Trapped: Dying alone in grain bins

Minnesota is leading the nation in grain bin and silo accidents, the FOX 9 Investigators has learned.  Since June, there have been nine deaths and three rescues.

But because all of the accidents occurred on small farms, there was no state or federal investigation into any of the cases.

OSHA, and its Minnesota counterpart, MN-OSHA, does not regulate farms with ten or fewer employees, even if someone dies or is in imminent danger.

While there is no official tracking of small farm accidents in the U.S., researchers at Purdue University say initial numbers indicate Minnesota is leading the nation in farm accidents this year.


For Michele Gran, there is no comfort in a fiction of her son’s final moments, there’s only the brutal truth of how he died last summer in a grain bin.

"People can tell me all day long that he went fast and I know he didn't," she told the FOX 9 Investigators. “I know he fought like hell, he was a fighter. He would’ve fought like hell to live.”

On Aug. 14, Landon Gran, 18, went to work for a neighbor just two miles down the road near St. Peter. He was cleaning corn out of a large grain bin, with an auger sweeping across the floor.

He was working alone. 

What happened next isn’t clear. But according to a Nicollet County Sheriff’s report, Landon’s jeans likely got caught in the auger, pulling him into the blades, both his legs were mutilated below the knee. 

It may have been hours before his body was discovered. 

“I wanted to go and hold him but they wouldn’t let me," his mother said.

Michele wonders why there wasn't anyone else with him, "What was so important that they left him to work alone?”

In fact, most of the farmers killed in farm accidents die alone. 


There is seldom much of an investigation beyond a local sheriff’s report. 

Since 1976, Congress has attached a rider to OSHA appropriations prohibiting the agency or its state affiliates from regulating safety or investigating accidents on farms with 10 or fewer non-family employees.

Historically, Minnesota ranks third in the nation in documented agricultural-confined space related  accidents, which include grain entrapment cases.  According to Purdue University, there were 193 Minnesota cases in the last 56 years (Iowa is first with 245 fatalities, Indiana is second with 225).

There is no government agency that tracks accidents on small farms. But, a researcher from Purdue University told the FOX 9 Investigators Minnesota is currently leading the nation in these types of accidents, but declined to give out its specific numbers for 2019 since Purdue will be releasing those numbers in a few weeks.

The last few months have been some of the most dangerous in recent memory in Minnesota.

Since last summer, nine people in Minnesota have died in grain bins or silos, according to sheriff reports tracked down by the FOX 9 Investigators. Three other people were rescued.

A wet harvest has meant longer drying times in the bin, more mold, and clumping. With low prices, farmers are also holding on to their crops longer.

There is no government agency that tracks accidents on small farms.  But, a researcher from Purdue University told the FOX 9 Investigators Minnesota is currently leading the nation in these types of accidents, but declined to give out its specific numbers. Purdue will be releasing its most recent report in a few weeks.


A few days before Christmas, on a farm near Millerville, three members of the Boesl family died after exposure to toxic fumes on top of their silo. 

The other fatalities follow a familiar pattern.  According to local police reports:

Gerald Chisholm, became trapped in a bin while working alone near Ada.

Brandon Schaefer, also alone, died while trying to break apart frozen corn near Albany.

In Belle Plaine, Rodger Slater, was smothered while unloading soybeans.

Gregory Fleck died in a bin near Glencoe. He had a spotter who walked away for a couple minutes. 


Jerry Schwarzrock is one of the lucky ones. 

"I didn't think I would ever get caught. I have been in bins all my life.  But it happened so fast,” he told the Fox 9 Investigators.

Last October, he was clearing out a clog in his grain bin, when suddenly he was trapped. 

“I had that ladder and I had that pipe, slid down on the corn and took the pipe to push down a couple of those little lumps and that is when the corn took off and that is when I got stuck,” he recalled.


It is an all too common scenario.  Farmers go into a bin without a safety harness to clear out a clog from sump holes below or to scrape grain off the sides. 

When the auger is operating, it creates a kind of vacuum cone, sucking them deeper and deeper, down into the bin.

The pressure from the kernels alone is enormous, pushing air out of the diaphragm, a phenomenon called traumatic asphyxia. 

If farmers go completely under, they can suffocate in two terrifying minutes or less, literally drowning in corn. 

“My breathing was just like ha, ha, ha, ha, cause you can't expand," Schwarzrock recalled. “I saw my whole life in front of me, when it got up to my neck and if it kept coming, it was over.”

He didn’t realize it at the time, but the suction ripped off his pants, jamming the auger, and tripping a breaker.

He was stuck for three and half hours, until the Gibbon Fire Department arrived, cutting holes in the bin to relieve the pressure.

Fire Chief Toby Bruns arrived first on the scene and for the first 15 minutes he didn't know what the final outcome would be.

“The truth is his pants probably saved his life in his circumstance," Bruns said. “Probably my craziest scene I have had in 19 years.”


A few weeks ago, the Gibbon Volunteer Fire Department trained in a grain bin simulator, filled with plastic pellets to mimic the effect of entrapment.

Jack Volz is an expert on grain bin entrapment, who trains farmers and first responders.

He told the group grain bins have become bigger and the equipment which unloads crops is faster.

“I was born and raised on a farm and I still live on a farm, this stuff hits home for me, it really does,” he told the Fox 9 Investigators.

He believes before entering a bin, farmers should always wear a harness, have a spotter, and turn off the auger.  Those are the same rules OSHA has for large operations.

“They (farmers) have a theory it won't happen to me, ‘I have done this a hundred times and nothings ever happened,’ but things have changed,” said Volz who runs Safety and Security Consultation Specialists LLC.

Many volunteer fire departments don’t have the proper rescue equipment, like interlocking shields, recently donated to the Gibbon Firefighters by United Farmers Cooperative in Winthrop.

The shields are driven into the grain and create a cocoon around the victim, relieving pressure, allowing firefighters to dig the farmer out.

A lifesaving technique, if they make it in time.

Volz showed the Fox 9 Investigators how farmers can get sucked into danger in less than 60 seconds.

In the simulator, it is almost impossible for someone, who is buried only to the waist, to get out of the plastic pellets or even move around without assistance.

Volz said most people who have been stuck in a bin realize they are in trouble when they become buried up to their knees.


Michele Gran has turned her grief into a mission to make grain bins safer. 

She wants harnesses to be mandatory and wants OSHA regulation of the smallest operations.

Michele would like to see a smarter grain bin built, with some kind of wrist band for farmers to wear with a kill switch for the auger.

“If I could save someone from the heartache I have every day. It would be worth it,” she said.

Landon would have graduated from St. Peter High School this spring along with his younger brother James.

He had dreams of running his parents hog farm one day. Dreams now replaced by a grieving mother’s nightmares. 

“I have a lot of dreams of him calling me, ‘help me mom! Help me!',” she said.

Michele will testify on Thursday, Feb. 20, at the Minnesota State Capitol about grain bin safety.

Sen. Nick Frentz (DFL-Mankato) is proposing legislation that would help farmers with the cost of buying such things as harnesses and equipment to prevent contact with augers in grain bins.

Grants would be limited to 75 percent of the farmer’s cost to purchase, ship and install the equipment.  

Whatever version of the legislation passes, Michelle hopes it can be called "Landon’s Law."

Gov. Tim Walz signed a proclamation declaring this Grain Bin Safety Week.