ATVs on the Farm: A Personal Story
A 2013 ATV accident claimed the life of Tony Unholzer, shown in the top centre of this family portrait. His widow, Julie Unholzer, shares her family’s story in the hopes it will help other farmers prevent similar tragedies.
On Sept. 9, 2013, dairy farmer Anthony (Tony) Unholzer was doing something he often did: spraying weeds along the ditch of his southern Ontario farm. But that day, something went horribly wrong.
His wife, Julie, was at the family cottage. When she didn’t hear from him that night, she presumed he had gone to the farm show taking place that week, and had come home too late to call.
But Tony hadn’t gone to the farm show. His ATV had rolled into the ditch, trapping him underneath. The 67-year-old was discovered a day later, crushed by the weight of his ATV. His sister-in-law, who happened to be out walking her dog, made the awful discovery. He had died of asphyxiation. No one was sure how long he’d been there.
Tony had been farming that piece of land for forty years. He had grown up on this same farm, and was a respected leader in the community.
A past president of Gencor, a cattle genomics company, he was also involved with the Essex County Milk Committee, and the Holstein Club. He won a conservation award for his farming practices and three years before his death, he had been inducted into the local Agricultural Hall of Fame.
Facing numerous health issues, Tony had been using his ATV to get around the farm, checking his crops, and doing the chores. Two weeks before the accident, Tony purchased a brand new quad. Looking back, Julie believes the new machine was too powerful — it was much heavier than the old one he was used to.
Like many farmers of his generation, Tony was determined to carry on farming. He would never have considered retiring, says Julie. He loved farming and he loved his farm. After a vacation to Alaska, “he’d come back saying, ‘I’d rather be home in Essex County where I can see my corn growing,’” recalls Julie. “He was a true farmer.””
When Tony died, he left behind not just his wife, but also his daughter Lisa, sons David and Jamie, and seven grandchildren. The loss was especially hard on their daughter, says Julie. “She had just gone through breast cancer. She was really close to her dad and she was just devastated.”
What hurt the most, Julie says, is the knowledge Tony’s accident could have been prevented.
After Tony’s death, his brother admitted that he had pulled Tony and his ATV out of the ditch on numerous occasions. Tony may have kept those accidents quiet, not wanting to worry his wife, as the couple often locked horns on the issue of farm safety. “I was constantly frustrated with the issue,” says Julie, “But eventually, rather than put more stress on my life, I stopped bringing it up.”
While her concern for farm safety has had an effect with her grown children and her grandchildren, Julie says she continues to be frustrated seeing members of her extended family neglect basic safety precautions, even after Tony’s accident. For example, she wishes everyone would at least wear a helmet when riding ATVs. “The attitude is no helmets because it’s not going to happen to me. It’s just not a part of their thinking.”
That resistance to change is something Dawn Minne, chair of the association, Manitoba Farmers with Disabilities has encountered frequently. She and her husband once ran a cattle and grain operation in southwestern Manitoba before her husband was seriously injured in a combine accident 24 years ago. His injuries prevented the couple from continuing to farm. Now they dedicate themselves to helping farmers with disabilities.
Unfortunately, Minne says, for many farmers it takes a serious incident before they start to really see the risks around the farm.
“A lot of them don’t think it’s going to happen to them,” Minne says. “But an accident happens so fast. It’s something they could have done a hundred times in their lifetime, and they just connected something wrong the one time.”
Manitoba Farmers with Disabilities maintains a catalogue of attachments for prosthetic devices to help farmers carry on farming and household tasks after the loss of a limb. But the group hopes as more farmers prioritize safety, fewer will need these services. “We’re starting to find that the young farmers are more receptive to safety ideas than the old school farmers,” Minne says. “If they’ve been brought up with it, they’re going to continue it in their lives.”
National Farm Safety Week is March 14 – 20. Visit www.canadasafetycouncil.org for more information about ATV safety and where to get trained.
Facts about ATVs and off-road vehicles
From 1990-2008, 70 per cent of agricultural fatalities involved machines and more than half of these involved rollovers, runovers, machine entrapment and motor vehicle collisions. The majority of agricultural fatalities involved men ages 50 to 69 — Canadian Agricultural Injury Reporting
A study looking at Alberta farm injuries and fatalities found that from 1996-2009, of 378 cases of severe trauma from farm incidents, 15 per cent involved off-road vehicles. —Injury Prevention Centre
Although ATVs sales in Canada have been decreasing since the early 2000s, ATV-related injuries are on the rise. From 1996 to 2005, the rate of injury admission and the overall number of hospital admissions (3,296 to 4,104) related to an incident with an ATV increased in Canada. – Canadian Institute for Health Information