Alleghany County Farmer Lewis Phipps Shares Bottom Line on Farm Safety

Barn behind flowers

Lewis Phipps farms in Alleghany County, land that can stretch out into sleepy, bucolic valleys before it climbs into the hills and mountain ridges. Located in the northwest part of the state, it snuggles up against the Virginia border.

It’s usually a bit cooler than the rest of the state in the summers and the winters can be much colder. It’s a place Lewis loves and it’s where the farming bug bit him when he was a young child.

“I’ve been involved in milking from the time I was a kid,” he says. “My Dad milked cows when I was coming up and then I milked all along the way, and I’ve hauled milk too.” Lewis got out of the dairy business in the 1990s and now runs stocker cattle, contract feeding close to 500 head.

“I’ve been farming all my years,” this 76-year-old proclaims. “I love it. It’s all I know how to do and some days I’m not sure how to do that! “

Even with the cold mountain winters, he fed cattle every day but one through this past winter. After work and on weekends his son, Craig, helps him. And he gives credit to his wife, Myrtle, a retired school teacher, saying he couldn’t have stayed in farming without her. “I enjoy every day and I’m thankful for every day I get to stay here.”

Lewis has a quiet manner but his sense of humor shines through. So does a strong spirit and toughness borne of hard work, hardship, and near tragedy that he refused to let get him down.

A Costly Split Second Decision

Back in 1978 (Lewis refers to it as half a lifetime ago), he was baling hay for a neighbor. The round hay baler was a piece of machinery he was accustomed to using and a split second decision landed him in the hospital for six weeks.

“The baler choked up and I bent over to pull some of the hay out,” he recalls. “Of course it was running so that was the wrong thing to do. I don’t know whether I blacked out for a minute but the next thing I knew I was in that baler.”

It was one of the early round balers and had a wide rubber belt in the bottom. All the while Lewis was stuck, the belt was running and burning his crushed arm. Fortunately, his neighbor noticed the tractor had been stopped in one place for quite some time and checked on Lewis. He turned the tractor off and called the rescue squad, and even then they couldn’t get Lewis out. Lewis recalls asking them to get his tool box so they could dismantle a portion of the baler.

At first, doctors didn’t think they would be able to save his arm and they told Lewis’s wife that he’d likely lose it. “The doctor told me I’d never be able to farm anymore, that I’d have to take disability,” says Lewis. “I told him I’d just bought a farm about a month ago and I probably couldn’t pay for it on disability.” Lewis laughs when he thinks about the look on his doctor’s face.

“I just had to take what I’d got and go with it,” he says. “I was 37 years old and had two kids and I didn’t figure I needed to back up. I didn’t want to take disability. I wanted to be doing something. “

This Vietnam veteran has a determined philosophy. “You have to stand up to whatever you have to stand up to.”

Kicked, but Not Out

Immediately after leaving the hospital, with his arm in a sling, Lewis was back on the tractor. He went through months of therapy and improvised ways to operate machinery and large trucks by holding the steering wheel with his chest when he changed gears. Then the unthinkable happened again. He was moving dairy cows into a new dairy barn when a cow kicked him and busted the steel plate loose that held his injured arm together, breaking his arm above his elbow. He says it’s still broken and has the effect of two elbows on one arm. Not wanting to face surgery for another steel plate, he had the steel plate removed and wore a brace for 25 years until he grew tired of that. “I don’t wear one and I get along just fine.” He says he has some use of his arm and hand. “I’ve learned to get along with it,” he says. “I get along pretty good.”

Lewis’s Advice: Turn Off Equipment before Working on It

“The bottom line: If you go to do anything on a piece of equipment, turn it off,” he cautions. “Turn it off. Don’t get around anything a-turning. And don’t think you’ll be quicker than what’s a-turning because you won’t. Every year somebody will get caught up in something. People look at me kind of funny if I’m doing something that’s got machinery running and somebody goes around it. I’ll call them on it. I’ll say, don’t get around that. After that has happened to you it bears on your mind that it is important.”

In this Farm Safety series, farmers Corey Lutz, Lincoln County, and Sampson Parker, Cabarrus County, also share their stories of farm accidents and survival.