LEONARD, N.D. — Feb. 7, 2002, started out as a typical morning for Dawn Chisholm and her family.

They had breakfast. The children, ages 10, 8, and 11 months, prepared for school and day care. Lunches were packed. Her husband, Bill Lambert, dressed in winter layers, transforming himself into the "abominable snowman."

After kissing his children goodbye, Bill paused at the door on his way to work at a local grain elevator.

“See you tonight, Dad,” his eldest, Alex, said.

“If only it had stormed that day and he didn’t make it to work,” Chisholm said. “If only one of the children had gotten sick.”

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Hours after he closed the front door for the last time, her husband was buried alive in corn at a grain elevator in Leonard, a town about 40 miles southwest of Fargo.

More than 15 years later, Chisholm, state agencies, legislators and private organizations are trying to raise awareness about grain bin accidents. In Minnesota, grain bin deaths have recently spurred legislators and the governor to propose injecting funds into farm safety measures and equipment. But in North Dakota, state money for such efforts has dried up, and there are no plans for an infusion of funds.

Low commodity prices are prompting many farmers to store crops, and along with wet harvests and the trade war, there's a perfect storm of conditions contributing to grain bin accidents, which have killed at least seven people in the region since July.

On Feb. 28 Richard Volk, an 80-year-old farmer, died near Devils Lake, N.D., after he fell into a grain bin. His accident came days after North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum issued a proclamation acknowledging the need for more public awareness of farm safety issues.

“Having grown up in the grain elevator business, I was raised with a safety mindset and know first-hand how dangerous grain bins can be," Burgum said in a statement. "With increasing amounts of on-farm storage, it’s important for us to be vigilant, and we’re always supportive of ideas and legislation that improve safety for North Dakota workers.”

Fire departments that respond to grain bin accidents can find some financial assistance through Workforce Safety & Insurance, North Dakota's workers' compensation agency. The agency provides $15,000 in grant funding per year for grain bin rescue training.

However, the rescue tubes that firefighters use to extricate people from grain bins aren't cheap. One tube costs about $2,600, according to Dan Neenan, director of the National Education Center for Agricultural Safety at Northeast Iowa Community College.

'We may have gotten carried away'

The North Dakota State University Extension Service is trying to push the message of farm safety at every opportunity it can, said Kenneth Hellevang, an NDSU professor and extension engineer focused on grain handling.

Charlie Stoltenow, a professor and assistant director for the NDSU Extension Service, said there are effectively no dollars allocated by the state government for safety training. “It’s not zero, but we don’t have a line item for it,” Stoltenow said.

Hellevang remembers when the NDSU Extension Service had an active farm safety division. “Unfortunately we just don’t have the funding to do this kind of educational program, and that’s true in a lot of areas, of course,” Hellevang said.

Attempts to alert the state Legislature to this issue have failed to grab the “attention of the political machine,” Stoltenow said.

North Dakota Sen. Jim Dotzenrod, D-Wyndmere, said there may be some room for state legislators to reevaluate current farm safety programs, or the lack thereof in North Dakota.

“The interface between government and operators by and large is the Extension Service,” Dotzenrod said. “The Legislature has been kind of tough on Extension financially. They’ve had to give up some positions, and I thought that we may have gotten carried away with some of the cuts we put into Extension.”

Rep. Dennis Johnson, R-Devils Lake, is chairman of the Agricultural and Transportation Committee's Interim Committee Studies and Assignments. He said he wasn’t aware of any financial assistance farmers can access for help with safety measures.

Should the state step in?

“It’s something we would have to talk about and discuss,” Johnson said. “To start allocating that kind of money … not everybody raises corn, and right now I feel it’s more about education. I feel terrible for the guys who lost their lives, but my God, they should have never got into the bin in the first place.”

North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring said his office has recently received requests for funding for farm safety education and discussions on the topic. The issue has become even more pressing in recent years because corn harvests have increased from about 300,000 acres a growing season to nearly 3.8 million acres, Goehring said, noting that drying corn causes more silo problems than wheat or soybeans.

Apart from government efforts, the North Dakota Farmers Union and three county Farm Bureaus are trying to raise awareness by sponsoring screenings of “Silo," a movie about the dangers of grain bins.

"With as many grain-related accidents as there have been this year, it seems as though we need to be having more of the tough conversations," said Alysa Leier, North Dakota Farm Bureau's promotional and educational chairwoman.

During Grain Bin Safety Week, Feb. 16-22, Minnesota legislators proposed putting a total of $750,000 toward farm safety grants and education, and Gov. Tim Walz issued support for an additional $250,000 for relaunching the tractor rollover protection grant program, and other safety measures.

Minnesota legislators seeking the funding hope to make financial help available to farmers for safety equipment. “Our feeling, our strong bipartisan feeling, is that it is better to offer a voluntary program than to use mandates,” said Sen. Nick Frentz, D-North Mankato.

After not seeing each other for years, Dawn Chisholm and grain elevator employee Jeff Boisjolid hug at Maple River Grain and Agronomy in Leonard, N.D. C.S. Hagen / The Forum
After not seeing each other for years, Dawn Chisholm and grain elevator employee Jeff Boisjolid hug at Maple River Grain and Agronomy in Leonard, N.D. C.S. Hagen / The Forum

'If only'

Fifteen years after Chisholm’s husband was killed at the former Chaffee-Lynchburg Elevator, now called Maple River Grain and Agronomy, she found her voice and the courage to ask people to remember “If only."

“If only I would wear protective gear that I have been given,” Chisholm said. “If only I decide to do things correctly and have a harness on or have a spotter on when I enter the grain bins."

Chisholm wants her message to be heard from family farms to the Capitol building in Bismarck.

“Because of Bill’s split-second decision of entering this grain bin with every unsafe scenario there was, he didn’t get to come home at night and he didn’t get to see our children grow," Chisholm said. "He didn’t get to see our 11-month-old baby take her first steps."

Chisholm is traveling around the state speaking at fire departments, grain elevators, even insurance companies, not to preach about farm safety, but to tell her family’s story, one crowd at a time, she said.

“It’s part of the healing process,” said Chisholm, who's in her 50s. “What can we do to help farmers with equipment and to help educate? Maybe this is what I’m supposed to do, and I think God puts people in our paths for a reason.”

The grain elevator where Bill worked didn’t have safety measures in place before the accident, said Jeff Boisjolid, an elevator supervisor who was friends with Bill.

“But it’s changed a whole 360 degrees after that,” said Boisjolid, who has worked in grain elevators for 27 years. The company now has bin entry forms, air oxygen tests, spotters, harnesses and an eye on running augurs.

“Bad thing to make a good thing, I guess,” Boisjolid said.