DALMATIA, Pa. — The family farm is meant to be a place of growth and nurturing, but it can also be marked by devastating tragedy. The Shaffer family of Dalmatia in Northumberland County, is among those who have been struck by the latter.
Seven year-old Wellington Shaffer passed away Oct. 4, two days after falling into a trailer of corn while the family was shelling.
Friend and fellow farmer Nolan Masser said the last few weeks have been “emotionally grueling” for the family, especially parents Cyril and Sarah and Wellington’s three brothers.
Wellington was a 4-H member and attended Northumberland County Christian School. Memorial services were held Oct. 13.
“A farm is a place where you raise a family, and yet there are dangers,” Masser said.
Farmers throughout the community have been pitching in to help the Shaffers with work on their grain farm, and women from the community prepared meals.
Masser described the scene at the Shaffer farm in the days and weeks following the accident as “hectic.” Work needed to be done, but the family was also trying to grieve.
But Masser said the incident is a reminder of how quickly a tragedy like this can happen on any farm.
Michael L. Pate, Ph.D and Extension safety specialist with the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering at Penn State University, said when children are outdoors helping at the farm, it is not uncommon for their curiosity to lead them into danger.
“Children’s curiosity and their passion to be a good helper can get them into trouble on the farm. With children on the scene, it is hard to keep track of where they are at all times,” Pate said. “Noise and the continuous bustling of moving trucks, trailers or tractors create a very hazardous situation for youth. It can take less than five seconds to become helplessly entrapped in flowing grain.”
Such a situation can happen easily because of the child’s love for the outdoors and anxiousness that leads him or her to want to be a part of the process.
Pate said it is important to not have children in the location of grain bins.
“Children can become overcome quickly and be engulfed before you realize what is happening when grain starts flowing. The best practice is to keep children off grain vehicles and away from areas while unloading and loading grain. Assign them a designated safe play area away from farm hazards.”
While corn grains may be fun for kids to play with, try to help children understand the dangers.
“A few grain kernels may look harmless, however a sea of grain with its sheer mass is very hazardous. A bushel of grain weighs approximately 56 pounds. An eight-inch diameter unloading auger can move approximately 42 bushels in one minute. That can be the equivalent of over 2,000 pounds of material being moved in a single minute,” Pate said.
Pate explained the impact of massive amounts of corn in terms of trying to rescue a child or even an adult from its weight.
“The force required to extract someone up through grain is far greater than to rescue someone from underwater. Water has an upward buoyant force which assists in rescuing victims,” he said.
Because it can happen so quickly, everyone on the farm should know what to do if someone falls into a bin or trailer with grain.
“In the event of an emergency, be sure to shut off all unloading equipment, then call 911 or emergency rescue services. Be sure to prevent anyone from entering the scene until trained emergency first-response personnel arrive. Rescue efforts must be very well-prepared and well-equipped, otherwise the rescue itself can create additional fatalities or injuries. Too often, multiple fatalities will be the result if an ill-prepared rescue is attempted,” Pate said.
Masser said the family has a strong faith and has hoped that this incident will save the lives of others. This will also be possible because of the family’s commitment to having Wellington’s organs harvested and donated.
“We know that he is in heaven,” Masser, who is also a pastor at the family’s church, said. “While we know that, it certainly doesn’t diminish the pain that we feel.”
Like many other farms which have endured such tragedy, the farm is a place that continues to be one of purpose, Masser said.
“Raising your family on a farm is just a neat experience that can’t be replicated.”