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Recent Increase In Farm Accidents Tied To Old Equipment, Lack Of Experience

Experts say old machinery is responsible for the majority of fatal accidents. The machines carry a good deal of sentimental value, like these tractors at the Morgan County Fair pictured earlier this summer. (Seth Tackett, WFIU/WTIU News)

A troubling trend is developing among Indiana farms.

Studies from Purdue University say farm deaths are on the rise after decades of declines. There were 34 farm-related deaths last year in Indiana.

While those numbers are significantly down from when the study began some 40 years ago, there’s been a recent increase. Adam Kuntz recently lost his father in an accident. He says the economics of agriculture make it hard for small farmers to afford new, safer equipment.

Kuntz recalls the day he lost his father.

"I heard the sirens and mom called me frantically screaming about dad needs help," he says. "So I jumped down from the deer stand and got on the 4-wheeler and shot up there and seen the scene. There was just one skid mark from the left side of the tractor tire going down the hill and that’s it. [The tractor] flung over and fell on top of him. So honestly, no one knows what really happened."

Adam Kuntz recalls his father's death. Tractor rollover accidents are the number one of cause of farm deaths since Purdue University's study began. (Seth Tackett, WTIU/WFIU News)

He says economics forced the family out of farming for a few years. But he and his father planned to get back into the fields in the spring of 2015. Adam’s father, Charles, was taking the tractor for a drive that October. It was something he often did even if there wasn't a need to take it out of the barn. It was theraputic for Charles.

"When he [Charles Kuntz] had to quit farming, it was a downer you could see it in him," his son Adam recalls. "It tore him up to have to quit."

Adam Kuntz now farms 300 acres. It’s a smaller operation compared to other Indiana farms.  

That makes it hard for him to afford new equipment and the advances in technology that comes with it.

"Not all of us can afford those $250,000 tractors and combines which is what it’s up to now," he says. "We just repair and keep everything we’ve got going. There’s just no way. It’s just not in the budget."

New Equipment Comes At A High Cost, But Carries Improvements

Despite the high cost, equipment has seen significant evolutions—especially when it comes to safety.  Jonathan White is an Ag Service Technician at Reynolds Farm Equipment in Atlanta, Indiana.

"A lot of the things that have made it safer are warning messages that you see in the cab," he says the display systems in a tractor now show significant amounts of information. New equipment comes with cameras and other safety monitoring features.

On the ground, White says many moving parts are covered. "I would say shields cover 90 percent of the moving components," he says. "The operator nor is anyone around the machine is going to come into contact with the moving components."

Advances like that explain why the profession has gotten safer. Bill Field is an Extension Specialist at Purdue University. He’s been studying farm fatalities in Indiana for decades and says while overall numbers have decreased significantly there’s a lot of nuance to what is happening.

"One of the groups that are growing rather quickly in the state are small hobby farmers or avocational farmers—people who are doing it because they like it," he says. "These farmers tend to go out and buy used equipment so if we look at the data about a quarter of all fatalities are part time farmers."

It can be hard for smaller operators to afford new equipment. Field says a tractor is one of the most significant investments a farmer will make other than land.

"If they can run things a little bit longer or let parts go a little bit longer or belts go a little bit longer, [farmers will save money]. "Eventually if [the parts] do fail in the field that’s when they become frustrating and that’s when we see people injured," Field says.

But in Indiana and most other states, there isn’t an accident reporting requirement for farmers with fewer than eleven employees and even in larger operations family members are exempt.  

While Field says regulation can be expensive and burdensome, he admits there are holes in his data. He looks at death certificates, media coverage, and a number of other sources to compile his report, but thinks the numbers could be even higher.

"If you’re bit by a dog in the state of Indiana the attending physician is required by law to report that," he says. "You could lose your arm in a power take off accident on a farm and that’s not a reportable incident."  

Fields says there’s a charm in driving an old tractor much like driving an antique car, and that’s certainly something Charles Kuntz could relate to. His son Adam says he never thought about giving up the profession because of his father's death. Adam says he'll picture his father on the tractor.

"Honestly, that was his pride and joy. He took care of it and it’s actually on his grave stone. That was him; sitting on that tractor. It’s hard to tell you how many hours he spent on that tractor. Every fall and spring so yeah that’s just how I picture him."

Since the study began, tractor rollovers have accounted for the single largest category of all farm-related deaths.

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