Most of us on the East End have the luxury of enjoying all that local farms have to offer from a distance — a safe distance, if you will. We stop at the farm stands and gather up fresh, seasonal vegetables for our plates. We watch for the cornstalks to grow tall as we eagerly await sweet corn in midsummer and we admire the open farmland as we drive along our daily routes.
The news of Lyle Wells’ passing last week came as a profound shock to more than just those of us who knew him as a leader in the Long Island farming community, or as the “Asparagus King.” While the details of his death are still being investigated, we know that it was an accident involving farm equipment — and that serves as a horrific reminder that farming can be dangerous.
Nearly every farmer we spoke with on the North and South forks after Mr. Wells’ death echoed the same sentiment: “It could have been any one of us.”
Agricultural machinery is big and heavy, and many of us with office jobs can’t fathom the skill level required to run it. Tractors, potato harvesters, manure spreaders — they get the job done, but they come with great risk. Those with the necessary skill and long years of experience, like Mr. Wells, are not immune from accidents.
Workplace accidents can happen anywhere. There is certainly a human toll we often don’t consider when it comes to farming on the East End.
Figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics proves that farming is one of the most dangerous industries in the country. Crop production is among the industries with the highest fatality rates. In 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, 550 people who worked as farmers or ranchers or had some other type of agricultural job lost their lives. They had a higher death rate than most other occupations.
New York is not without examples. In 2016, there were nine fatal farming-related accidents.
Many here could not recall a recent fatal agriculture-related accident, but our South Fork neighbors remember well the death of a young farmer crushed by a tractor a little more than seven years ago.
Joshua Levine was working at Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett when he was pinned under a tractor tire. At just 35, he left behind a wife and young children. The Josh Levine Memorial Foundation carries on his legacy with its annual Moveable Feast, coming up next month, working again with Slow Food East End to help in its effort to support school gardening programs and young farmers.
Look past the bucolic countryside scenes and the novelty of farm-to-table meals, and you’ll understand that farming is not only hard work, but treacherous. We need to be cognizant that all this good food we enjoy is not only thanks to the back-breaking work of farmers and laborers, but that it also comes to us at their expense.