It was the dog days of summer in 1990. The heat and humidity were intense, making baling hay an uncomfortable job. Eugene Zygarlicke, of Marshfield, Wisconsin, was trying to finish the task when the stack of bales gave way and pushed him off the hay wagon. It was a big fall, but Eugene didn’t think it was more than bruises and a strained muscle or two.
Fall and winter came, but the pain in his shoulder did not go away. Eugene realized that maybe hat fall caused more damage than he had thought. In the spring of 1991, his doctor diagnosed a torn rotator cuff that need surgery. Eugene had the surgery in the fall of that year because, of course, he needed to get that year’s crops in first. That surgery may have fixed the rotator cuff, but the pain continued, which resulted in further surgeries. Eugene’s shoulder joint was deteriorating and eventually the ball and socket joint was replaced.
During these surgeries and the following convalescence, Eugene and his wife Marge enjoyed the gift of family. Even though most of their children were grown and had moved off the farm, their sons and sons-in-law volunteered to milk the 60 cow herd. All of the children came and helped with haying and other tasks around the farm.
As Eugene began to regain some of his strength, he attempted to get back into operating the farm. He found, however, that he just did not have the stamina or strength to do the tasks he had done before. Eugene had difficulty shovelling the feed, milking the cows and even driving the tractor. As agonizing as the thought was, he began to wonder if he would be able to continue farming the 300 acre farm.
“I want to do what I am,” said Eugene, emphatically. “I want to stay in farming.”
In March of 1994, Marge read an article in the “Agri-View”, a statewide agricultural newspaper, about a farmer with a severe back injury who was helped by a program called AgrAbility of Wisconsin. Marge wrote a letter to the program to see if they could possibly help her and her husband.
Paul Leverenz, Director of the Resource Center for Farmers with Disabilities (RCFD), the Easter Seals partner of AgrAbility of Wisconsin, and Tod Planar, Wood County UW-Cooperative Extension Agricultural Agent visited with Eugene and Marge in April 1994. Tod assessed the profitability of the farm and discussed other types of agricultural options that would be less stressful on Eugene’s shoulder.
Eugene and Marge decided they needed a steady income and should stay with dairying, rather than switch to another agricultural operation such as beef cattle.
“Dairying,” said Marge, “it’s what we know how to do!”
“Besides,” added Eugene, “I’ve been doing it all my life!”
Paul Leverenz discussed options to assist Eugene in operating the farm and yet reducing the strain on his shoulder and back. Leverenz also referred Eugene to the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) to assist in providing comprehensive vocational services rehabilitation services and to fund assistive technology to help Eugene continue farming.
At DVR’s request, RCFD conducted a farm site assessment of Zygarlicke farm and recommended the necessary assistive technology to allow Eugene to continue farming. Nancy Prokash, Eugene’s DVR counselor, developed a plan from those recommendations. While it resulted in a high cost plan, DVR agreed to fund assistive technology, as it was justified to allow Eugene to continue in his lifelong career, according to Nancy Prokash.
While working with DVR, Eugene was able to take advantage of another of RCFD’s programs, the Kraft Dairy Trust. The Kraft Dairy Trust allows RCFD to make purchases of assistive equipment up to $500.00 for dairy farmers with disabilities. With the Kraft dollars, Eugene’s tractors were equipped with additional steps, which allowed Eugene to get on the tractor without having to pull himself on with his arm and shoulder. The tractors were also equipped with straight-backed seats with arm rests to give Eugene’s arms and shoulders better support.
As a result of DVR’s funding and assistance, Eugene now uses an automatic feed cart to feed his cows, rather than a wheelbarrow and a shovel. To be able to use the cart, Eugene had to make a few modifications to his barn such as taking out a stall and modifying the silo room door so the cart could turn.
A grain bin and auger was installed to eliminate the need for Eugene to feed the grain in five gallon pails. The filling, lifting, and carrying of the grain in the pails was very stressful to Eugene’s are and shoulder. Now, he can auger the grain from the bin into a grain cart with large bicycle-like tires and use a scoop to feed the grain. The large tires make the cart roll more easily and require less force to push it. In the calf housing area, some additional modifications were made. A feed manger conveyor was installed to allow Eugene to feed calves in an area the automatic feed cart could not get to. The self-locking head stanchions were installed in the calf pens. The self-locking stanchions allow Eugene to restrain the calves for health checks with less risk of a secondary injury. Also, a separate barn cleaner system was installed in this area so the pens no longer have to be cleaned by hand.
In addition to the services provided by AgrAbility and DVR, Eugene is grateful for the extra efforts from the local dealers he worked with.
“The dealers were great,” said Eugene, “there was nothing that couldn’t be done.”
Eugene’s son David and his wife Marge take care of the milking now, and Eugene stays busy with feeding the livestock, cleaning the housing areas and doing field work. For the Zygarlicke’s, dealing with Eugene’s injury, the resulting disability and the effect it had on the farm resulted in a long struggle.
Eugene put it best when he said, “We survived and now we love every bit of it (farming)!”