Skjolaas made agriculture a safer place for everyone
Cheryl Skjolaas' impact on farm safety across Wisconsin and beyond is felt every day. For nearly 40 years, the Stoughton native has led the charge in spreading the message far and wide.
For Skjolaas who grew up on a small farm in southeast Wisconsin, that mission is deeply personal.
"I want to make sure farmers and kids out there have a chance and don't become a statistic," said Skjolaas who experienced the pain of losing her brother in an automobile accident in 1990. "I personally have seen how families are impacted by accidental deaths, and I don't want other people to have to go through that."
A decision to make
Now retired, Skjolaas says she fell into her career as Senior Outreach Specialist with the UW Center for Agricultural Safety and Health quite accidentally. Prior to coming back to the Madison area in 1990, she worked as a 4-H Youth Agent first in Pierce County and then St. Croix County.
"My work as a 4-H agent really grounded me in the value of community-based programming and the value of local connection to the people and their needs," she said.
When she was recruited by Dr. Ron Schuler to join a team at the College of Agriculture Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Sklolaas says she was torn between focusing her energy on agriculture or youth.
While she chose to return to Dane County, Skjolaas brought with her a natural network of connections she accrued during her time in Extension. Those relationships would serve her well as she reached out to Extension staff, ag teachers, farmers and public health nurses in looking at the next steps of building farm safety programs in Wisconsin under a NIOSH-funded Agricultural Safety and Health Program, working with Professor Ron Schuler in the College of Ag and Life Science’s Biological Systems Engineering Department.
Sklolaas' legwork and research also played a key role in educating Wisconsin legislators about the importance of the programs she worked so hard to establish, said colleague John Shutske, farm safety specialist at University of Wisconsin-Madison.
"When many CALS and Extension programs were at risk due to steep funding cuts and structural changes, I visited key people in the state Senate and Assembly to talk about those programs," Shutske said. "At least a half dozen legislators from both sides of the aisle turned in their chairs to grab a copy of a technical resource manual on Implements of Husbandry (IoH), provided through Cheryl. (Over the years) many have used her resources to create sound public policy around roadway safety, specifically citing her leadership."
Skjolaas was also responsible for outreach with the AgrAbility of Wisconsin program, a partnership between the University of Wisconsin Extension and Easter Seals Wisconsin, that helps keep injured, disabled farmers working.
In 2000, she took on the role as the National AgrAbility manager, providing assistance to other state projects and conducting training workshops and more.
"It's gratifying knowing that you're giving people the opportunity to stay doing something they're very passionate about," Skjolaas said.
Heart for youth
As a 4-H agent, Skjolaas often worked with youth demonstrating tractor safety. Today many of those programs in Extension and used by ag educators were funded through grants she worked on.
"The value of tractor safety isn't that the kids just get a certificate when they 're done. It's that collection of people that help the local tractor safety program happen. They are all touchpoints to those kids," Skojolaas said.
She stresses that safety programming isn't just for youth, but for adults working on the farm.
"We really want to prevent them from needing AgrAbility of Wisconsin because of an injury," she said.
Jerome Clark, a Division of Extension agent in Chippewa County, says Skjolaas' work with tractor and machinery safety certification has impacted the lives of thousands of youth across the state and the country.
"She was one of the most dedicated Extension specialists as she made herself available for local educational safety programs for local county agents and communities," Clark said.
Following the tragic death of a Chippewa County father and son in a manure storage accident, the family was led to start a scholarship fundraiser and farm safety event called Tour de' Farm Safety Awareness Ride.
"Cheryl made herself available that day to help with the educational safety component of the event," Clark said.
Spreading the message
From including small safety messages in farmers' milk checks early in her career, with the advent of websites and social media, Skjolaas is able to disseminate information quickly to colleagues. Farmers, educators and the general public are also able to access the trove of information online.
When fumes from a manure pit combined with an unusual weather condition to create a "deadly dome of air" causing the death of 29-year-old Mike Biadasz and 16 head of cattle on his Amherst family farm, Skjolaas sounded the alarm, sharing information on her networking channels, and later leading safety training for emergency responders.
"She did the same thing when we were seeing a number of farm buildings collapse due to snow load," said Bill Halfman, Beef Outreach Specialist with UW-Madison Division of Extension.
Skjolaas and Halfman also worked together on several occasions to help emergency responders become more familiar with modern farm machinery and farm building sites.
"First responders found this to be very helpful since many of them, like much of the public, are several generations removed from the farm," Halfman said. "She also helped us get a program helping first responders be better prepared for responding to traffic crashes involving livestock transportation vehicles."
Multi-lingual safety education
The change in labor force demographics inspired Skjolaas take education another step further. Carl Duley, who attended UW-River Falls with Skjolaas and is an Extension agent in Buffalo County, says she was instrumental in making many important things happen for safety and multi-lingual safety education in Wisconsin.
"She facilitated combining multiple county safety grants together to tackle bigger programs that needed additional funding," Duley said.
One example includes a youth tractor safety series of videos available in English and Spanish.
"These videos modernized older tractor safety videos and are highly valued by youth and are used by many farmers to train employees on their farms," Duley said. “A similar video series on skid steer safety has been used by numerous training programs and requested by hundreds of Wisconsin farms for educational purposes."
Through the years, Skjolaas has partnered with many agencies including the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation and Wisconsin State Patrol in presenting Rural Road Safety demonstrations to promote safe driving practices for farmers and motorists alike across the state.
With large-scale farming operations using bigger equipment, Skjolaas' research helped legislators in understanding the changing dimensions of farm equipment traveling on rural roads. This foundation of information has gone a long way in helping to update public policy concerning IoH.
"Her expertise has been a priceless resource in communicating and promoting on-farm safety and Implements of Husbandry requirements for many years," said WFBF President Kevin Krentz.
Heart for agriculture
Duley says that Skjolaas was 'one of those rare people that took the Wisconsin Idea to heart in UW-Extension.'
"She did her job for the benefit of farmers and farm families in Wisconsin, not for anything that it would bring to her personally," he said.
Because she grew up on a farm, Skjolaas understands firsthand the pressure that farmers are under on any given day.
"We're all going to have those points in time where we need to get to some event, get something done before the weather changes or have something break down at the worst moment. We have to take that pause and reset ourselves," she said. "While all our new technology helps make the job easier and faster, machinery is still machinery. It's designed to cut, slice, dice, convey and move. And that power behind it just adds danger."
Although her life's work has surely prevented many farmers from loss of limb and life, Skjolaas still hurts when she hears of tragedies on the farm.
"I was driving in southeast Wisconsin near the scene where a young man had died in a tractor accident and my mom said, 'You know you can't save everyone'. I know, but I sure as hell can try," she said.
It's a vow she's kept for many years.
"Once a producer asked why would I ever pick this job. Well, I really didn't plan that this would be my life's work. But this is a part of agriculture that needs someone and I happened to be the fit," she said. "I like agriculture and it was something that I could give back to Wisconsin."