Little Hazards on the Prairie

Ed Finkel
March 11, 2005

Whether it?s tractors rolling over, high-powered machinery that ensnares clothing or poisonous chemicals that look like fruit juice, farms can be dangerous places for young children who accompany their parents or older youth who do farm work themselves.
Although awareness of these hazards has grown during several decades of educational programs, public health advocates say, cultural and economic factors still impede efforts to improve youth safety on farms.

?I do think we have a mindset that ?it can?t happen to me, it wouldn?t ever happen to my family,? ? says Marilyn Adams, who knows otherwise from painful personal experience. Her 11-year-old son, Keith Algreen, died in a farm accident in 1986. That prompted her to start Farm Safety 4 Just Kids, a nonprofit based in Earlham, Iowa.

That educational program for parents and children and others like it bump up against the fatalistic mindset reflected by farmer and author Justin Isherwood. ?I would rather have kids in dangerous situations? so that they can learn to protect themselves, he says. ?It may be a rotten life. It may kill kids. I wish it weren?t so.?

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) estimates that each year, 100 children are killed on farms, a number that has stayed relatively constant for several years. Forty percent of the boys killed are 15 to 19, while 40 percent of the girls are under 5. Injuries declined from 32,800 in 1998 to 22,600 in 2001, according to NIOSH, but the number of farms also declined, which means the injury rate per 100 farms fell from 1.7 to 1.4, or 18 percent.

To better protect children, public health officials advocate measures such as prohibiting children?s access to work areas, installing physical barriers around hazards and instituting safe storage practices. But few follow the public health strategies to their fullest extent.

Adele Huser, co-owner of a two-family dairy farm in Pittsville, Wis., says her children, ages 13, 11 and 7, often go along while the adults work. ?They have their jobs,? she says. ?Even my little 7-year-old likes to grab a shovel and scoop poop. She knows that when the machinery is running, you stay away. She?s been raised with it.?

Nevertheless, attitudes have changed over the generations. ?Safety has become a little bit more of a priority,? says A.J. Ferguson, director of farm safety with the Utah Farm Bureau. ?Most every farmer or rancher in our state knows someone who has lost a finger, or an arm, or a member of their family in an accident.?

John Kollross, a dairy farmer and father of four in Arpin, Wis., sometimes takes his two oldest children, Mikalya, 9, and James, 7, out on his tractor. But while he drove a tractor at age 6, they have not, and he?s not sure when they will. ?There?s nothing wrong with taking kids out at a certain age,? he says. ?You just keep them at a safe spot.?

Imparting farm safety lessons has traditionally been left to parents like Kollross ? many of whom grew up engaging in practices that are now considered unsafe. So a growing number of community-based educational programs run by such organizations as 4-H, Future Farmers of America (FFA), Progressive Farmer magazine and Farm Safety 4 Just Kids deliver safety education directly to farm youth.

?The parents will say, ?Our son or daughter told us this, or that,? ? says Mark Purschwitz, agricultural safety and health specialist at the National Farm Medicine Center, which held a conference on youth farm safety here in June through its National Children?s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety. ?Some parents may have been aware of that extra hazard and needed that extra prodding, or even embarrassment.?

Others, however, fear youths might still keep silent or fail to convince their parents about the need for safety changes. ?We endorse for programs such as the safety day camps to have a parent track as well,? says Barbara Lee, director of the National Farm Medicine Center. ?You run into some situations where children are aware of the safety procedures and would like to have safer practices, but the parents are not willing to do it.?

That?s because of time and money constraints as well as lifestyle issues, says Mike Honeycutt, educational specialist with FFA. ?The parents want to see? their children, and the children ?want to see the parents,? he says. ?Especially in a farming situation, where you?re typically going to work until the sun goes down ? at [early summer] in Indiana, that?s 9:30 at night.?

Many safety advocates favor more government regulation to advance farm safety. But small farms are often exempt from regulations protecting worker health and safety, and kids working on their family farms have no such protections. Rural authorities often do not want to press neglect charges against parents whose children are injured or killed in farm tragedies.
Some doubt that regulations would help much. ?Those that don?t agree with it would break the law,? Lee says, and it?s unlikely anyone would know until an accident occurs.

Kollross wants no part of the government telling him, for example, whether his two oldest children should be accompanying him on his tractor. ?The last thing I want to see is have them pass a bunch of laws that make us all criminals,? he says.
Following are several programs that promote farm safety for youth:

Farm Safety 4 Just Kids
110 S. Chestnut
Earlham, IA 50072
(800) 423-5437

Founder Marilyn Adams wants Farm Safety 4 Just Kids to be a trusted friend of farm families, not a mouthpiece that?s shouting at people.

Adams believes her organization has gained that positive reputation, in part, due to the circumstances that inspired its founding in 1987. The year before, her son suffocated in a gravity flow wagon of shelled corn on his family?s Iowa farm.

?People have a clear understanding that I do farm safety from my heart,? Adams says. ?I do it because I care about other families.?

With nearly 3,000 members in 140 chapters across 33 states and four Canadian provinces, Farm Safety 4 Just Kids works to increase public awareness of safety issues and to provide information and resources to motivate farm families to make changes.

The national organization, with an annual budget of around $750,000 and nine staff members, is funded primarily by grants. Top donors in 2004 include Pioneer (a plant genetics developer under DuPont), Cargill (the marketer, processor and distributor of agricultural and food products), the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Nationwide Agribusiness, Archer Daniels Midland and Deere & Co. Adams says the national office provides ?small grants? to chapters, which raise most of their own funds through such means as collecting dues.

The educational programs focus on tractor and all terrain vehicle (ATV) safety, as well as how to handle farm animals, she says. ATVs are commonly used on farms to haul feed, seed, fertilizer and tractor fuel.

Some chapters? programs dovetail with those of other groups, such as 4-H, Future Farmers and Progressive Farmer, Adams says. ?We work jointly as much as we possibly can.?

She says the programs are aimed primarily at youth, but ?it?s best if the parents are a part of the program and can be involved in the teaching and the learning. It?s more than just telling the kids how it should be done and the kids having to take it back to the parents. It?s better if the parents are involved, to help reinforce tradition changes and behavior changes.?

Youth delegates review the material that?s produced by their chapters. ?Sometimes we will allow them to pick the name of a program, or a picture that goes on a flyer,? Adams says. ?We do utilize the youth experience, we utilize their creativity and make sure we have something that?s acceptable to kids.?

For example, she says, when the national office developed a pickup truck safety manual, youth from chapters across the country helped to determine the title (?Buckle Up or Eat Glass?) and to choose the photo (a smashed windshield).
The organization?s materials include a book and a recently released companion video called, ?Rhythm of the Seasons ? A Journey beyond Loss,? a first-person account of Adams? grieving process following after her son?s death.
To gauge its impact, the organization conducts surveys at the end of its programs and follow-up phone calls several months later. Researchers at the University of Kentucky expect to complete a three-year evaluation of the organization?s farm safety day camps in December.

Preliminary results of the evaluation, based on 1,220 responses from a half-dozen camps for third- through fifth-graders in Colorado, Wisconsin, Iowa, North Carolina and Kentucky, found that more than 90 percent of parents reported the camps had increased their children?s knowledge of farm safety and changed their behavior. The behavior changes included adopting ?no extra rider? rules for tractors and making animal confinement areas safer for kids.

?There are still an average of two children a week dying on farms,? Adams laments. ?For me, that means there?s at least that many kids who aren?t hearing our message ? or there?s some other reason those fatalities are continuing to happen.?Progressive Agriculture

P.O. Box 530425
Birmingham, AL 35253
(888) 257-3529

In 1990, Progressive Farmer magazine profiled nearly 100 farm accident victims, many of whom were children, pointing out how the tragedies could have been prevented through safety precautions.

The magazine followed up by creating a monthly department devoted to safety topics, and in 1995 it sponsored 19 safety day camps across the South and Midwest. After receiving more than 200 requests from other communities to run more camps, the magazine created its Progressive Agriculture Foundation to raise money for the burgeoning Farm Safety Day Camp program.
Aimed primarily at 8- to 13-year-olds, the camps cover a wide range of subjects, including ATV, electrical, fire and animal safety, says Susan Reynolds, executive director of programs. She says camp coordinators can tailor the programs to their communities? needs. ?They pick the topics they want to teach, based on the injuries and deaths they?re seeing in their community,? she says.
The foundation provides curricula, training and teaching materials, as well as such items as T-shirts, goody bags and banners, says Reynolds, who oversees a staff of three and an annual budget of about $1 million. Some camps raise operating funds by charging small fees, which typically run $3 to $5 per child and never more than $20 per family. But many of the one-day sessions are free, because the camps operate in donated space ? such as schools or community centers ? and with volunteer coordinators and instructors.

That volunteer workforce presents a challenge for the camps. ?Most of them [volunteers] have other jobs, other commitments, and it?s hard to get them to commit the time,? Reynolds says.

Transportation is another challenge, which is the reason the camps are often located at schools. ?We?re getting great support from the teachers and principals,? she says.

The foundation believes that by focusing on children, it also reaches parents. ?We chose to target children because we?ve seen the results when children tell parents, ?We?ve got to wear a seat belt,? ? Reynolds says. ?You?ve got to reach both.?

?When parents come as volunteers, come to help out with our program, we hear over and over again, ?Oh, I didn?t know that,? or, ?Oh, that?s new,? ? she adds. ?We do encourage the coordinators to include an adult component, but that doesn?t always happen.?

Does it work? ?We have no evaluation that says ?X percent of kids have influenced their parents,? ? says Sharry Nielsen, an extension educator who works with camps in Kearney and Franklin counties in Nebraska. ?We have stories where mom says that after Johnny attended the camp, Dad asked did he want to ride on the tractor, and he said, ?No, Dad, that?s not safe.? ?
Results from a University of Alabama survey conducted in 2000 show that 97 percent of participants and 99.5 percent of their parents would recommend Farm Safety Day Camps to other children; 92 percent of participants would go to another camp; 98 percent of parents would send their children to another camp; and two-thirds of adult volunteers said they had learned new safety information and planned to make changes at home.

National 4-H Council
7100 Connecticut Ave.
Chevy Chase, MD 20815
(301) 961-2908

Many youth believe they have little chance of affecting public policy debates, but 16-year-old West Virginia resident Joe Wells has learned otherwise.

Through his county 4-H chapter, Wells led a group of more than 100 kids from nine counties who successfully lobbied the West Virginia Legislature to pass a law requiring kids to take ATV vehicle safety classes and wear helmets when they ride. The state had 27 ATV deaths in 2003, one of the highest totals in the nation, according to 4-H. The law took effect in July.

Wells held a press conference on the issue in Charleston, the state capital, after which youths met with state legislators, says Mark Whitt, 4-H agent for Mingo County. ?We had some opposition from the farmers here in our state, because they didn?t want to be controlled,? Whitt says.

He says that under the new law, ?No matter where they are, even if they?re on private land, they must wear a helmet. If not, they can be fined, or the machine can be impounded.? 4-H ran pilots of the educational program last year in Utah, Louisiana and West Virginia, and it has since been taken nationwide, Whitt says. Utah has a similar ATV helmet law.

A century-old organization, 4-H operates through cooperative extensions in more than 3,000 counties, says Senior Vice President Susan Halbert. She is one of two staff members in the national office who work on safety programs, with a budget in the ?hundreds of thousands,? says spokesman David Henderson. (Allan Smith, national program leader for 4-H, says the exact budget for safety programs is not broken out. He says the bulk of spending on 4-H programs goes through the 105 land grant university cooperative extensions that comprise its local structure.)

?Susan spends the bulk of her time in the field, working with agents and clubs and teen leaders, building understanding of the program,? Henderson says. ?It?s a very small staff. By today?s standards, it?s really a shoestring budget.?

Smith says the ?small, administrative staff? in the national office provides coordination and consistency among the 105 extensions and organizes regional and national activities. The local programs vary widely, providing ?soup to nuts? farm safety education.

Aimed at children ages 8 and up, programs run by 4-H are typically held after school. Whitt says the Mingo County agency focuses its safety efforts on a seven-step ATV safety course that includes reviews of helmets and other safety gear; a ?fit like a glove? session to learn what size machines are appropriate for youth of various ages to ride; a session on ?riding double is trouble? and ?50 ways to say, ?Get off,? ? because most farm machines aren?t designed for two people; a ?hold your ground? role-playing exercise on how to avoid pop-up obstacles like a log or a deer, and lessons that emphasize ?riding with a clear head? and being a role model for younger children, as well as for adults.

?We use a hands-on, experiential way of training that?s much more interesting to kids than being lectured or reading a book,? Smith says.

?They work with the parents through the 4-H agent in some cases and promote ATV safety in their own communities,? Henderson says. ?It?s really kids driving this, working with an adult who?s a mentor.?

Future Farmers of America
6060 FFA Drive
P.O. Box 68960
Indianapolis, IN 46268
(317) 802-6060

Grain bins are one of the most dangerous places on a farm: It is not uncommon for someone to be crushed or suffocated by a sudden flow of grain. ?In every grain bin accident, there?s a different reason ? it occurred, says Clyde Johnson, an agriculture teacher and adviser to the Future Farmers of America (FFA) chapter in West Bend, Iowa. One typical scenario: Someone pours grain without realizing that a second person is in danger of being pinned by it.

That?s why during the past school year, FFA youth in West Bend participated in a mock grain bin disaster and heard pointers from local fire and emergency workers about how to free a person trapped under a large mound of grain. The FAA youth help organize a farm safety drill every year and play different roles in the drills, says Johnson, who teaches agriculture at Hawkeye High School.

The West Bend unit is one of more than 7,000 FAA chapters across the United States. They all carry out safety programs in their own ways, with guidance from the national office, says Mike Honeycutt, a former chapter adviser in North Carolina, who serves as an educational specialist in the national office.

Founded in 1928 and congressionally chartered in 1950, FFA is infused into public agricultural instruction under the National Vocational Education Act, but receives no federal funds. Local agriculture education instructors serve as advisers to its chapters, which are organized under state associations.

The national office, which represents more than 470,000 FFA members, develops such materials as workbooks and CDs on various topics, says Honeycutt, who estimates the total budget of FFA?s education division at $7 million. The topics run the gamut from plant and animal sciences to forestry and agri-marketing.

?We supply materials that deal with safety ? educational materials that a teacher can take and use in the classroom,? he says. Rather than having a safety program, per se, ?Safety is embedded in all those programs. It?s a much more effective way to do it, instead of having one program aimed at safety.?

Local chapters ? which Honeycutt says typically have annual budgets between $35,000 and $40,000 ? develop safety lessons based on those materials ?and pretty much anything else they can get their hands on.?

The West Bend chapter, which has 40 to 50 members, not only conducts the annual safety drills but also tries to infuse safety into all of its programs, says Johnson, the adviser.

Honeycutt believes programs aimed at kids may be more effective than those for adults. ?We would typically deal with a kid who said, ?Dad never uses helmet when he welds. He just closes his eyes and does the weld real fast,? ? he says. ?When you?re talking about somebody who has been farming for 20 or 25 years, those habits are harder to break, rather than dealing with 13- or 14- year- old kids.?

But kids can influence their parents, Honeycutt says. ?The one thing you can find in common is, all those parents on the farm would not want to see their child hurt,? he says. ?So they might be more open to working with them and doing things safely.?
The only occasions FFA has to measure the effectiveness of its safety instruction are when students perform at competitions in which safety is one component of the score, Honeycutt says. For example, at an agricultural mechanics competition, ?safety is a huge part of it, because you?re working with machinery, and there can be some very dangerous situations,? he says. ?There?s a very high premium on performing those skills safely.?

Ed Finkel can be reached at