By Gary Brock
PLAIN CITY — Allen County farmer Jeff Austin and his wife Kristi celebrated their 18th anniversary in a hospital in July, 2013.
Austin had cancer, and it resulted in the loss of mobility in his legs. The following months were tough for the Austin family, as the young farmer was concerned that he would never be able to farm as he had before becoming paraplegic. Then in 2014, he met fellow paraplegic farmer Bill Wilkins of Miami County, who had lost the use of his legs more than 40 years ago.
“And he gave me kind of a kick in the pants,” Austin said.
Wilkins is a mentor with the Ohio AgriBility Program, and in mid-April the OSU Extension and Easter Seals organizers held the first ever “Peer to Peer” meeting in Plain City for disabled farmers to meet and discuss their issues and what the state program can do in the future to assist farmers with special needs.
Andy Bauer, Education Program Coordinator for Ohio AgriBility and Program Director Dr. Dee Jepsen brought the farmers together to talk about their issues with each other, as well as hear about new technologies and products that can help Ohio farmers remain active on their farms.
Farmers such as Austin and his wife, Wilkins, farmer Bob Your of Hocking County, Gary Wical of Spring Valley in Greene County, Don Auckerman and his wife and Vickie Vixler of Brown County, all with various disabilities, attended the first Peer to Peer meeting to discuss common issues and most importantly – seek solutions.
“I think the Peer to Peer session are really good. You get a perspective from people who are in the same situation as you, and you can hear how they deal with their disabilities,” Austin said.
On July 23, 2013 Austin said he woke up with severe back pain and could not walk. He was taken to the hospital in Lima and went through tests and then flown immediately to a Columbus hospital. He had cancer on his spine. He has surgery that same day. “It was all very quick,” he said.
Austin was in hospital from July to October of 2013.
In the spring of 2014, he learned about the AgriBility program and was contacted by Wilkins. “I was still getting my strength back, feeling physically good. But I was feeling like I would not be able to get back into farming the way I had before.
“I met with Bill and he said, ‘Hey, step up, there are things you can do,’” Austin said. He and his family then visited Wilkins’ farm. “This was very helpful; seeing all of the things he had adapted for his own use was just unbelievable. You don’t hear of too many paralyzed men getting into the basement of their own house without a lift. Here, Bill used a rope with knots tied in it to lower himself down.”
What is he doing on the farm now? “I am back to doing everything – from working ground to harvesting, working on equipment. I am able to do everything I did before. It is a little different, a little more difficult and it takes more time. It is still farming, it is just a little different,” he said.
He and his wife have four children, ages 6 to 17. Austin said his children are very helpful, and do what they can. He farms with his father on about 500 acres, growing corn and soybeans. This year, Austin said they are going to plant about 75 percent soybeans and 25 percent corn.
Austin, 42, also volunteers along with his wife at their local Allen County school district when they are not farming and raising their family.
“I think the Peer to Peer program will be an excellent tool for newly disabled people to get involved with. Also for our spouses. They need to be able to talk to someone who has gone through what they are going through. It can be such a crushing blow for the spouse, life changes drastically for them,” Austin said. He said Kristi did have support.
“One of Jeff’s friends had a spinal injury about a year before his injury so we were able to talk with them. So he could talk to his friend and I can talk to his wife. There are just so many things we don’t know, and other people don’t know these things and they don’t want to know these things,” Kristi pointed out.
How is Austin doing today? “I am doing good. I have my strength back, my endurance. I don’t miss events that my kids are in any more,” he said with a laugh. “It just takes a little longer. But we don’t let anything stop us. Not at all,” Austin said.
During the Plain City meeting, each of the farmers attending shared their stories and discussed issues and needs unique to disabled farmers.
Wical of Spring Valley lost his legs in an accident. He told those at the meeting about his equipment needs and what modifications have been made that are important for him to farm, especially for farm trucks.
“These have made a life-changing difference,” he said. He described something as simple as a pole with a magnet attached to help him pick up tools and other things he drops. “Little modifications like that. I drop things a lot.”
Vickie Vixler of Brown County has arthritis and had knee replacement surgery. “I am an independent woman — you all inspire me. I am not going to give up,” she told the group. She said she is just getting ready to start in the AgriBility program.
“I do gardening and farmer’s markets, and I don’t want to give it up. I have been progressively getting worse. I fight every day,” she said, and has been learning to adapt on her vegetable farm by changing such things as elevating her growing beds. “We learn from the school of hard knocks.”
Don Auckerman of Montgomery County suffered a stroke three years ago. He farmed around 400 acres and said that after his stroke, he connected with Randy Joseph, rehabilitation coordinator with the Easter Seals Society, co-sponsor of the AgriBility program along with OSU Extension.
“Randy set me up with a lift. I now work the ground and do all the tilling myself. The program has really helped me out,” he said.
Norma, Don’s wife, said that people need to realize how much such an injury changes your life. “A stroke isn’t something you would wish on anyone. We face it one day at a time. One of the things that Don really enjoys is when a farmer comes to visit him. That is a highlight of his day,” she said.
Wilkins told those at the meeting, “There are things in life that help you, help you learn, I have been at the bottom of the pit in the past. People don’t see the lack of balance, the things we are going through that people don’t notice. The thing with AgriBility is that I can see and know the things that you are going through.”
Wilkins said that as times goes on, “I am less inhibited about talking about these issues. Life has been good to me. I have a great partner. I just want to thank all the people along the way who have helped me.”
Bob Your, who suffers from arthritis, talked about the need for networking. “Some farmers who become disabled, they just get out of farming. They didn’t have a resource group to go to. Farmers want to stay in farming. They are proud and independent. They don’t want a handout. I talked to Harold Heidlebaugh (of Allen County) on the other side of the state, and we talked to each other about about the needs he was having with equipment and sheep,” he said.
Also discussed at the meeting was the issue and problems of caregivers. “What can we do to make it easier for you as a caregiver?” asked Bauer. Bauer said they should put together a list a people who are willing to “just talk”
Your talked about he and wife being caregivers for each other. “Sometimes it is depressing, and we feel that sometimes we’re are just not going to make it. Sometimes we just need to talk to each other.”
Bauer said one of the most difficult challenges they face is getting the word out that the Ohio AgriBility program even exists. The group discussed more articles such as those appearing in Rural Life Today and a newsletter that can be sent out statewide.
Dr. Jepsen, Program Director for AgriBility, called it, “Probably my favorite program at OSU Extension.” She said that a meeting such as this first one is important to get feedback from those farmers with handicaps about what services and support they need.
“This is as much for you folks as it is for us. It is for us to serve you and understand what your needs are.”
Gary Brock can be reached at 937-556-5759 or on Twitter at GBrock4.