Mike Biadasz, a passionate young farmer from Amherst, WI, died on August 15, 2016 when he was overcome by hydrogen sulfide gas. Mike had been agitating manure in the open lagoon at his family’s cattle feeding operation. The gas also killed sixteen cattle near the lagoon.

Taking a stand for farm safety

 It was at the funeral home, preparing to bury their only son, that the Biadasz family became farm safety advocates. In lieu of flowers they decided to invite donations to a farm safety fund.

Call it coping, call it heroic – they were determined to prevent another family from enduring such pain.

The Biadasz family continues to inspire and mobilize those who love farming and who share grief over the death of Mike Biadasz – son and brother, friend to so many. Through their safety workshops, fundraising events and media outreach, this family from Amherst, Wis., is living proof of the power of a story.

On July 28, 2017, just short of the one-year anniversary of his passing, the Mike Biadasz Farm Safety and Education Memorial Fund presented a $40,000 check to the National Farm Medicine Center and Marshfield Clinic Center for Community Outreach.

The money is being used to establish a rebate program for farmers who rent portable gas monitors.

August 15, 2016

Mike, a 29-year old beef farmer, had gone out in the pre-dawn to agitate an open manure pit in preparation for pumping later that morning. Mike approached the task with his usual enthusiasm, taking a picture and posting it to Snapchat, referencing the “liquid gold” he was about to stir up. When the crust atop the pit broke open, hydrogen sulfide gas was released. Normally the toxic gas would quickly dissipate. But the air was completely still that morning, and a heavy layer of fog blanketed the farm. The sudden release of heavier-than-air hydrogen sulfide overcame Mike immediately. He fell back onto the concrete apron of the pit, where friend and farm employee Steve Burclaw found him two hours later. Thirteen cattle lay dead nearby, also overcome by the gas.

Bob Biadasz, Mike’s dad, was inside the house drinking coffee when he received the call from Burclaw, telling him that his son, business partner and fourth-generation legacy was dead.

Bob recalled arriving at Mike’s side.

“I felt like I was holding the end of the world in my hands.”

The Biadasz’ knew that hydrogen sulfide was deadly in confined spaces, but they had never heard it could kill in the open air. Such cases are exceedingly rare, which is why the incident made national news. It is possible that the temperature inversion and zero wind velocity suppressed air mixing, leading to an accumulation of lethal concentrations of hydrogen sulfide at ground level as agitation occurred, according to reports published in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report and the Journal of Agromedicine.

Mike had a saying, recalled Bob Biadasz: Live today like you are going to die tomorrow. But farm today like you are going to farm forever.

“I never knew how much those words could mean.”

Loved farming

If Mike Biadasz wasn’t farming he was thinking about farming. “Since he was little that’s all he wanted to do,” said Bob. “Morning to night, he loved what he did.”

Bob and Diane Biadasz offer a visitor a soft drink and pull out Mike’s high school senior portrait. He’s posed on a rug, surrounded by Case IH model tractors and implements.

Another picture, then another: Mike at his sister Megan’s wedding; playing with his sister Lisa’s kids. The stories flow.

“Mikey had such a passion for farming,” said Bob. “We remember when he said to us, ‘I may not have a wife and kids, but I sure love trying to feed the ones who do!’”

Mike took some classes at community colleges, but he already knew how he wanted to farm. He worked hard, had fun, innovated, and freely shared results with other farmers.

“I didn’t realize he had as many friends as he did,” said Diane, reflecting on the support her family received. In the months after Mike’s death, visitors stopped by with food or called to offer condolences. Others who’d heard the story approached them in public, asking how they could donate to the safety fund.

As the 30th anniversary of Mike’s birth approached, sister Lisa decided to throw an all-day “30th Birthday Bash” and fundraiser March 18 at the Rosholt Fairgrounds. And what a party it was.

The next chapter

Mike’s story has raised tens of thousands of dollars as well as the safety consciousness of an industry. Gas monitor manufacturers, manure haulers, academics, industrial hygienists, Extension safety professionals, news media, politicians and farmers have rallied around the Biadasz Family’s farm safety efforts. On a beautiful day in April, when farmers want to be working in the fields, 80 attendees packed a restaurant dining room in Plover, Wis., to attend a manure gas safety seminar.

“Mike’s family has taken the tragic inertia of his death so that others may live,” said Casper Bendixsen, Ph.D., a research scientist with the National Farm Medicine Center and Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center.

“Their gift to start the Wisconsin gas monitor rebate program is fantastic, but it is more than dollars. It is about telling Mike’s story, and farmers looking out for other farmers.”

The family wishes it could turn back the clock. They wish they had known that this could happen in an open air pit. Although the weather conditions played a key role in the tragedy, as did the amount of sulfur in the distiller’s syrup used in the cattle feed, Lisa cautions against calling it a fluke accident.

“Even without that atmospheric cap, it could happen again to someone else,” she said. “Hydrogen sulfide is so highly toxic.”

A wooden cross engraved with Mike’s name stands at the edge of the manure pit, just steps from where he fell. On August 15, declared “Mike Biadasz Day” in Wisconsin, Lisa organized a short prayer ceremony and balloon release on this spot, with friends and family.

“We miss Mike so very much,” Lisa said. “Words can’t describe how hard this year has been.”

Bob is 64 and in good health, but the future of the fourth-generation Biadasz Farm weighs heavy. He has become a tireless safety advocate, never hesitating to step in front of a microphone or attend a meeting if he thinks he can help another family avoid what his family lives with every day. But it’s tough.

“I actually look forward to the harvest,” he said, “when we’re going 110 miles an hour and there is no time to think.”

More Information

The gas monitor rebate program is currently being piloted in Wisconsin, and all Wisconsin farmers are eligible.  If successful, the family hopes to expand the program into other states.

To learn more or apply for this rebate, visit www.mikebiadaszfarmsafetyandeducationmemorialfund.com or contact farmforeverrebates@gmail.com.

To support the Mike Biadasz Farm Safety and Education Memorial Fund, gifts can be made to the Community Foundation of Central Wisconsin. Gifts are tax deductible and can be made online at www.cfcwi.org or mailed to 1501 Clark Street, Stevens Point, WI 54481.

Story | Scott Heiberger

Photos | Mike Biadasz Farm Safety and Education Fund, Lisa Grezenski, National Farm Medicine Center, Stephanie Leonard

Video | Marshfield Clinic Health System, National Farm Medicine Center


Jason and Roxanne

Roxanne’s doctor told her that her husband’s experience was used as a learning opportunity for their medical community, because it is so rare.

“You don’t hear about this happening,” she explains. “If you do, it’s because somebody died, not because somebody lived. And that is with me every single day.”

I met Jason Fevold, Roxanne’s husband, last year at the Iowa Pork Congress. He and a coworker, both from Webster City, stopped by the trade show where I was working at a booth displaying farm safety information and gas monitors.

Tractor date

Were they aware of dangerous gases from pits or other confined spaces? Interested in personal gas monitors?

Fevold, a tall, soft-spoken young man, and his friend answered yes.

That Fevold is alive to explain why is extraordinary. He nearly died from exposure to deadly hydrogen sulfide gas.

Jason and Roxanne were on a tractor date in late October 2010. Jason had been working long hours, pumping and spreading liquid manure from a swine nursery building’s deep pit onto a nearby field at the farm where he worked.

To carve out a few hours for the recently married couple to spend together, Roxy brought supper out to the field and rode several rounds in the tractor. It was a beautiful fall evening. They made Halloween plans.

At one of the trips back to refill the tank, Jason went in the confinement building’s office to use the restroom. “Be right back,” he said, before he started the pump to fill the tank.

Some minutes later, Roxanne saw manure slurry splashing out of the top of tank. Something was wrong.

“I took off at a dead sprint towards the building,” she recalls. When she looked in through the doorway into the office area, she saw only Jason’s feet.

She went in. Her lungs burned and the smell was awful. She found Jason lying on the floor, unconscious, with foam at his mouth.

Despite her phone’s low battery, she managed to call 911 and not panic. She credits her composure to training she received for her profession.

Fevold’s older coworker, who was also applying manure with his own rig, was just returning for another tank load. “You have to shut off the tank! We have to get Jason out!” she cried.

The two went in to retrieve Fevold, but they couldn’t pull him out through the doorway he had entered – it was next to the pit opening where the pump was immersed. Instead, they dragged him through the large building to an alternate exit. “It was a 60- or 70-year-old guy and me, dragging 200 pounds of dead weight,” she said.

They had Jason outside by the time fire and ambulance crews arrived from Webster City. Fevold’s coworker was woozy and may have been treated, she thinks. Fevold was vomiting.

Jason’s recollection of the incident is spotty. He remembers washing his hands inside and feeling something was really wrong, he needed to get out; his head was spinning, there was a god-awful loud noise in his ears. That magnified pump noise was the last thing he remembered.

At the emergency room in Webster City, Fevold was in and out of consciousness. His arterial blood gases were being monitored to determine if he could be safely transported to Mercy Hospital in Des Moines.

Late that evening, he was taken to Mercy’s Emergency Department and placed in its cardiac intensive care unit for continuous monitoring of his blood gases and condition. His hospital stay over the next several days involved neurological testing of cognitive function, electrocardiograms, echocardiograms and other diagnostic tests.

Once home, Roxanne said, he was wiped out. And, in typical farmer fashion, asked “when can I go back to work?”

“I was so mad at him,” she remembers, “because that was the last thing I wanted him to do.”

Fevold remained on a work restriction for two weeks and was eventually cleared to return to work by the specialists who cared for him. At the time, he complained he wasn’t being productive, that he should be back helping his boss, who was a man short.

She reminded him, “But we need you here, too.”

Saving grace

The gravity of his incident doesn’t escape Fevold.

“It would have been a lot different if she hadn’t been there,” he reflects. Ordinarily, he and his coworker took turns filling loads, cycling trips to the nursery. That would have meant at least a ten-minute lapse before he might have been found, had Roxy not been there.

“I always have that in the back of my mind. She was the saving grace that day.”

The incident and experience traumatized Roxy too, and seeking help from her doctor was when she discovered how the local medical community learned from Jason’s remarkable survival and recovery. Every memory of that day and the days that followed are crystal clear to her. Including the fact that she, too, had been at risk.

“It is with me every single day: that he could have died, he could not be here. It doesn’t affect him as much, because he doesn’t remember as much. I remember everything.”

Aside from losing his ability to taste for several months – which was later determined the result of trauma to his tongue and taste buds during his seizure while unconscious – Fevold fully recovered.

Looking back, he explains some factors that contributed to the ‘perfect storm.’ The previous day, they had lost a few pigs in one area of the building, even though ventilation was running and curtains were open; this was an indicator of insufficient ventilation. When he had entered the building that evening, manure levels in the pit were low enough that a pump nozzle was exposed above the manure surface, increasing the dispersion of pit gases into the air while the pump operated.

After this incident, the farm made changes to increase safety. They now pump only when the building is empty, so personnel never have to enter to check pig welfare. Doors are locked to prevent entry during pumping. Instead of running tanks, they use a drag line to apply manure to cropland. One person minds the pump and booster pump, both done from outside the building.

Last fall, they contracted out their pumping, due to the late harvest.

So Jason didn’t have to use the hydrogen sulfide monitor he picked up at the trade show. But it’s available if he would need it. Because Roxy and their daughter Lillian need him to use it, too.

Hydrogen sulfide is a deadly gas with no warning properties at dangerous concentrations. It can reach unsafe levels within seconds when manure is agitated. There is no way to reliably predict safe conditions without using gas monitors.

More Information

An edited version of Jason and Roxy’s story appeared in Iowa Farmer Today.

Story & photos | Stephanie Leonard