Taking This Farm Death Personally

Nor' east Thinkin'

Sooner or later, a farm-related tragedy will become personal to you

Published on: May 28, 2011

It seems strange, yet fitting, to be writing this on Memorial Day weekend. This morning, I spotted a “Happy Memorial Day” sign, and it hit me wrong.

A week ago yesterday, Richard Fesko’s family found him in a dairy manure pit – overcome and claimed by deadly gases. That day, the dairy farmer from Spafford, N.Y., joined the long fatality list that makes agriculture one of America’s most hazardous industries. Fortunately, no one else also fell victim to the manure gases.

But for me and many others, this loss was shocking and personal. He was the quieter partner in the marriage of Rick and Chris Fesko, but always there and strongly supportive of his wife’s mission to educate America about agriculture.

Judging from the outpouring of well-wishes from all across this country and from Canada, even England, Rick had the same effect on many who crossed paths with the couple.

Over my years in agriculture, I’ve reported on accidental farm deaths and miraculous escapes. And for many years, American Agriculturist hosted a monthly safety awareness column titled I.T. Hurtz. Sooner or later most of us will “hurt” over the unexplainable loss of a friend or family member in farming.

It’s something we just don’t expect to happen.
But it does, despite all our warnings that the highest number of manure pit deaths occur in warm weather. That’s when highly toxic hydrogen sulfide and odorless carbon dioxide most quickly accumulate and overcome.

In his memorial records, Rick was called an exemplary husband, father, grandfather, friend, dairy farmer, unofficial uncle, sweet and kind man, volunteer fireman, cornerstone, top-shelf, community supporter and leader, and a “wonderful role model in our family tree”. He was a hard working, gentle soul. He was a helpful neighbor that all would be glad to have.

Fesko leaves a legacy any family would deeply cherish. And, that’s the greatest blessing one can leave his life partner, children and grandchildren. And I've been privileged to earn one of his smiles.

On Friday, May 20, I’m sure Rick was welcomed upon entry into eternal life by grandson Cristian, who went on before him at four months of age. That first meeting, no doubt, returned a great wide smile to his face.

In her November 2008 American Agriculturist article, Chris offered this advice for those grieving: “Be close and experience the reality of this sadness as intimately as your heart allows.” I’m sure that’s what she and her family are doing right now – and once again.

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