DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- Ryan Wieck recently lost a friend in a crop-dusting accident, and while that profession comes with extraordinary risks, such tragedy often triggers thoughts of one's own vulnerabilities.
It doesn't help that the Texas Panhandle farmer has had his share of cringe-worthy near misses. Several years ago, he raised the high-clearance sprayer boom into three strands of overhead power line -- all while it was sitting in a mudhole created by the irrigation rig that had missed its stop and wrapped around the power pole.
"We all know farming is dangerous work," said Wieck, who hails from Umbarger in the Texas Panhandle. "We're moving big equipment with a lot of moving parts. It's loud. We're climbing, we're crawling in and under things, we're working around electricity, fuel chemicals and water.
"A lot of things happen when you're just standing in the wrong spot," he added.
Kellie Blair has a word for that. "Farming is unpredictable," said the Dayton, Iowa, farmer. While that sentiment could apply to a host of things such as weather and markets, she uses "unpredictable" to reinforce the need to expect the unexpected. The word has become nearly a mantra as the Blair children become more involved around the farm.
"One of the first big words our son, Wyatt, learned was the word 'unpredictable,'" she said. "I want our kids to have great experiences with their 4-H livestock projects, but they've been taught they don't enter pens without an adult around. We've talked about how to read situations. I don't want them afraid, but I do want them aware."
Having a plan if something unpredictable happens is also necessary for a farm business, she maintains. Six years ago, her husband, AJ, broke his kneecap just prior to harvest when the cattle chute he was building in the farm shop fell and pinned his leg.
The accident reinforced the need for "what ifs" or at least to talk about what to do if something unforeseen happens. The fact that Kellie works in the business means financial advisers, suppliers and other key people already deal with her. The farm has extended family involved, and the benefit of small communities is they come when needed, she noted.
"We talk a lot about avoiding accidents and that is so important, but knowing how to respond is also part of that picture," Blair said.
Blair and Wieck report in each week during the growing season as part of DTN's View From the Cab feature. Beyond reporting on crop conditions, the two farmers tackle various aspects and issues that emerge in their farming lives. This is the 14th segment of the series.
While they farm some 900 miles apart, both farmers loathe moving equipment along highways. They share concerns about the extent of emergency services in their rural areas. Read on to learn more about their takes on farm safety and how the crops are faring in their areas this week.
KELLIE BLAIR -- DAYTON, IOWA
Blair Farm caught nearly an inch of rain over the past week. Temperatures have moderated. The children are spending their week at their grandparents', and Kellie Blair was feeling almost paralyzed by the sudden sense of freedom.
"I've already told my husband that I am not cooking all week. We're going out and trying new places. Forget date night. We're having date week," she proclaimed. School is just around the corner for the kids, and Blair believes summers should contain generous amounts of carefree time.
"Still, I admit that I'm looking forward to school starting and getting back to some sort of schedule," she said.
For now, the crops are doing their part to check the boxes. The latest rains have improved yield prospects, and so far, pests and diseases have not been a problem on the central Iowa farm. Oat straw was baled this week, and third-cutting alfalfa was mown.
DTN Ag Meteorologist John Baranick said there is a brief weather change coming for the farm. "The ridge that has been stuck in the Western U.S. will break down later this week, allowing for several disturbances and storm systems to move through Iowa between Aug. 5-11.
"Showers will be scattered, but Iowa stands to see at least four rounds of potential storms during that time frame. One time period, in particular, could bring some strong to severe storms Saturday night into Sunday, Aug. 7-8.
"It's a ways out, but I wouldn't be surprised that another one of these disturbances brings some potentially strong storms to the region either, but that one is the one that is catching my eye right now. Rainfall amounts will be hard to predict during the whole week, but I would say there is a good chance for meaningful rainfall for reproductive to filling corn and soybeans," Baranick said.
With school to start in a few weeks, the topic of moving equipment becomes more serious for the couple. Blair Farm lies along a major highway with a school nearby. What used to be a high school is now a middle school, so traffic is more subdued than it once was. However, there are still periods of the day that moving equipment is nearly impossible.
"Everyone is in such a gosh-darn hurry while driving. They are more distracted. A lot of people use back roads to get around traffic. There are a lot of blind intersections on those gravel roads, and they don't always stop at every intersection," she said.
"Using flashers on the equipment makes me worry that they won't see the blinkers. So, if I'm turning left, I often just take the entire road to reduce the chance they'll try to go around me.
"I spend time planning my routes and try to avoid left turns if possible, and I just am always trying to think defensively. I know my driving skills, but I have no idea of what's coming at or around me," she said.
Several years after she and AJ were married, a friend died in a tractor rollover accident. "That was a real wakeup call to get our affairs in order," she said.
Still, she recalls getting so zealous about safety early in her farming career that she considered laminating a checklist of safety precautions for each piece of equipment on the farm. It didn't take long to realize that while noble of thought, the effort would likely not change behavior. Safety has to be something you are thinking about, she said.
Instead, the farm has geared up to do more routine things to stay safe -- like checking to make sure all lights are working on vehicles. They use safety gear like glasses and gloves when applying pesticides and carry extra clothing and water along in the sprayer. AJ is the only one who applies anhydrous to limit exposure, and he has the proper protective gear and additional water available. A safety harness was purchased for climbing grain bins and it is used, she noted.
But of all the efforts and protocols they've tried to put in place, one stands out. "I have a saying that nothing good happens with equipment after dark. When the sun goes down, we try to pack up and go home -- unless there's impending rain and we just need to finish a critical operation," she said.
RYAN WIECK -- UMBARGER, TEXAS
The need for rain is a constant in the Panhandle of Texas. Ryan Wieck enters the dog days of August thinking more rain would be nice, but that he's still better off than last year.
Wieck said the milo is looking good and starting to "throw some heads." He's watching it closely for sugarcane aphid.
He's not sure what to think about the cotton crop. "We're just way behind because we threw off a lot of early fruit. I really don't know what is going to happen with it just yet. But the plant itself looks pretty good," he said.
Against his better judgement, last week, he took a custom job working wheat ground where cow manure had been spread. Where the original homestead was located, Wieck hit something buried that didn't move.
This week he's spending a lot of time fixing that plow. Fortunately, it was only machinery that took the brunt of the incident.
Wieck spent 21 years as a volunteer firefighter before retiring last year. He saw a lot in that role. He doesn't need to use his imagination to know what can happen on a farm and how fast.
"I used to cut a lot of corners," he admitted. "These days, I try to take my time, especially when I know I'm working on something that has the potential to be dangerous."
Small things like sleeping and eating right may sound simple, but they reduce stress levels and add to clarity.
Like Blair, Wieck has a dislike for moving equipment on roadways. "We've got a lot of two-lane blacktops, and people use them as short cuts to get through the countryside. They tend to drive really fast, and I'm not sure how many close calls I've had because they aren't paying attention or passing -- often in a no-passing zone."
There are a few businesses located along the roads he travels. He knows when shifts change and when roads tend to be busy and need to be avoided. Like Blair, he also attempts to approach fields or return home by making right-hand turns only.
"The sprayer is the most difficult piece of equipment to move because it is difficult to see out the back, and I've had several close calls on it -- again most of them because of drivers with little to no patience," he said.
"You call 911 and there's a chance an ambulance will be there in 10 minutes, or it could take 40 to 45 minutes," he added.
"Our county is large, and we have two ambulances for the whole county. If the one is on a call in the center of the county, the other one has to come from Amarillo," he said. "Rural accidents don't always happen in convenient spots or correspond to 911 addresses either."
Rural emergency volunteers tend to come from a small pool of willing individuals. But there have been rule changes in his area that require more training in distant locations during hours that don't fit volunteer schedules, Wieck said.
"There's a huge breakdown in our rural EMS (emergency medical services) happening. The people that do this work aren't paid enough. There aren't enough of them, and the current situation with COVID is only making everything more difficult."
The day he tangled himself in the powerline, many people came running. Cellphones have become lifesavers, and Wieck used his liberally that day calling 911, the power company and the fire department. He'd been on his way to spray a field when he found the irrigation sprinkler rig down because the unit didn't switch directions in the field. The electronic notification system he depends on had gone offline, so he happened to find the mess.
Getting the spray boom in the powerline was part of being upset and flummoxed at the other situation, he admitted. But the next step was to take a deep breath and figure what to do about this second situation. "Since I wasn't on fire, I waited until those who know got there to advise me," he said.
What he didn't know at the time was he'd tripped the main fuses for miles. "A lot of pictures were taken before they told me the main had been tripped. I hear the power company uses those photos as an example of what not to do," he said.
Then, after the incident, someone stuck a "look overhead for powerline" sticker in his sprayer. "So, every time I see that sticker, I remember what I did," Wieck said with a sigh. "Of course, I thought several friends did this as a joke, but eventually my Dad fessed up that it was him!"
Pamela Smith can be reached at email@example.com
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