When a Farm Tragedy Hits Home
Nearly a month ago, a fatal farm accident occurred that our family will never forget.
The day began like many others in August in the upper Hudson Valley of New York. It was sunny but humid. A good day to get work done but to get started early.
My father-in-law, Peter Balet, had gone with his wife, Marie, to the grocery store. Then, he went out to clean up a couple of fields, including helping a neighbor who couldn’t take care of their property anymore.
Pete was a consummate worker and caretaker. His lifetime of experience informed the way he approached every day. He completed tasks that were important in the short-term while thinking about implications for the future. Mowing the lawn, caring for trees in the woodlot, fixing a barn roof, repairing an old tractor – Pete loved all of it.
His knowledge and experience were a great help for me as someone who didn’t grow up on a farm, but had married his daughter, Suzanne, who owns and operates a flower farm.
There are a never-ending series of things to be learned as someone new to farming. The rototiller needed to have the oil changed after every use. The bush hog gets attached to the Ford tractor in just a certain way, and the blades need to be sharpened regularly. The older wagon gets a flat tire on the right side, so always bring a portable air tank when you go to use it.
Pete had a system and a specific way of doing everything. He shared advice openly and at every opportunity.
I listened and heard most of it. Inevitably, there were times when I forgot or made mistakes – and the farm’s equipment paid the price with tractors getting stuck or parts getting broken. Sometimes Pete got angry with my mishaps, but he knew I was learning something, and that knowledge was important to pass on.
On that day in late August, Pete got up into his tractor and went to work like he had countless times before. While mowing a field, he hit a tree, fell, and never got up.
Pete was 83 years old and had heart problems. He had lived a good and long life, but our family was stunned. We assumed that he would be around for at least another 10 years.
The reality of the situation hit quickly while somehow not feeling completely real. Immediately, there were practical questions that needed to be answered. How would the property taxes that were due soon be paid? Had the New Holland tractor that Pete just purchased been paid for, and if not, where would the money come from? And how would we (particularly Suzanne) answer the daily questions that come up on the farm without Pete, our trusted advisor?
Fortunately, Pete had been thinking about his legacy for years. The barns at the farm were painted, roofs were fixed, equipment was well-maintained (at least as well as older equipment could be), and the woodlot was cleaned up.
Pete and Marie had also recently worked with a local attorney, Megan Harris-Pero, to update their estate plans. They had sensitive family conversations with Suzanne and her brother John about family assets and the way that they should be divided. These weren’t the type of family activities to which one looks forward, but as it turns out were timely.
Our family has been blessed with generous friends and family who have celebrated Pete’s life and mourned his loss. I will forever carry with me the advice that Pete shared with me about everything from gaskets to work ethic to the importance of planning for the future.
I think others may benefit from Pete’s story as well. In some ways, his is one of many tragedies, as farming is one of the most dangerous occupations in America. There are valuable resources from USDA, land grant colleges, and others about ways to reduce farm accidents, and each September, a spotlight is put on these issues as part of National Farm Safety and Health Week.
Additionally, farm transfer and estate planning are complicated and take time. None of us should assume that there will always be time later to address these issues. Fortunately, Pete and Marie were prepared in ways that many others were not.
AFT’s Farmland Information Center has a great portal to resources to help farmers and ranchers get started with this process. And AFT is training more professionals to help families start such conversations about farm transfer planning and connect with the experts and resources needed to take action.
Our family and his friends will embrace Pete’s memory – hopefully, others can learn from his life lessons.