been prevented. Family farmers are hardworking, independent-minded business owners whose financial success often depends on getting work done as efficiently as possible. In some cases, that means pushing the envelope on safety practices that they are well aware of but choose to ignore.
Nevertheless, “Tragic Harvest” deserves serious consideration by policymakers. Budget cuts on the federal level and a lack of focus on farm safety by state officials are critical factors that need attention.
The jump in farm deaths is an “indictment” of state safety efforts, former Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Jim Nichols told Meitrodt, adding that “We’ve got to start thinking differently.”
For starters, Minnesota officials should look to the state of Washington. Farmers there have bought into what Meitrodt describes as the nation’s most comprehensive agricultural safety program — one that stands in sharp contrast to the lax approach in Minnesota.
Family farmers in Minnesota deserve better — from stronger agricultural safety programs to improved regulation that focuses not on large penalties for safety violations, but on helping farmers avoid injuries and even death.