OGDENSBURG, Wis. — Cullen Schachtschneider, 6 years old, lay bleeding beside the barn, tangled up in a 4,600-pound farm machine that had ripped his left leg apart.
Like children across America’s two million family-run farms, Cullen had grown up around farm equipment, including the yellow loader now covered in his blood. He rode along as his father hauled calves. He watched his grade-school-age brothers drive the diesel-powered loader, carrying corn and doing chores to help keep their family’s struggling Wisconsin dairy afloat. The work was woven into their childhood.
But one evening last October, as Cullen’s father was using the loader — called a skid steer — to feed the cows, Cullen clambered aboard, and his foot slipped. The machine’s hydraulic bucket bit into Cullen’s left leg and tore it from knee to ankle, ripping off his tissue as easily as someone slipping off a glove.
The boy’s father, Caleb, jumped off the machine and frantically called 911. Two years earlier, Cullen’s brother Kholer, 8, had driven the steer into his older brother, Maric, sending him to the hospital. Now another child was hurt.
If the family business were medicine or construction, there would be little chance of a kindergartner wielding a scalpel or shingling a roof.
But here and on other family-operated farms, children as young as 5 grow up in the driver’s seat of machines many times their size, doing work that is deeply embedded in rural traditions but that also contributes to injuring thousands of children and teenagers every year and killing an estimated 100 more. Researchers say that the true number could be higher, because there are few standards on how to report and tally them all.
The toll has stirred a debate among farm safety groups and in rural communities about whether young children should be allowed to tackle such risky jobs. After a string of horrific accidents this year, intense discussions flared up on social media about when — and whether — it was safe to let children work and play around heavy equipment.
At a time when industries and some rural residents have rallied behind the Trump administration’s push to roll back an array of regulations, the debate over safety standards on family farms raises difficult questions about the line where personal responsibility should end and government oversight should begin.
“I’ve seen too many children killed,” said LuAnne Ujazdowski, a counselor at Cullen’s elementary school in central Wisconsin who has 60 beef cows at her home and calls herself “rural to the roots.”
Farm safety advocates point to a litany of cases that saddle families with guilt and ruinous bills, and yoke their children with years of injury and painful recovery: A 3-year-old in Loyal, Wis., crushed last May by a loader being driven by his 5-year-old brother. A 6-year-old boy in Dowagiac, Mich., run over and killed last July when he fell from the bucket at the front of a skid steer. A 10-year-old boy in Kansas, who had been clearing brush when he was run over by a tractor driven by his 9-year-old sister.
“Parents in the city would not be allowed to do some of these types of things,” said Barbara Lee, director of the National Farm Medicine Center at the Marshfield Clinic in Marshfield, Wis. “You see a 4-year-old and a 5-year-old riding on a tractor fender, nobody reports it. They say, ‘That’s farming.’ ”
But questioning whether a child should be riding in a tractor or playing in the barn is no easy thing in rural communities. Generations of farm children have woken before dawn to feed livestock and do chores that families call a sacrosanct part of life. It is a way of passing on lessons about hard work, responsibility and the pulse of the land that their children will some day take over.
With prices plummeting for wheat, dairy and other products, smaller, struggling farms are also under intense financial pressure, and entire families are pitching in to survive.
“These kids help,” Cullen’s mother, Amanda Smith, said. “They are our hired hands.”
Where safety advocates see preventable and predictable deaths, other families see tragic accidents that merit prayers and sympathy, not criminal charges or more government regulation.
“Kids on the farm do operate machinery,” one Wisconsin farmer wrote on Facebook, wading into a sea of online comments about the accident that killed the 3-year-old boy. “Part of their life.”
Farm safety groups say that children should be at least 14 to drive tractors and 16 before they take the controls of skid steers or A.T.V.s. But the federal government has largely ceded safety decisions to families, saying that children of any age “may work at any time in any job” on their parents’ farms.
Rural lawmakers and farm groups revolted when the Obama administration tried to tighten some child labor rules to keep children away from manure pits and block them from driving tractors and other heavy equipment. They pilloried the move as a big-government intrusion that would outlaw children from doing their chores. The proposals — which would have exempted children on their parents’ farms — were quickly dropped.
These days, researchers say, it is even hard to know how many children are getting hurt, and how and where. Some public health groups and universities collect news clippings of farm accidents, but the federal government stopped running its own surveys in 2015.
On the Schachtschneider farm, the boys started learning early. Their father, Caleb Schachtschneider, 36, said he taught his two older sons, Maric and Kholer, by letting them sit in his lap as he drove the tractor or skid steer across the farm.
“It’s like an extension of you,” he said. “If you’re around it, you’ve got to teach them. They need to know because they’re there. Otherwise, they’d get hurt worse.”
Running the equipment became second nature to the older boys, their father said. But accidents still happened. Two years ago, when Kholer struck Maric with the skid steer, Maric spent a week in the hospital and came home in a wheelchair, said the boys’ mother.
Ms. Smith, 34, said she hated seeing her children drive the yellow machine squatting beside the barn. Sometimes she fantasized about ramming it with her car or maybe selling it off. But she also defended allowing the boys to do work that would otherwise require hiring help the family could not afford. Seeing her children bottle-feed calves and milk full-grown cows was a source of pride. Farmwork taught them how to take care of themselves, she said.
“If we were to just leave and not let our kids continue to grow up like this, what are they going to have?” she asked. “What are they going to learn? Just to quit?”
Ten years ago, Ms. Smith and Mr. Schachtschneider went all in on the farm out on County Road K. They borrowed more than $400,000 for their mortgage, equipment and operating loans. They hung a wooden sign on a kitchen wall: “No Farmers, No Future.”
But they felt as if they could never get ahead of the bills and the market. Wholesale milk prices plunged from more than $20 per 100 pounds in 2014 to barely $15 now. Mr. Schachtschneider said they netted only about $14,000 last year.
Mr. Schachtschneider worked at a foundry for two years to help with their budget. Ms. Smith pulled shifts at a bar. But they could not sustain the jobs while raising five sons, ages 4 months to 9 years, and milking a herd of dairy cows twice a day.
When Cullen got hurt last October, support and donations poured in. But the ripples from his injury compounded the farm’s problems, like a crop blight.
For a month after the accident, Mr. Schachtschneider stayed with Cullen at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, near Milwaukee, about 125 miles from the farm. The family has applied for health insurance for Cullen under a Wisconsin program that covers low-income residents, and Ms. Smith said they do not know yet how much the bills may total.
The disruptions and absences have already taken a toll on the farm. A teacher from the boys’ school stopped by to feed and milk the cows, and relatives pitched in. Still, the farm’s biweekly milk production fell from an average of 3,600 pounds to 1,900. They sold three cows.
“It’s gotten kind of tough,” Mr. Schachtschneider said.
When Cullen came home after a month of surgery and skin grafts, he would wake up the family night after night with his screams, and cry when Ms. Smith left his sight. “He has to go everywhere with me because he’s scared, and I have to protect him,” she said.
Mr. Schachtschneider said that Cullen’s accident and his own self-recrimination played on a loop in his head.
After months of physical therapy, Cullen can walk again, and the waves of infection and pain have eased for now. The imaginative boy is back to making up his own songs and pretending to be a charging bull, and now brags to medical staff about his progress.
But his leg, stripped of layers of protective tissue, will be vulnerable to infection and injury for years to come, Cullen’s physical therapists and nurse say.
Despite all this — the bills, operations, medications and grief — there were still cows to be fed and feed to be hauled. And the children were still going to do the work.
“As long as I’m in the skid steer, I don’t care,” said Maric, 9, who rakes hay for the cows and dreams of growing up to be a farmer like his father. “I have to drive it. I have to put hay in for the cows.”
One frozen afternoon, as Cullen drifted into a long nap, the older boys pulled on their boots and tramped into the icy, manure-covered lot where the cows feed during the day. Mr. Schachtschneider called out to his oldest: “Maric, I need your help. Get like three-quarters of a scoop, O.K.?”
The boy hopped into the skid steer and drove it across the snow to a spout where ground-up cornstalks and kernels poured out of a silo. He filled the bucket, pulled a lever to swing it high in the air, and spun the machine around, steering it toward the pen of waiting cows.
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