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GRAIN ENTRAPMENT: Robert Othmer, 72, was working in a silo May 16 when he became trapped beneath the corn at his farm in Castleton Township, according to police.

Michigan farm fatalities under investigation

Five people have died since March in on-farm incidents in the southern part of the state.

By Stan Maddux

Three more fatalities on farms in southern Michigan bring the total to five farm deaths since March in that part of the state. Eighty-eight-year-old James Adam was the latest to die.

According to Michigan State Police at the Monroe Post, early findings of an investigation show Adam was mowing his yard May 19 on Finzel Road in Exeter Township with a farm tractor.

He made a turn that caused the tractor to overturn into a ditch, police said.

After noticing the overturned machine, neighbors rushed over to find Adam crushed beneath the tractor, police said.

Another casualty, Robert Othmer, 72, was working in a silo May 16 when he became trapped beneath the corn at his farm near M-66 in Castleton Township between Lansing and Grand Rapids, according to Michigan State Police at the Wayland Post. Family members tried to pull him out but couldn’t, police said.

Othmer eventually was removed from the silo by emergency responders whose lifesaving efforts were not successful.

MSP Trooper Kevin Keto said Othmer and his grandson were inside the silo.

The silo was being emptied, but the grain on one side was draining faster than the other side.

To keep the silo from tipping, Keto said it appears the grandson went outside and turned off the auger so the corn inside could be leveled.

After the corn began draining evenly again, Othmer was discovered beneath the corn, Keto said.

The investigation shows the grandson was wearing a harness, Keto said, but Othmer had just a rope around his waist tied to a ladder inside the silo.

Whether the rope had too much slack to keep him from getting buried or if Othmer used the rope to try and pull himself out were not certain, he said.

Keto also said there were no indications the rope failed.

“It looked like they took some safety precautions, but obviously, they were not good enough,” Keto said.

Patrick Freehling, 46, was inside his barn about 100 miles to the south and west in Berrien County when he was discovered May 2 by a farmworker, according to the Baroda Lake Township Police Department.

Police Chief Shawn Martin said Freehling was on the ground and appeared to have been working on a piece of machinery powered by electric and gas.

Causes of death for Othmer and Freehling have not been released by either law enforcement agency citing ongoing investigations.

Othmer was the owner of a family farm and president of Enerco Corp. in Grand Ledge, Mich.

He co-founded the company in 1977, about seven years after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Michigan State University and going to work for Dow Chemical, according to his obituary.

According to the Enerco Corp. website, the company is a provider of chemicals, lubricants and cleaning compounds used in maintaining boiler and cooling systems.

Freehling, a U.S Navy veteran of three tours of duty in the Persian Gulf, owned a 180-acre farm that had been in his family for 100 years, according to his obituary.

He bought several tractors and a satellite guidance system to navigate his tractors in the field.

According to family members, Freehling worked on war ships as a gas turbine systems technician while stationed at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

He also was a nuclear mechanic for almost 20 years at the American Electric Power Co. generating station in Bridgman, Mich., and owned a drain tile business.

He installed drain tiles on farms and parks in Michigan and Indiana.

Freehling also was a member of the Berrien County Youth Fair board and Baroda Township Planning Commission.

He showed dairy heifers, steers and welding projects while in 4-H as a child, according to family members.

His wife, Teri, is a member of the Berrien County Commissioners.

Reported earlier, Rex Hannewald, 63, died March 20 when he was pulled into the auger of a manure spreader on his farm 30 miles west of Ann Arbor, Mich.

Jackson County Undersheriff Chris Kuhl reported Hannewald was out in the field with the machine he had been working on for several days.

Jacob Fruchey, 42, also was pulled into an auger March 11 at his farm about 40 miles northeast of Grand Rapids, Mich.

Montcalm Township Police said a piece of clothing worn by Fruchey was grabbed by the auger he was using to drill holes in the ground near a sheep barn to alleviate flooding from melting snow.

It’s not unusual to have five farm-related fatalities over a several week period, but the number is a bit high based on statistics from Michigan State University.

There were five reported deaths on Michigan farms during May 2003 and three May fatalities in 2005, 2008 and 2011.

In all other years since 2001, May had two or fewer deaths, according to MSU figures.

Debra Chester, a farm safety expert at Michigan State University, said most of the farm fatalities in the state occur from May through October when farmers are busiest in the fields.

She felt the high total for May this year has more to do with how numbers historically fluctuate.

However, Chester said the deaths again point to the need for farmers to take the necessary precautions, pay close attention to what they’re doing and never underestimate risks or hazards.

“Could all of these have been prevented?” she asks. “Probably so, but that’s true obviously for many of our fatalities whether you’re in construction or manufacturing or anything else.”    

Maddux writes from New Buffalo, Mich.

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