I was sitting here thinking about how I’m glad I don’t wear my mistakes on my person. Like many of my farming kin, I have done some really thoughtless things on the farm. It seems that the end of a long day, under the sun, with deadlines looming, animals needing to be fed, and bills needing to be paid is not the best time to make decisions. A couple of years ago I made one that almost took my life.
Moving hay bales is always precarious. Whether you’re cruising in John Deere 6125R holding double bales, or like me, putt putting along on a 1952 John Deere 420, it doesn’t take much to mess up. I had been moving round bales to the cattle wintering area with this tractor for a couple of years now and I can assure you I was completely overconfident. I enjoyed rattling around in that seat, watching the sun go down and quickly making my way around the bedded down fawns that hide in the tall grasses. This was the ultimate alone time on the farm and I reveled in it.
On this particular night I was headed to retrieve a bale that had gotten away from the bailer and rolled down onto a remote part of the front field. When I say this area is steep I am not kidding. This hill is the kind that would make Greg Lemond’s legs ache and I suspect the scant one inch of topsoil is all this incline will be able to support. Mistake number one, this hill was way too steep for my 29 hp rear wheeled tractor built when I Love Lucy was still in rotation. I headed down the hill, backed the hay spike into the bale and began lifting if off the ground. Mistake number two. These bales were heavy. So heavy that the hydraulics, when applied with full throttle, could only lift it off the ground a few inches.
I figured that I could zigzag my way up the hill as turning and facing the hill would most obviously flip the tractor backwards. I had previously tried going up the hill backwards, but because the bale was so low on the spike, the bale kept grounding out making travel in this way impossible. Mistake number three. I began the zig zag up the incline.
I have to stop here and relay my idiotic notion of tractor accidents. I knew they were common, I knew that many farmers with far more experience had perished, and I knew that this was a bad idea. Still I figured, and this is so hard for me to admit, that I would just jump of the tractor if it every started to roll away from me. I assumed that I would have the time to let go, coil my legs, and then jump clear of two thousand pounds of steel as it chased me down the hill…ultimately this is mistake number four as the average time it takes for a tractor to roll over is .75 seconds.
As I began the zag across the hilly pasture the wheels completely lost their grip and the added weight on the back began to cause the tractor to slide backwards. The machine began to slide back and forth down the incline in an S pattern gathering momentum and speed. I did not have the time or the angle to jump from the machine and continued to try and regain control but at this time all was lost. I was along for the ride, a victim of the accumulation of too many mistakes.
In that moment I was awash in a sea of my stupidity and more importantly a beneficiary of luck. The tractor slowed and came to a stop at the bottom of the hill. I was honestly surprised to be alive. I wasn’t in shock at what had happened, after all I had caused it, but I was scared. I shut the machine down and sat in the damp dusky grass looking out over the valley and the sunset. I was shaking and decided to take a walk. Twenty minutes later I got back on the tractor, dropped the bail, and took the tractor back to the barn.
How stupid would I have felt if I had been trapped under that machine, breathing my last breath, with the smell of the soil, and the regret of my mistakes my last thoughts and senses. How would I have felt if I had lost my legs or an arm under the hot engine as its weight took away all of my farming dreams. I started to think about this while reading a piece called “Your farm is trying to kill you” about the dangers of farm work. This was an embarrassing story for me to recount but I hope it gets my point across. I am no longer cavalier in my farm work. I treasure finding the easiest, quietest, and most efficient to do things on the farm. Now the animals come to the hay instead of me bringing it to them and I don’t even own a tractor anymore because I have shown I am not to be trusted on them, and it burned up in a fire anyway.
I know a lot of farmers who are missing fingers and some that are missing legs due to on farm injuries. Every one of them would tell you that they or someone that they were working with messed up. They have to live with the memories and mistakes on display on their person for the whole world to see. I’m glad that I don’t have to live with that, that I am still here, and I have nothing but respect for those who have paid with their life or limb for something they love. Farming is inherently dangerous and the last American industry to truly be unregulated, so it is up to all of us to watch out for one another and be sure that we are making prudent decisions on our operations.
To help you with that, here is a link to the Roll Over Protection System program that will give you rebates for putting a roll over protection bar and seatbelt on your tractor. Tractor rollovers are the leading cause of farm related deaths and ROPS are 99.9% effective in preventing these deaths. If you haven’t installed one, there is really only one question to ask yourself when considering adding this safety equipment to your farm: “Is your life worth $850 dollars?” That’s the average cost with rebate for the program.
I think you’re worth it and I bet your family and friends will agree with me!