Farming community grieves boys' deaths

AP file photoSafety is an ongoing issue in the agriculture industry, advocates say. Purdue University reported there were 33 farming fatalities in Indiana in 2018.

NAPPANEE — As the community and family members grieve over the deaths of two young brothers on a farm near Nappanee, industry advocates and farmers point to the risks associated with agriculture.  

Jaylin Hochstetler, 5, and his brother Kenton Hochstetler, 3, were named Wednesday by Kosciusko County Coroner Tony Ciriello as the children who were killed Tuesday after being struck by a truck and trailer.

Police said they believe the children were already under the trailer when it began pulling forward. 

“These are tragedies that no one wants to see,” said Indiana State Department of Agriculture Dirctor Bruce Kettler. “It shakes the ag community pretty deeply when these things happen.”

Kettler and other advocates say accidents are not uncommon even though safety is paramount in the agriculture industry.

“My experience is that, as a family, safety is always top of mind whether they’re working with livestock or around machinery,” Kettler said. “These people, I’ve seen it, they talk to their children about farm safety. They will not let their kids under a certain age around equipment.”

Purdue University reported 33 farming fatalities statewide in 2018.

Less is known about farming accidents that don’t result in death, according to Capt. Mike Culp, commander of the Administrative Services Division of the Elkhart County Sheriff’s Office. Most of the time, unless a child or adult is gravely injured or killed, he said, the incident is not reported to police.

Elkhart County Commissioner Mike Yoder, a 1,000-head cattle farmer, said he knows first-hand about dangers inherent in the industry. 

“It happens fast. It happens if you’re not paying attention,” Yoder said. “My father was involved in a very serious farming accident that ended his career. I was young at the time. I was riding along on the tractor and we were harvesting hay. He saw us riding on the tractor and it distracted him.”

Elkhart County Purdue Extension Agriculture Educator Jeff Burbrink said his family also knows the risks. 

“My dad’s brother died in a farm accident when I was about 2 or 3 years old,” Burbrink said. “He got brushed off a tractor going underneath some low-hanging limbs and they found the tractor still running.”

Burbrink said accidents tend to occur when farmers get busy – during harvest, planting or hay-baling season.

Yoder said his daughters joined in the work on the family farm when they were younger, feeding calves with adult supervision and, as they grew older, driving skid loaders and mowing lawns.

“I recall growing up, my mother and father would strap me onto a tractor and we’d go out,” he said. “It’s not unusual in Amish communities for very young children to be out helping with chores. It’s how you teach good work ethic – you start young. In the grocery store, if they get away from you, you can find them and probably nothing will happen, but on a farm there’s so many things that can happen quickly.”

“We all get used to running this big equipment and can become pretty casual around it, but I’ve had some close calls, too,” Yoder said. “I think I read once that the only occupation that’s more dangerous is mining.”

The majority of farming fatalities do not involve youth, according to Yoder.

“I think we tend to remember the younger ones because it’s just a horrific thing to think about,” he said.

The average age of agricultural equipment-related death is about 50, Yoder said, and it’s often the farmers themselves not taking precautions they know they should be taking.

“There’s been a lot of improvements in farm equipment since I was growing up that make it safer to operate,” he said. “When something breaks, we want to get back to work quickly, so we don’t put all of that back into place the way it should be, and that’s when the accidents happen.”

Purdue Extension and Indiana Farm Bureau both work to provide safety education to farmers and the general public, hosting many events each year across the state, and while organizations such as 4-H and Future Farmers of America help to instill those values in children, state agriculture director Kettle has only a small amount of additional advice for farming families to keep them and their neighbors safe.

He recommends that farmers speak with their neighbors during harvest and planting seasons, reminding them that they’ll be on the roadways or running behind or near their homes.

“That communication can go a long way to making people aware that farmers are watching out for them as well,” he said.

Burbrink said tragedies such as the one Tuesday can rattle a community – to say nothing of those more directly involved.  

“That’s the kind of thing that affects your family for your entire life,” Burbrink said. “It affects the psyche of your family. You start thinking about things differently, looking at things differently.”

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