Far from a bucolic idyll, farming in America is one of its most dangerous professions. And almost no one is trying to change that.


ABINGDON, Va. — Deborah McCroskey’s farm rests on the gentle slopes of what locals here call McCroskey Mountain, 188 acres in Virginia’s southwest corner that have nurtured fields of tobacco and herds of cattle for at least four generations of McCroskeys. But on Sept. 14, 2015, the same farm that provided a living for her forbearers took her father’s life.

Luther McCroskey, 75, had come home from a dental appointment and climbed into a 1979 Long tractor to clear a bit of land. After night fell, his body was found pinned under the flipped tractor on the far side of the hill — one of 401 people to die in farm-related accidents that year.

“The thing people couldn’t understand is that Dad had done this since he was 14 years old,” Deborah McCroskey said. “They always say you’ll get killed close to home and when you least expect it.”

Farming is one of the most dangerous occupations in America, with 22 of every 100,000 farmers dying in a work-related accident. Farmers are nearly twice as likely to die on the job as police officers are, five times as likely as firefighters, and 73 times as likely as Wall Street bankers.

“Down in here when I was growing up, we had a funeral practically every week for someone that had gotten killed in an accident,” McCroskey said. “That was my greatest fear from the time I was a little kid, that my father would have an accident on the tractor. And of course, it did come to pass.”

Farming death rates may be high, but the injury rates are even higher. In 2014, the most recent year for which data are available, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated there were 58,000 adult farm injuries — nearly 6,000 more than the number of U.S. soldiers wounded in all the years since 9/11.

Many of those injuries last a lifetime, driving up disability rates among rural Americans, who are 50 percent more likely to have some form of disability than their urban counterparts. Also contributing are high rates of injury in other professions rooted in rural areas, including logging, fishing and trucking.

In fact, the jobs that provide the way of life in America’s iconic farms, fisheries and forests also tend to be the most dangerous in the country. As a result, occupational safety — or the lack of it — is a major and largely unexamined contributor to a cycle of disability, poverty and chronic poor health that makes life difficult for millions of rural Americans.

“It increases depression and isolation, and that further exacerbates health conditions,’’ said Tom Seekins, director of the Research and Training Center on Disability in Rural Communities at the University of Montana. “It can be a really vicious cycle.’’

IF YOU HAVEN’T lived in a farming community you probably didn’t know small farms were such dangerous places. The yeoman farmer occupies a hallowed place in the American story, part of the reason farms are excluded from virtually all workplace safety requirements. Indeed, the federal hands-off approach to farms goes even further: Congress won’t let federal agencies keep precise injury records for small farms, and the CDC estimate of 58,000 injuries may understate the problem. Small farms have been exempted from federal oversight for so long that it’s virtually impossible for anyone — regulators, lawmakers, even the farmers themselves — to understand fully the epidemic of workplace injuries and deaths that has plagued rural America for at least a century.


“Some of this data is worthless,” said Bill Field, a farm safety researcher at Purdue University.

Farming is the rare industry rendered more dangerous — rather than less — by mechanization. In 1914, the Waterloo Gasoline Traction Engine Co. released the Model “R” single-speed, the first commercially produced gasoline powered tractor in the United States. Tractors revolutionized crop production, making the U.S. a prolific producer of corn, grain and soybeans. The human cost, though, was high. Today, nearly one-third of all agriculture deaths involve tractors, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data compiled for POLITICO.


More than 80 percent of tractor deaths are preventable with a simple rollover protection device — basically a metal bar bent into an inverted U-shape that sits behind the driver. All modern tractors are equipped with them. The problem is that most tractors used on small farms aren’t new. Farmers are a frugal bunch, and many, like Luther McCroskey, keep the same models for decades, replacing parts as needed. As a result, fewer than 60 percent of tractors in use in the U.S. have rollover protection, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

New tractor models are getting safer in other ways. Instead of rollover bars, many have full-fledged cabs, enclosures that protect the drivers. Tractors also now often have seat belts, and wheel structures that provide better stability. Researchers at Penn State are working on computer-based technology that would alert the driver when a tractor starts to become unbalanced. That research is still in the early stages, though, and farmers don’t seem to be clamoring for the technology.

“There’s not much incentive for the tractor companies to do this when there’s no demand for the thing,” said Dennis Murphy, a Penn State agricultural safety specialist. “It’s a legit argument, but I would like to see the tractor not turn over in the first place.”