A hayride accident that resulted in the death of a young woman and injury to at least 20 others last fall on a Maine farm garnered national attention, especially among those who look forward to fall- and Christmas-themed attractions hosted by farms.
Bill Fetherolf, co-owner of Pioneer Evergreen Farms in Orwigsburg, PA, says on the day following the tragic accident, he was inundated with phone calls from both media and concerned people who wanted to know if the hayride at his farm was safe.
The Pioneer Evergreen Farms hayride is a one of the most popular features offered during fall activities held at the Christmas tree plantation. The ride takes visitors on a scenic ride up a winding, wooded mountain path; climbing nearly 1,000 feet. Fetherolf says the ride provides guests with a unique opportunity to view the natural beauty of the area, with plenty of wildlife and hundreds of acres of the sprawling Christmas tree plantation.
Although Fetherolf was rattled by the news of the Maine accident, he was confident that his equipment was safe. Fetherolf consulted with engineers to ensure the roads and grades were safe for travel with a tractor and wagon. Fetherolf maintains the roads throughout the year, and if there is any rainfall prior to a scheduled hayride, he goes out and carefully inspects the entire road for signs of damage by running water and makes appropriate repairs immediately.
Pioneer Farms’ wagons also reflect a keen eye for safety. Fetherolf starts with an over-the-road trailer and makes customized adaptations to the wagon. “I’m not a fan of four-wheeled wagons,” he said. “They take the weight off the power of the tractor. Four-wheeled wagons are on their own compulsion.”
Fetherolf says a clevis with a pin isn’t close to being enough to withstand the weight and stress involved, and insists on a 2 5/16” solid coupler ball with heavy safety chains for the hitch and 120-HP tractors for pulling.
Anyone who drives a tractor pulling a wagon full of people should be mature, well trained and familiar with how to operate a tractor pulling a loaded wagon. Drivers should also be familiar with the terrain. No one but the driver should be in the driver’s seat or tractor cab.
The path of travel should be established well ahead of the scheduled opening. Check for overhead wires that may interfere with the wagon, and determine whether an emergency vehicle would be able to travel the same path if necessary.
Prior to the hayride season, the tractor and wagon should be taken on several ‘dry runs’ by those who will be driving during the season to ensure the path is easy to navigate. Public roads should be avoided whenever possible, but if such roads must be traveled at any point, plan for another vehicle to accompany the tractor and wagon on the road.
If the hayride will be going out in the dark, be sure to test-drive the path at night and make sure the tractor lights are fully functional and bright enough to light the path. A responsible person who is familiar with the planned path of travel should check the roadway carefully each day, looking for ruts, fallen branches, uneven ground and new mud puddles that may have formed after rainfall.
Prior to use each day, every tractor and wagon should be inspected for safety, with careful attention to lights, missing parts, loose or missing boards, exposed nails/screws or other sharp edges. Check tires for proper inflation, and make sure the hitch and safety chains are properly attached. Portable stairs for entering the wagon should be equipped with at least one side rail, and an attendant should be available to assist passengers entering and exiting the wagon.
A responsible adult should be present on each wagon, and the tractor driver and that adult should be able to easily communicate with one another. Once guests are seated, explain that the goal is to provide a fun and safe experience for all, and review safety rules at that time. Safety rules should include, at minimum, that riders must remain seated with arms and legs inside the wagon throughout the entire ride.
If wagons are used to transport guests to pumpkin or Christmas tree fields, be aware of potential weather conditions that would make such travel unsafe. When temperatures drop below freezing, make sure that all roadways and passenger loading and unloading areas are free of ice.