A 77-year-old St. Mary's farmer died Sunday when he fell into his soybean bin and suffocated under the stored crop.

James Raley Sr. had been up and down the ladder of the soybean bin hundreds of times, said his son and farming partner, James Raley Jr., but something went wrong Sunday around 3:15 p.m. when the elder Raley was helping to transfer tons of soybeans from the 20-foot, cylindrical grain bin to a waiting truck.

The truck drivers were ready to pull away from the Raleys' 88-acre farm in Bushwood when they noticed that Raley Sr. was nowhere to be seen. The drivers called Raley Jr., who is a former captain in the St. Mary's Sheriff's Office.

"Where's the last place you saw him?" Raley Jr. said he asked when he arrived at the farm. The truck drivers told him that his father was last seen up the ladder checking on the bin, so the son climbed up on the outside of the bin.

"I couldn't see anything in eight feet of soybeans," he said on Monday, "so I went and got a rope, tied it around myself for a harness, and went in to probe with a pipe. I felt something and I knew it wasn't right."

Raley Jr. called the fire department for help.

"We went into the body recovery mode," said Mike Huseman, chief of the Seventh District Volunteer Fire department." With the help of about 30 firefighters, Raley slowly emptied the soybeans from the bin until his father's body was revealed.

"When we got halfway we could see his shoulders," Huseman said. "We put four or five backboards around him to [block] the beans and started the auger up to try to get the beans away from him."

Once they had done that, the firefighters were able to remove Raley Sr.'s body from the grain bin.

On Tuesday, the St. Mary's Sheriff's Office announced that the cause of death officially determined by the state medical examiner's office was accidental asphyxiation.

James Raley Sr. spent his entire life on the farm, where he raised wheat, soybeans and tobacco, until he signed up for the state buyout program, which paid growers not to produce tobacco. The farm at the southern tip of St. Mary's County has been in the family for 140 years.

The elder Raley was an active man throughout his life, his son said, and stayed involved in farm work well into his seventies. He was a charter member and past chief of the Seventh District Fire Department, whose members helped recover his body, as well as president of the rescue squad.

He was a keen shot with a rifle and had plans for a rockfish expedition this summer, his son said. When he read the newspaper, he always started with the comics and worked his way up to commodity prices.

His death marks the passing of another link with the era when farms outnumbered subdivisions in St. Mary's County.

"He started with horse teams and oxen and then progressed up to internal combustion engines," Raley Jr. said.

"Everything you see around you is his work," the son told a visitor to the family farm this week.

As recently as last week, the father and son had worked together from 6:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the farm to load flowers they grew for sale in their greenhouse. An hour before the accident that claimed his life, Raley Sr. had been helping family friend John Cheseldine repair his swimming pool. Cheseldine said that Raley Sr. was always ready to offer help to any of his friends.

On Monday afternoon, Raley Jr. sat -- just a few feet away from the soybean bin -- and reflected on the big change that had struck him and the farm.

"I feel like I'm about half the person I used to be," he said. "I don't have my right arm."

Funeral services for John Raley Sr. are scheduled for tomorrow morning at Holy Angels Church in Avenue. In addition to his son, Raley Sr. is survived by his wife, Clare Raley.