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
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
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 of desperation.
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 ask for?