Staying in the game

Nineteen-year-old Kane Lewis’ life changed instantly on Nov. 16, 2019. While he was on a hunting trip, he had a seizure that caused him to fall from his tree stand — breaking his back and leaving him paralyzed. 

The fall was devastating for the Wilmington College student, a fifth-generation farmer. At the hospital, Lewis wondered how he would be able to take over the family farm in West Portsmouth. He has only one sibling, who does not farm, so “it’s definitely on my shoulders,” he says.

Shortly after spinal surgery, doctors and therapists told him about Ohio AgrAbility. Like AgrAbility in other states, Ohio AgrAbility is a partnership between a land grant university (in this case, Ohio State University) and a nonprofit (Easterseals Serving Greater Cincinnati), funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Kane Lewis and Rachel Jarman

A fall left Kane Lewis paralyzed, with his ability to take over the family farm in doubt, but Ohio AgrAbility and its rural rehabilitation specialist, Rachel Jarman, helped him obtain accessibility equipment that has allowed him to keep working.

Kane Lewis
Jeff Austin and his wife, Kristi
Jeff Austin and tractor

Working with state agencies, AgrAbility helped Lewis get a lift to put him on farm machinery, an Action Trackchair that will go over any terrain, and an automatic barn door opener. 

“AgrAbility has given me so much more freedom than I could have expected,” Lewis says. “I didn’t [have to] slow down.”

Just a month and a week after his accident, Lewis was back in college, where his classmates raised $13,000 to buy him an electric wheelchair to get around campus easily. By spring, he was back planting corn and soybeans.

“Our goal is to help farmers continue to do what they love to do and to live independently,” says Dee Jepsen, Ohio AgrAbility’s program director. 

Jeff Austin, a third-generation farmer, grows corn, soybeans, and wheat in Harrod, Ohio. Back in April 2013, he had just gotten a new combine and was eagerly anticipating the fall harvest so he could put it to use.

But that July, a cancerous tumor crushed his spinal cord, leaving him paralyzed below the waist. Austin’s first thought was that he would never drive that combine again. He worried about how he would support his four children.

“The doctors called it a ‘nontraumatic spinal cord injury,’” says his wife, Kristi, “but it was pretty traumatic for us.”

That September, Austin’s dad, Gary, and a family friend, Gene McClure, visited the AgrAbility tent at Farm Science Review. The brochures and information they brought back gave Austin hope. 

AgrAbility worked with state agencies to secure funding for the lift that he now uses to get onto several farm machines. With his Action Trackchair, “I can stand up to repair equipment and go anywhere on the farm.” To Austin, AgrAbility “means getting back my independence, having the freedom to go where I want to go. It’s given me a sense of freedom and purpose.”