Last week, the Belle Plaine community was shocked by the death of 74-year-old Rodger Slater, of Eagan, who was killed in a farm accident in Faxon Township, six miles south of Belle Plaine, where he’s farmed for many years. This was the fourth death in Minnesota involving grain bins or other agricultural confined spaces, coming only weeks after St. Peter teenager Landon Gran was killed by an auger in a grain bin.
According to Belle Plaine Fire Chief Steve Otto, the recent rescue attempt outside of Belle Plaine was the first time he has been involved with a farm accident of that nature in his 20-year career.
“It went as well as the situation could [go],” he said. “It [takes] a lot of resources and manpower when you have to start draining those bins. It would have been nicer if we could have saved the individual, but unfortunately we couldn’t.”
Otto said his department trains for those types of situations, with firefighters learning about high-angle rescues and rope rescue techniques. He added that these situations have been “on the rise” lately, adding that farmers can face especially dangerous situations in wet years. This is because moisture can seep into crops and result in moldy, hard produce that doesn’t easily empty out of grain bins, which means that farmers need to work toward loosening up the crop.
“When the farmer wants to empty their bins this time of year, before the new crop, they run into issues with not being able to unload their bin,” Otto explained. “I know there are times when farmers have to go in those bins, but just to be smart about it.”
He stressed the importance of disabling any power sources within the bin, such as augers, so no machinery can accidentally start up when farmers are inside. In addition, he also cautioned farmers to never go into a bin by themselves.
“They should always have at least a spotter there in case something does happen, so they can intervene and get help there as soon as possible,” he said. “Just slow down and take your time. A lot of guys are in a rush to get things done, and these guys do this all their life, and they get a little slack because it’s never happened before. But the danger’s always there.”
Belle Plaine landowner Ewald Gruetzmacher has been farming corn and beans for more than 60 years, and he said he hasn’t been in many dangerous situations in that time. He added that there have been more accidents this year than he has remembered in a while, which he attributes to people just “not thinking.”
“You don’t just crawl in the bin if you’re [emptying out] soybeans,” he said. “You shut it off and then crawl in. That’s the no. 1 problem. The grain always comes from the top down, and it’ll suck you right in. If you’re [unloading], and if something happens that it quits running, you get a vacuum, and vacuum it out from the bottom. Don’t try to go in there to see if it’ll go when it’s running.”
As the community grieves lost loved ones, people are working towards preventing future farming accidents.
On Aug. 14, 18-year-old Landon Gran was killed in an accident at a neighbor’s farm. Now, his mother, Michele Gran, is advocating for new farm safety legislation called “Landon’s Law.”
“It just makes me angry that with all the deaths that have happened that nobody else has done anything else to do this, because then maybe Landon would have had a chance,” she said.
Gran spoke in front of the Nicollet County Farm Bureau during its annual meeting on Sept. 14, and she said the plan is to bring it forward as one of the topics at the Minnesota Farm Bureau’s yearly meeting in November. She has also begun talking with local lawmakers such as state senator Rich Draheim.
“They’re very receptive,” Gran said, “especially with the four deaths in a month, and one that just narrowly got out alive, it’s just something that needs to be done. I don’t understand why it hasn’t been done. Why is farming the no. 1 most dangerous occupation to be in? Why wouldn’t we do whatever we could to ensure [our families’] safety?”
“Landon’s Law” includes the push for more safety measures on farm equipment, such as a whole basket over sweep augers so that farmers can’t fall into the machinery. In addition, Gran is advocating for interior ladders and wearable remote auger shut-off devices.
Gran said she is hoping for federal or state funding to be made available to farmers so that they can implement these safety measures. She also suggested that insurance providers raise farmers’ rates if they don’t comply to new safety standards.
“It’s also [about] getting the older generation to comply, [since] they’re so stuck in their ways,” she said. “They haven’t got hurt so far, [so] a lot of them say they’ll take their chances. But we can’t do that. There’s older farmers, younger farmers, mothers, kids… Everybody is susceptible to those injuries. Every one of them is a dagger to my heart again, and I’ve got to do something as a mother.”
In addition to working with local lawmakers, Gran met with an engineer to learn more about the possibility of creating wearable remote shut-off devices. She said that the engineer said the device is doable and just needs enough funding.
Gran said she is committed to seeing this process through and firm about standing up for her son’s legacy.
“They said something about how I might have to change Landon’s Law [to a different name], but I’m not willing to do that,” she said. “There were so many other deaths before Landon… Why didn’t somebody take the bull by the horns and do something about it? It took his death for it to be recognized, and I think it should be something he should be recognized for.”
But for her, the biggest concern is simply keeping people safe.
“I’m doing this not only for Landon’s memory; I’m doing this for all the farmers out there so we don’t have to have these senseless deaths,” she said. “This is crazy. The amount of heartache that is involved with something like this that could have been prohibited… we’ve just got to do something.”
A rising senior at St. Peter High School, Landon Gran was an active member of the school’s FFA and a member of the school trapshooting team, qualifying for a national tournament. One of his favorite hobbies was restoring his 1978 Ford pickup. He planned to go to South Central College to study agribusiness and agriculture equipment maintenance, with a future goal of helping his father run the family farm.
“Landon was a red, white and blue guy,” Gran said. “He had a rough exterior, but when it came down to somebody in trouble, I got many messages from mothers who said he saved their child from bullies. In the playground [and] the locker room, he was the one who stood up for the underdog. He was a good, good kid. He made a difference in this world, and he would’ve made a difference. If somebody, a neighbor or friend, had gotten in the same accident, Landon would have been advocating for change, and now I’ve got to do it for him. It’s my mission. It’ll help with the grieving, knowing that, maybe, we’re going to save some lives from this, and his death won’t be in vain.”
In Landon’s memory, there’s a scholarship fundraiser planned for Saturday, Sept. 21, at the St. Peter High School, called “Roll’n for Landon.”
What: Roll’n for Landon
When: 10 a.m. - 4 p.m., Sept. 21
Where: St. Peter High School
Details: Participants can enter trucks, cars and motorcycles into the car show. All proceeds will benefit a Memorial Scholarship Fund created to honor Landon Gran.
Cost: $10 for lunch, $10 for vehicle registration
More Info: Email email@example.com or call 612-296-3972.
South Central College instructor Jim Zwaschka has been giving farm safety demonstrations for about 10 years, working to educate both the public and first responders called to the scene of accidents. These demonstrations include simulated grain bin engulfment, rescue techniques, prevention strategies, and other ways to stay safe while on the farm.
Zwaschka said that there has been growing interest in how to safely work on farms, with more requests for that type of information. He recently had an educational exhibit at Minnesota FarmFest in early August.
“This is the first year we’ve been asked to do any type of [farm safety] education,” he said. “It was a good opportunity to get word out to the public, to try and get some awareness of how dangerous a lot of the things we work with in agriculture.”
Zwaschka said that a lot of farm safety revolves around being prepared before going into situations.
“If you’re talking to farmers, or people who enter grain bins, part of that being working with safe entry, having appropriate people around, letting people know that you’re doing it, and shutting off equipment before entering,” he said. “Do you have a pre-plan? Does everyone on the farm know what needs to be done in case there is an incident?”
He added that part of the problem recently is that farmers, like many other employers, have struggled to find enough help. Because of this, farms are often short-staffed, and farmers are stretched thin as they try to quickly complete all the work they need to do.
“Everybody’s looking for employees,” he said. “Everybody’s trying to do more with less. It’s kind of like you read the procedure, [which says], ‘Never enter x, never do y…’ But you get to the point where it’s something that needs to get done and has to happen.”
According to Zwaschka, there’s “always a danger” while working on a farm, even when people are trying to be careful.
“The decision to be safe when doing it is like anything else,” he said. “People try their best to do things safely, but it’s still [possible to have] an accident or an incident. There are companies working on equipment to make sure that people are safe, like harnesses, [but] even use of the safety equipment does not guarantee absolute safety.”
Here are some strategies and practices that Zwaschka recommends for staying safe on the farm:
• Use the buddy system when working in grain bins and other enclosed spaces.
• Use a lifeline or harness.
• Never enter a structure with running machinery, such as augers or emptying equipment.
• Create a pre-plan in case of an emergency.
• Ensure people know rural addressing to best help emergency responders arrive at the exact location needed.
A Senator’s Perspective
State Senator Rich Draheim said he is happy to carry a bill advocating for safer farming conditions into Minnesota’s next legislative session, calling it something Minnesotans “need to look at.”
“I just look back, and I know there’s been some suggestions before, from other groups, on grain bin safety,” he said, pointing out that other safety measures, such as roll-over bars, have been addressed in recent years. “The next progression in farm safety should be grain bins.”
Draheim said he is still looking into the best and safest way to move forward, adding that he hopes to spur discussion into the topic so that more ideas can come up.
“I’m going to keep an open mind,” he said. “By bringing the bill forward, hopefully we’ll bring the conversation to the forefront. I don’t know what’ll fly and what won’t, but I’m happy to bring [these ideas] forward, and hopefully have a robust discussion and bring some awareness to it, and hopefully have something passed. I just can’t imagine losing my 18-year-old son to a tragedy like this.”
While Draheim said he hopes to bring the bill to the next legislative session, he stressed that education is the most important aspect of all.
“We can pass all the laws in the world, but you’ve got to get the people who work on these farms, the farmers, to do it,” he said. “We have to educate the population on the hazards of grain bins. I think [this bill] could go on next session, and I’m going to make it a priority, but to make real change, you have to change the minds of people.”