Although injuries, and even death, are a consistent facet of harvest each year, 2019 is on a collision course with heightened danger. A chaotic planting season extending well beyond spring necessitates a late fall harvest—opening the floodgates on a mad rush of activity. Whether related to the prolonged peril of wet grain storage or the immediate impact of farm machinery accidents, the increasing threat of a troubled 2019 harvest looms large for U.S. farmers.
Into the Bin
The Indiana farmland surrounding Bill Field is telltale. In most years, Field’s neighbors have corn finished by mid-April, but in 2019, hounded by consistent spring cold and rain, corn was planted until June 6 , and over a month later, by mid-July, the crop was far behind the norm—as in knee-high, when it should have been tasseled out. The dangers of a late harvest and a sidecar of wet grain are particularly alarming to Field, the foremost authority on grain bin entrapments and engulfments in the U.S., and professor of agricultural health and safety at Purdue University.
At present, concerns over the dangers of high-moisture corn storage are clearly borne out in a sister crop—soybeans, Field describes. After a particularly difficult 2018 harvest season in many regions of the South, high-moisture soybeans were fed into many bins, and the effect is hitting home. “In the past month, we’ve seen four entrapments in soybeans as guys try to finally move that crop. The lesson shows what happens when grain goes in wet, and it reinforces what could happen this fall with corn.”
(See also, Against All Odds: Farmer Survives Epic Ordeal)
A decade in the past, the wet fall of 2009 serves as a billboard pointing forward to potential danger in 2019. In 2010, following the 2009 high-moisture harvest, 59 documented cases of grain entrapment were noted at agconfinedspaces.org—the highest number of entrapments on record for a single year. “Those 59 were just the ones recorded or reported on,” Field says. “The data shows what can happen with corn storage after a wet fall, and the high risk is here again for 2019.”
The No. 1 correlation between entrapments and storage facilities is centered on housekeeping. A clean bin area is far less conducive to a grain accident, Field explains. However, the second closest correlation relates to storage and grain moisture content. “Put that grain in at 18%, 19% or higher and you can almost guarantee spoilage. Even without driers, grain facilities can mix and store grain to deal with moisture, but they move the grain quickly—but farmers go with long-term storage and that’s a huge potential problem when a guy leaves a 100,000 bu. bin full for a year.”
Field has participated in over 25 grain bin death-related civil cases, and he’s documented a wide range of negligent bin behavior involving wet corn. In a memorable case, Field recalls a roof leak that created a crusted, vertical column of grain extending from base to ceiling. The grain producer entered the bin with a pickax, set to work on the column, and was killed by the subsequent corn avalanche. “When I went inside, the column still reached 17’ 4” high into the air, and was almost 4’ wide at the base,” he recalls.
Regarding the upcoming 2019 harvest, Field advises growers to be patient. “I suggest guys wait as long as possible, and use the field and sun as long as possible. Purdue University is recommending some guys explore options for silage with dairy and beef producers. Consider options other than storage, because if your corn is not at storage maturity, then you are headed for problems down the road, period.”
Can’t Happen to Me
Estimating harvest at roughly “five to six weeks behind,” Fred Whitford warns about an approaching log-jam of activity. “We’re going to hit cold weather and everybody is going to be working day and night, which is exactly what guys had to do at planting. Guys will push themselves and their equipment to the max, and we have to realize those are the times when people get hurt or killed.”
Whitford, a clinical engagement professor at Purdue University, and director of Purdue Pesticide Programs, says most ag-related accidents are preventable. “I bet 90% of these accidents could have been stopped, but we were wore out and going too fast—weariness and high speed. Take a power nap for 20 minutes out of the day, and be aware of who is driving your vehicles.”
Each year, Whitford consistently encounters individual producers carrying a “can’t happen to me” attitude. “It makes no difference if you’ve never had an accident in 40 years. Just think of all your near-misses—some were your fault and some were the fault of others. In a second, what did or didn’t take place could have been catastrophic.”
Whitford urges farmers to place “slow-moving” signs on the back of all equipment—both for safety and legal purposes. “Typically, farmers aren’t the ones that end up getting hurt in equipment accidents, so put up a slow-moving vehicle sign to alert others, and to keep your operation legally safe.”
Dirty windshields, driving speeds, improper lighting, railroad crossings and more, Whitford suspects the 2019 harvest is ripe for danger. “I anticipate a couple of people killed at railroad crossings, and at stop signs that get ignored. These will be the same guys who’ve been on that same road 1,000 times before.”
With day-and-night farm activity around the bend, Whitford cautions growers to give heavy consideration to safety. “Protect the public, protect your farm, and protect your livelihood.”