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Silo gas, tractor accidents, angry heifers: the hazards of farming

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Randi B. Hagi
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Cattle photographed along Route 42 in the Shenandoah Valley.

A group of Rockingham County farmers got together on Saturday for a program that aims to reduce work-related injuries. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

[crowd sitting at tables, talking]

On Saturday evening, about 35 people gathered for a dinner program near Clover Hill in Rockingham County. Most of them were dairy farmers. Others dealt in beef, some poultry, and several were still babes in arms. They were brought together by the local Cooperative Extension office and healthcare providers to watch a few skits about farm hazards and injuries, in the hopes of sparking conversations about their own safety.

Broadway High School students Maggie Toothman and Jackie Diaz, teacher Herb Hoffeditz, and farmer Vince Rhodes were the evening's actors. Listeners should be advised that agricultural puns are involved.

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Randi B. Hagi
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Maggie Toothman (left) and Jackie Diaz, students at Broadway High School, acted out the dramatic readings on Saturday.

VINCE RHODES: You've got that high blood pressure. Farming takes a toll on our health.

[baby babbling in the room]

HERB HOFFEDITZ: I guess it does. If the government would just stay out of it – you know, in California, they're banning round bales?

MAGGIE TOOTHMAN: What? That's the best way to feed!

HOFFEDITZ: Yes, I know! But those PETA people are claiming that cows aren't getting a square meal anymore!

[audience chuckles]

Similar events have been held elsewhere in the state, but this was the program's debut in the Shenandoah Valley.

JEREMY DAUBERT: This is a research-based program, so there's a lot of data that says the process works for making change in the community.

Jeremy Daubert is Rockingham County's dairy extension agent. He and his wife used to run a dairy farm, and they still raise animals on the side. Most of the evening's attendees were people he works with often through the extension office.

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Randi B. Hagi
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From left: Jeremy Daubert from the Rockingham County Cooperative Extension office, and Michelle Seekford and Tammy Kiser from Valley Urgent Care & Occupational Medicine.

DAUBERT: I mean, you offer good food and people will come! [laughs] So we had really good food, and people were here, and there were some interactions and a lot of discussions after the official meeting was over, so I think it went well.

According to a recent Washington Post analysis, farmers rate among the happiest and most fulfilled working adults compared to those in other industries. But the profession is also inherently dangerous.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranks agriculture among the most hazardous industries, tallying more than 350 farmwork-related deaths in 2020 – many of them due to tractors overturning. And a Penn State study supported by the United States Department of Agriculture found that nonfatal farm injuries are likely underreported in surveys, with 60,000 people being treated in emergency departments for such injuries from 2015 to 2019. The most common injuries were fractures, followed by open wounds and amputations, with tractors again being the most common source of injury.

Michelle Seekford, a family nurse practitioner and the owner of Valley Urgent Care in Harrisonburg, helped organize Saturday's dinner program.

MICHELLE SEEKFORD: Within our clinic, we see a lot of folks that have had interactions, maybe, with animals where they have gotten run over by a cow or mauled by a steer or a heifer. We may get lacerations because they've been working with a piece of equipment and got cut. Sometimes we will see folks that have had repetitive trauma injuries from lifting bales of hay or moving equipment.

After each skit, attendees had an opportunity to discuss their own experiences. People were reticent at first, but they were swapping stories by the end of the evening – many having to do with getting pinned by animals or silo incidents, including fires and gas exposure.

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Tim and Karen Liskey own a dairy farm in Rockingham County.

TIM LISKEY: We fill silos twice a year. … Most of the time it's not a problem, but when the conditions are just right, and it was that time for me, that gas built up.

Tim Liskey, who owns a dairy farm on the east side of Harrisonburg, told me about his run-in with silo gas – a toxic byproduct that can build up as the forage ferments. High levels of exposure can result in chemical pneumonia or even death.

LISKEY: Luckily, I wasn't exposed at a high level, but I did go to UVa for five days. … Luckily I had no scar tissue damage in my lungs. … I learned afterwards that I could get a gas meter from the Rockingham Fire Department, and it's free to use. … They showed me how to use it, and it's pretty simple.

Liskey and other farmers commiserated about always being in a rush to finish a task or beat the weather – and how that can lead to mishaps.

LISKEY: A lot of things are out of our control, but we do have the choice, I reckon, to think a little bit about the consequences if we're in too much of a hurry sometimes. … I think it's just good to review with fellow farmers, and sometimes I think we learn off of each other quicker than if we just read something. … Share personal experiences about it.

The extension office will host more dinner theater events up and down the Shenandoah Valley later this year.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.