I can't remember the first time I rode in a tractor. Crinkly old photo albums hold pictures of my brother and me, posing on the brand-spanking-new Allis Chalmers XT, in its 1970s-era pre-cab days. Later, I can remember riding with Dad in that tractor, newly equipped with a cab, and with my head bouncing against the low angled windows in the back.
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Dad's Allis Chalmers D17 was the first tractor I learned to drive, though. That was our loader tractor, and Dad loved nothing better than putting up and taking down electric fence. He started me off driving that tractor, the bucket loaded with sucker rod fence posts, and creeping along the edge of the stalk field as he drove posts into the ground. I have no idea how old I was. Maybe double digits. Clutching my way around the field on the D17 was a good way to learn the tractor: low pressure, low speed, low margin for error. I was driving a pickup on my own not much later, which turned out to be a useful skill.
Further confessions: as a kid, I rode in the bucket of that D17 as Dad tooled us around the farm. I've stood on the drawbar, as we pulled loads of hay from field to barn. I once sat on the peak of the barn roof and dangled my legs over the edge. I played in a tandem truckload of wheat, as dad emptied the combine into it. I walked the hitch and drawbar between hay wagon and pickup, while it was moving. Down the gravel road.
It's a wonder I didn't die.
That's what any number of us who grew up on a farm in the '80s will tell you. It's a wonder we didn't all die.
The problem, of course, is that a lot of kids did die. And they continue to. The National Children's Center for Rural Agricultural Health and Safety launched a campaign a couple years ago, through the Childhood Agricultural Safety Network, calling for no children under 12 years old to be in a tractor, ever, for any reason – driving, riding, cab or no. Several high-profile deaths in the past few months caused them to re-launch the campaign, called "Keep Kids Away from Tractors."
Marsha Salzwedel, agricultural youth safety specialist at the Center, explains that they're aware it's an unpopular message. "We need to advocate for the safety of the child, and that means defending our position, even if it's unpopular," she says, adding that they've taken their message to major equipment manufacturers who are "on board." The Center doesn't believe buddy seats are safe for children, because they aren't designed for small children and don't supply adequate protection, and the child can distract the driver.
I spent some time going through a webinar presented by the Center, which included newspaper clippings from a variety of tragedies over the past couple years. Three year olds, five year olds, ten year olds and more – all killed in a tractor-related incidents. Heart-breaking, for every last one of those families.
Many involved grandpas and antique or cab-less tractors, driving with a small child riding along. The tractor rolls over, or the child slips off. The result is always the same: death.
It's a bad idea.
I also read of an incident where a seven-year-old was driving a skid-steer loader, with three siblings riding in the bucket, ages 3, 4 and 5. The three-year-old fell out and the skid-steer ran over him. He died. Their father was working in a nearby field. Or another incident, where a father had three young boys riding with him on a cab-less tractor. One slipped off and the tractor ran over him. He died.
You guys. That stuff just has to stop. As individuals in an agricultural community, we have to make better decisions than that.
I want to be able to say we are responsible. That agriculture takes precautions with its children. And we really do on our farm, and on a lot of farms that I know. We've taught our children, as their interests and abilities have allowed, to operate certain very small pieces of equipment, with ample protection. Always a helmet on their small four-wheeler. Only riding in cabbed tractors, buckled into the buddy seat, one at a time. And when Nathan, age 9, tried to convince his dad that he really could handle the auger wagon last fall, all by himself, based on hours of watching, John declined. Even though he's (fairly astoundingly) competent, he's not quite as competent as he thinks he is. The perils of youth and confidence.
Despite the horror stories, my gut tells me the Center won't get very far with their no-kids-under-12 campaign. The reality, and the response from my social media outlets, was harsh and unswaying: kids are going to ride. Period. Some even question the Center's claim that a child dies in a farm incident every 3.5 days, and that 38 children are injured every day in a farm incident. The Center doesn't even like the word accident, because it implies it was unpreventable; they believe the majority of incidents are very preventable.
Horrific things happen, as we saw last fall, and I believe they are, in some cases, accidents. Others are not. Like seven year olds driving skid-steers, and children with grandpas on antique tractors.
If we're going to carry on with that finest of farm tradition – the kids riding along in the tractor, spending quality time and learning the trade - common sense has got to win. We have to be smarter. We have to do better for our kids.