August 17, 2004: Early in May the unimaginable
happened: My husband, Richard, became unable to farm! We have
been farming together for the past 12 years, and Richard farmed
eighteen years on his own before that. Farming is what he
knows and there has rarely been a day in those thirty years
that he hasn’t done some kind of farming. Now, unexpectedly,
and without warning, my partner was suffering from a pain
so debilitating that he could hardly walk or sit in comfort,
not to mention do any kind of physical work.
As you can imagine, we shifted into crisis mode. I took over
some duties from Richard, employees did, too. We got the essentials
done and, fortunately, Richard was still able to help us plan,
organize and make decisions most of the time. Some things
had to take the back burner, and writing a column for New
Farm was one of those projects.
Richard is mostly recovered now, 3 months later. He still
can’t do all the physical things that caused the injury
in the first place, like driving the cultivating tractor and
running the beet harvester, but he is pretty pain free as
long as he watches how he uses his body and keeps up with
his physical therapy.
It has been a long road to recovery. We have learned a lot
about ourselves, our limitations, and our business. Along
the way we learned something very important about our CSA,
our customers, in general, and why we put so much of our heart
and soul into growing food.
The following is a letter to our CSA members that appeared
in a May CSA newsletter, when we finally decided that we should
let them know how things were going on the farm.
Most of you don’t know
that one of your farmers has been pretty much laid up for
the past month. What Richard thought was the usual “spring
kink” in his neck, brought on by hours of tractor
operation while transplanting, turned out to be more serious.
When it became apparent that his normal course of treatment,
acupuncture and chiropractic sessions, had no effect and
the pain became overwhelming, we began to get a bit concerned.
Richard called his trusted family doc who gave him some
pain medication and referred him for an MRI and a visit
with the physical therapist. We thought help would be on
the way and we’d find out what was going on with Richard’s
back, neck and arm. We discovered that neither the physical
therapist nor the family doctor could really give a diagnosis
nor prognosis. Richard would have to wait until mid-July
to see a specialist. Meanwhile, he faced debilitating pain
or the dopey, spacey, exhaustion brought on by the medication
and the mild, but short-lived relief after physical therapy.
The realization that we were going to endure this for weeks,
and then, perhaps be told surgery was the only remedy, and
face weeks of rehabilitation after that, brought on a sense
I think it was that desperation
that showed on our faces on the Friday afternoon that CSA
members Barb and John Dobbertin came to pick up their vegetable
box. Barb advised us to try to get in to Mayo Clinic in
any way we could. It is only about 2 hours away, and she
knew people who had luck talking their way on to a waiting
list at least. She and John offered to drive Richard over
any day Richard was able to get in.
The next day Richard endured
a horrendous drive in to Madison in the Market truck. With
no one trained to drive his large straight truck, and with
me driving our other delivery truck, he felt like he had
no choice, using his bad arm to shift the transmission on
the 5 hour round trip journey. I could hardly stop thinking
about Mayo Clinic all weekend.
On Monday morning, just by chance,
we got a phone call from a fellow farmer. We had made an
agreement with him to help him set up some farm record keeping
methods on his computer. He was calling to discuss some
of his questions. When he found out about Richard’s
situation he made a bold suggestion, “Let me call
one of my CSA members in Rochester. She’s a physician
at Mayo Clinic. I think she can help.” She must be
a very compassionate person and really like her CSA farmer
because she agreed to see Richard. I was to call her the
very next day.
Tuesday found me in disbelief
talking to Dr. Margaret Houston on the phone. She’d
see him right away, she had the afternoon off. How soon
could he be there? I stammered out a suggestion -- “1:00?”
We agreed, and when I hung up the phone I realized Richard
had less than an hour to get on the road. I woke him up,
called Barb and John, and arranged for his prescription
to be refilled so he could ride somewhat pain-free to Rochester.
The Dobbertins dropped everything to be Richard’s
medical taxi. They were here before the prescription could
arrive. With a bed in the back of their station wagon they
whisked Richard down the road. I was shaking with relief.
Barb and John are quite familiar
with the clinic and knew right where to go. Richard was
ushered past the lobby, past the nurses’ desk and
into Dr. Houston’s office. Dr. Houston took Richard’s
history personally, gave him an exam, and put him on the
top of the Spine Clinic waiting list. He should return the
next day and hope for an opening.
Our angels of mercy, Dr. Houston,
Barb, John, and Rhyse, our farmer friend, all came through
for us when we were desperate. Richard did see a specialist
the very next day. His diagnosis -- two bulging disks and
a small leak in a third. The leaking fluid was pressing
on the nerve and causing all his pain. He must rest, not
lift, and to ease the pain without the debilitating medication,
he would need a corticosteroid shot. Prognosis was positive,
80% of the cases resolve without surgery, though it would
take at least 6 weeks. Now at least we knew!
Today Richard went back with
Barb and John for the shot. It takes a while to be effective
but we are hopeful. There has been some improvement already.
As for the past few weeks, we have come to realize the true
nature of support available to this CSA farmer. Our crew
has been amazing. Not one, but two members of the staff,
have taken their weekends off to learn to drive Richard’s
truck and be his stand-in at the market. Derek, our cook
extraordinaire, has arrived at 5:30 Saturday mornings to
help unload and organize the truck along with our regular
market help. CSA member, and friend, Jim Munsch dropped
in one day to lend a hand and cultivated for 9 hours, rescuing
our parsnips from an impending weed jungle! Brian and Scott
both came in to work on Saturday. Jose and Mike drove the
transplanter under difficult, muddy conditions -- a job
Richard has never turned over to others before. My sister
and her partner came on Memorial Day to help me catch up
on some office tasks that had fallen to the side as I took
up the slack for Richard. And then, Dr. Houston called just
to find out how Richard was!
When you are sick and vulnerable
that is when small acts of kindness mean so much. We have
been the recipients of great kindness and generosity. We
are starting to understand what Community Supported Agriculture
really can mean.
Two weeks ago, I updated members on Richard’s progress
in the CSA newsletter again. So many people asked about him,
and expressed their concern; it was time for another report.
I was very happy to be able to tell them that he is really
doing well. The most important component in his recovery is
the return of his enthusiasm for farming again, and his joy
in being able to fall back into most of his routine. Though
he might not pitch in when the bales need to be tossed, he’s
back at his most important contributions, like having the
big picture, setting priorities, making sure all 80 acres
gets inspected regularly for weeds, pests, crop health and
yield projections. We are no longer doing just the essentials,
we are attending to all the details and that lends a sense
of security that was lacking for a while.
I was also very proud to report that we were celebrating
Harmony Valley Farm’s 20th year! We were proud and grateful
to be farming, and farming well! Each year throws a farmer
a new challenge. Usually it’s the weather, but it can
be land tenure issues, losing important markets, problems
with machinery, staff or, in our case this year, health. Through
all the challenges we have been able to survive, and thrive!
We have a wonderful business, fantastic employees who help
make it happen, and the most unbelievable group of supportive
CSA members and farming colleagues. What more could a farmer