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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Are farm kids as safe as they could be?

--- Walworth County program one of the best in the nation

Story by Donna Lenz Wright/The Week

Summertime in Wisconsin--sunshine, blue skies and miles and miles of green fields as far as you can see.

Donna Lenz Wright/The Week
Paul Brockmeyer tests the driving portion of the final exam through 25 students.
But those bucolic-looking farm fields disguise a hidden danger.

"The No. 1 cause of farm fatalities are tractor accidents," says Paul Brockmeyer, a local farmer and farm safety instructor.

The focus may be on tractors, but there's a lot more to farm safety than learning how to operate a big piece of machinery.

Have you ever noticed that sometimes those multi-ton monsters with tires bigger than our cars are being driven by kids no older than 13?

How old do they have to be before they can drive tractors on the highways? And who teaches these kids how to control those dinosaurs of the road?

Answers to those questions and many more can be found at the Walworth County youth tractor and machinery safety program, one of the best in the country.

So good in fact, that people have come from as far away as Arkansas to have their children educated here, according to Brockmeyer.

Brockmeyer has been the instructor for the past six years, owns and operates his farm in Whitewater, is active with the Walworth County Dairy Promotion Committee, is an agricultural instructor and last month his family served as host for the 2008 Walworth County Farm Bureau Dairy Breakfast.

It's misleading to call it tractor safety, though.

"We talk about farm safety, not just tractor safety," Brockmeyer said. "It includes tractor, livestock, lawn mowers, machinery, ladders, electricity--everything on the farm that can be dangerous.

Wisconsin laws require drivers of farming equipment on the highways to be at least 16, or 12 and certified by a program like this one sponsored by the UW-Extension of Walworth, Racine and Kenosha Counties.

"I teach through a lot of cause and effect," Brockmeyer says. "If you show them why something is, then they can see for themselves why they should do something a certain way."

And it's far more than a driving lesson. Students receive 12 hours of classroom learning plus 12 hours of hands-on driving experience.

Different parts of the course rang bells in students for different reasons. Several students got a lot out of the 360 degree checklist.

"This is really helpful," said Brandon Hedrington, 15, of Yorkville, quickly producing it from his pocket.

The laminated reminder list reminds drivers to make sure they're in compliance with road laws depending on the load they're transporting.

"I'm so glad I can drive a stick shift now," said Andy Ninneman, 13, of Franklin. "We can drive every kind of tractor there is now."

Brockmeyer strongly promotes starting new drivers out with the course, rather than taking it after they've been working at their home farm or an employer's.

"When I compare the kids who haven't driven to the kids with five years under their belts, newer ones learn much faster because they don't have a bunch of bad habits to break."

The course is as all-inclusive as possible, beginning with the right way to get in and out of a tractor to the volatility of various farm chemicals.

Parents need to bear in mind that just because they've passed the certification tests, they're not immediate pros. Just like automobile driver's education, the program is designed for parents to reinforce good habits, especially by example.

"We give them the knowledge, but there's another important part--experience," Brockmeyer said. "We encourage parents to question the kids after the course--and kids to question if their parents are doing something wrong."

Other programs have just the classroom portion of the course, hands-on learning on the last day only or the use of only one type of tractor.

But this program, thanks to donations from Triebold Implement, Inc., in Whitewater, and Proven Power, Inc., in Burlington, gives drivers experience on every kind of tractor there is.

"When these kids get their certification, they can operate any piece of farm machinery on the highway."

The classroom portion of the program includes presentations by a nurse teaching first aid, a fireman teaching fire extinguisher use and the students themselves present an important farm safety area that they've experienced or heard about.

"The time to think about these things is now, not after your 'check underwear' light has already gone on--as a teacher I know used to say.

Brockmeyer has seen the gamut of students who have come through the program, from those who are afraid of the big machines to those who think they're already masters at age 14.

"I had one little girl who tried about six times to back the tractor into that stall. But I let her keep trying because if I'd have stopped her then, she would have lost faith in herself, but if I let her go until she gets it, she'll have confidence. And she did.

"Then I get the other kids who have been driving for five years who need to understand that they are not immortal--that they could get hurt or killed.

He has a special way with teaching that not all teachers possess. He has a way of talking to his students so they're not intimidated but receptive to what he's teaching.

"Imagine if you were holding it by hand," he explains to a student about driving a tractor with an attached wagon in reverse.

"Just watch that pinhole and push it the way you want it to go."

He makes it sound easy and logical, but the truth is, this is a very difficult part of tractor driving, especially if the pressure is on because you're holding up traffic on a road.

"You've got as much right to be on the road," he tells students. "But you don't have the right to operate over center line or obstruct traffic."

If a car has been unable to pass you for a few miles or if traffic is backing up behind you let, them by, pull over and let them by.

"When people drive like that it angers people toward the agriculture industry as a whole."

So you can worry much less about the skills of those young kids driving those gigantic tractors on the roads with us. They've got what it takes--in our area, anyway.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it's wonderful that instead of regulating farm kids out of farm work, people are taking the time to actually teach them how to do it safely. These are the future guardians of our food supply. We owe it to them, and to ourselves, to allow them the on the job training, and learning experiences, to do the job right.

Thanks to those sponsoring this program!

July 12, 2008 2:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Letter to the Editor:

Thank You for using the picture of me driving the tractor we call BIG RED in your paper. What a surprise it was to see. I first recognized the tractor before I even seen who was driving. I took the tractor saftey course more that 25 years ago out at the county farm. This is a great program to show our young farmer's the safe and proper tractor procedures. BIG RED is one of the biggest tractor's on the road and in the field today. The tractor is over 15 feet wide which takes up most of the road not counting what's being pulled.
I can understand driver's frustration being behind a big tractor. People need to slow down and be more patient. When I can I do pull over to let the people behind go around but I can only do that when it's safe for me and the piece of equipment. I can't tell you how many near misses I have had because of impatient driver's. We are out there to do our job too. Sincerely
???????????????????????????????????????????? Cecil Monteith

July 15, 2008 8:46 AM  

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