MUSCATINE — Brian Egel knew he wanted to be a farmer since he was a young boy growing corn in his sandbox. And despite losing his left arm in a farming accident 48 years ago, he wouldn’t do anything else.
“It was in my blood. I just always enjoyed farming,” he said.
Egel raises stock cows, sheep, corn, beans, oats, does custom round baling and sells seed corn and beans, alfalfa and small grains for several companies.
He is featured in Telling the Story Project, a collaborative initiative sponsored in part by the University of Iowa’s College of Public Health to raise awareness of farming safety through the sharing of cautionary tales. On his family’s farm near West Liberty, an 8-year-old Egel imitated what he’d seen his father do many times before and stuck his hand in the grain auger to check the mix. He was pulled into the machine, where his arm was swiftly amputated.
"In 1970, of course, there wasn't any 911, you know, where you just call for emergencies," Egel said. "The accident happened and Dad threw a towel around me and we drove to Mercy Hospital in Iowa City in an old farm pick-up."
Later that fall, Egel said he was fitted for his artificial arm at University of Iowa Children's Hospital where staff taught him how to use the prosthesis to do tasks such as tying his shoes. He wears his arm mostly during the winter months to help him finish chores.
"Accidents happen and since then I've had little accidents, I think just because of having one arm," he said.
After the injury and relearning how to do the basics, Egel said he's adapted to farming with one arm and has been doing so on land near Nichols since the 1980s. He’s not sure that accidents have increased over the years, but he thinks there are a lot of close calls.
“There’s a lot of dangerous and hazardous stuff that farmers deal with, whether its working with livestock, around farm machinery, being on public roads — you just got to think all the time of what you’re doing.”
It's not just awareness farmers need for themselves, but what the public needs as well, and that's the purpose of the project, which was developed after the University of Iowa College of Public Health's Stephanie Leonard had worked on a different project for many years analyzing work-related deaths in the state. She said that the research found a large portion of people affected worked in agriculture, leading her to develop Telling the Story in order to shed some light on the issue.
"The injuries are generally preventable when people are aware of the hazards and are able to take the time and precautions to reevaluate and do a job more safely, or to use the right equipment, or wait for a help to do a risky job," Leonard said. "Talking about farm safety makes it normal, and part of farm management, just like the markets or weather or policies are discussed. This is just as important, and actually more, when you’re the person who stands to lose time at work from an injury or your life, even." She went on to say, "When farmers are sharing stories about their close calls, or a fatality in their community or family, others take note. They want to know what happened and why, how these incidents can be avoided. They’re each others’ good advisers."
Having a reputation for being independent may lead some farmers to avoid asking for help when they need it, Egel agreed.
"I think so, I mean, we're stubborn," he said. "You know, we don't really want any help, but I've come to realize years ago that I want help or I need help so I'm not afraid to ask."
The online project features several cases from farmers and their families in the region. It shows images of those affected by farming-related accidents and displays vignettes about each incident.
Leonard said the project received funding in 2016 from National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing Program and rolled out online this year. She said the project brings real experiences that are relatable rather than statistics.
Though he said he isn’t too involved with the newest tech gadgets, Egel does think cellphones are an important safety tool for farmers in the field. He said when he fell off his tractor and broke his leg for the second time, his cellphone was in his overalls and he was able to call for help.
“Otherwise, I would’ve laid there,” he said. “The farmer was in the field, but he couldn’t see me because of the corn. Eventually, he would’ve come over there, but thank goodness I had my cellphone."
Egel said over the years he's cut back on some of the things he does, such as raising hogs, because he can feel the little things — strains and pains — more that didn't used to bother him.
“I try to maintain a positive outlook,” he said. “I mean, I get disgusted sometimes and just run up to town and get me a cold pop or something and vent myself, and then I come back with a different attitude on the project.”
Leonard said the public can learn something from the farmers' stories, too.
She said, "they can learn more about farming and how dangerous it can be due to the wide range of equipment, scenarios, tasks, skills and work involved. They can also use these experiences and apply them in their own lives, because often an underlying message these folks share is ‘slow down — think it over, don’t take shortcuts.’"
"I think the last thing to remember by reading about these stories is how resilient these people are," she said. "After a loss or an injury, they keep going and try to help others. I hope it also helps people less familiar with agriculture see the faces and bridge some gaps that sometimes exist between rural and urban communities."