Insurance Puts Farmers Back in the Field After Tractor Fires

Only the charred outline of a 2012 Case IH tractor remains in this photo taken after the fire. The tractor sits in a wide open, unplanted field.
The fire destroyed this 24-row John Deere planter.

When it comes to farm equipment and fires, combines and harvest usually get the spotlight. But for two Fortify Group customers, a tractor fire occurred out of the blue in the spring, just as they began to plant.

Both lost their tractors; one lost even more in equipment and planting inputs. When you’re staring at the flames, they said, it’s too late to wonder if your insurance policy will cover all the costs that follow. 

Brian and Nicole Nedrow fire

Ron and Rona Volkmer fire (below)                                                   

Early on, April 19 looked to be a good day.

Close to a perfect day for a Thayer County farmer such as Ron Volkmer.

It was a warm and sunny Sunday; 63 degrees with a mild wind blowing in spring. Ron was itching to plant corn.

Around 1 p.m., he pulled into a field near Carleton and was soon rolling through acre after acre with his 24-row planter.

His wife, Rona, rode in the tractor with him for a bit.

“I was thinking, ‘Man. Things are going good.’ By 4:30, I was around the pivot center point and thought I could plant into the evening,” Ron recalls. As he backed up to the pivot point, Ron noticed what looked like mist behind the cab. The rear tires were throwing up a lot of dust, he thought to himself. Or maybe a hydraulic hose had a small leak. He got out of the cab of the 2012 Case IH 340 tractor to take a closer look.

“...Holy cow. There was a fire under the cab. I’m not talking smoke; I’m talking orange flames. A real fire.”

Without a fire extinguisher on hand, Ron threw handfuls of dirt on the flames but quickly realized the effort was futile.  He felt the first twinge of panic but was composed enough to pull the tractor away from the pivots and begin clearing the cab of personal items and extra equipment.

When flames reached the cab, real panic set in. Ron called 911, giving directions and grabbing items from the cab simultaneously. “When they say you have about two minutes to get out after you know you have a fire -- that’s correct. That’s all you have.”

Ron took an armful of items from the cab, planning to go back one more time to save a new pair of prescription glasses.  But roughly 10 steps away from the tractor, the cab exploded.

 “BOOM. There was glass everywhere. I guessed maybe the fire melted the fuel tank and hit the fuel.”

He called Rona, who was planting flowers in their yard three miles away, wondering which neighbor was burning a ditch. “'I’m OK,'' Ron told her as she answered. '''But, we have a bad tractor fire.'”

His next call was to Joe Kamler, his Fortify Group agent. “Joe told me not to worry.”

At that moment, Ron didn’t know just how much damage the flames would cause, from the loss of equipment to downtime and rental costs. Fortunately, his farm insurance package was prepared for the unexpected.

The fire department needed little direction once they drew close to the area. Thick black smoke rolled from the open field. Carleton’s Fire Department emptied its tanks on the blaze, and the Davenport Fire Department arrived to assist.  The fire appeared to be out, Ron said, but rekindled overnight. By morning, only the charred outline of the tractor remained and a heavily damaged planter. The plastic fertilizer tanks and seedboxes were destroyed as well. 

Monday came and went in a fog. The operation’s two full-time employees stepped in to plant corn using other equipment. Ron began to take stock of what was lost. The heat had melted eight seedboxes, the tires, and the electronic/hydraulic technology in addition to the tractor and planter. He also lost nearly a full tank of diesel fuel, 48 units of seed corn, and 1,100 gallons of fertilizer. 

Thousands of dollars worth of equipment had been added since he purchased the tractor. Monitors. Tools. A cell contact system.  “You don’t realize you have $40,000 worth of stuff just hanging in the cab.”

By Tuesday, he was focused on moving forward. That’s the stage when you realize what it takes to keep farming after a catastrophe such as a fire, he said.  “You don’t think about it, but year-after-year, the depreciation and the cost to replace your equipment? - if you didn’t have insurance, could it be replaced? Insurance makes it possible to go forward.”

                                                                                    * * * * * 

Jump ahead to late summer. Irrigation pivots and harvest preparations fill Ron’s days now, in his 30th year of farming.  Sitting on the patio in the shade of a mature pine tree, Ron points over his shoulder. “If you fly straight that way, I grew up 10 miles north.”  He began custom farming for Rona’s father in 1988, growing corn, soybeans and a bit of wheat. The operation grew to include two full-time employees and an additional 8-12 workers each fall, harvesting fields in three counties.

The insurance claim with Nationwide is behind him and Rona, and he has no complaints, he said. He was surprised how seamlessly the large claim unfolded and was resolved -- especially considering that adjusters worked with him remotely by phone and computer. A Nationwide adjuster called the day after the fire to begin the process of determining value and loss. In total, the claim paid for the total loss of the tractor, planter, equipment enhancements, seed, fertilizer, fuel, and personal items.  The final payment came just five weeks after the fire.

 “Nationwide was efficient, and everyone I worked with was really decent. They ask a lot of questions, but when they are handing over that kind of money, they have a right to,” Ron said.

Joe - who has been Ron’s insurance agent for decades - credited Ron’s meticulous records for the ease of the claim.  “Because so many things burned up in the fire, there was no proof they existed otherwise," Joe said.  

Ron keeps information on each agricultural purchase in the Volkmers’ vast equipment line. For the few invoices he couldn’t find, the seller was able to provide information. By Wednesday (three days after the fire) Ron had leased a new planter with the option to purchase. Friday afternoon, he returned to the field, planting once again.

**A new endorsement through Nationwide will bring extra coverage to his farm operation next year. “Nationwide sets itself apart from other carriers by offering an endorsement that allows for replacement cost on farm equipment that is seven years old or newer,” Joe said.

Ron’s tips   

  • Make sure the monetary value the insurance company offers matches the value of equipment in your region. Nationwide originally used equipment purchases made in the South for comparison. But farming equipment has a higher value in the Midwest corn belt. Joe found comparable purchases made in eastern Nebraska, which helped the two sides reach an agreement. 

  • Choose an insurance agent you trust and do annual policy reviews with him or her. “Joe was really good about saying “This is what Nationwide needs now, and this is going to happen next...he led me through all of it.”  Fortify Group was also proactive in making sure his coverage amounts matched his operation, he said. The claim made him realize the tractor he purchased in 2012 had doubled in price by 2020. “It’s important to know that not all policies are going to pay the replacement cost...Sitting down with your insurance agent for an annual policy review isn’t high on the fun list but make sure you do it and that everything is on there.”

  • Consider the cost of renting/using equipment. Make sure your farm policy includes Extra Expense coverage, enough to pay to rent combines, tractors, and other equipment for a significant amount of time.

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