BIG ROCK, Ill. — Operating a small farm profitably is challenging enough, but adding health issues makes it even more difficult.
Donna and Scott Lehrer have found a way to manage most of those challenges. They raise sheep and grow organic crops in northeastern Illinois. Things were going well until a ram injured Donna six years ago, leading to chronic pain and mobility problems. To add to that, Scott was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease.
“I’m not giving up. This is my livelihood,” Donna said of the farm they have operated together, one hour west of Chicago, for almost two decades.
It has required some research over the years to find the resources they need as health challenges arose. One of the biggest challenges is having consistent cash flow.
“It’s a big faith walk,” Donna said. “It’s an ongoing concern. This is my retirement.”
At age 61, Donna is “not quite” wheelchair-bound, but she must deal with chronic pain. Through her involvement in Kane County Farm Bureau, she learned about the services of AgrAbility, which helps farmers with disabilities.
Chip Petrea, a University of Illinois principal research specialist with a focus on agriculture safety and health, works with AgrAbility Unlimited in Illinois. Petrea was injured in a haying accident while farming in 1978 and returned to farming using adaptive equipment.
“Chip helped out with getting a ramp for the scooter and the golf cart. He helped make the (sheep) gates easier to open for me and Scott,” Donna said.
Donna also has high praise for the “help from the local retail shops that are handicap friendly — Jewel and Rural King. They make doing errands possible.”
She has been able to keep her booth selling vegetables and lamb at the French Market in Glencoe, Ill., by hiring high school students to set up and take down the booth weekly.
“It takes a village,” she said.
“She recently asked us about ideas of how to get hay into feeders easily,” Petrea said.
The Illinois Assistive Technology Program helps farmers get or adapt equipment they need to keep farming successfully. Currently the AgrAbility program is helping 60 clients in Illinois, Petrea said.
AgrAbility funding from federal and state sources has been sporadic, so the service has often benefited from the help of other organizations like the Illinois Farm Bureau, he said.
Attending an AgrAbility conference in Knoxville, Tenn., last year provided Donna with helpful ideas as she networked with others in similar situations. She would like to grow a social media group where more farmers can exchange ideas.
“It’s easy to feel isolated in such situations,” she said.
To help others, she has also applied to be an IFB host family for a new program aimed at helping veterans interested in farming. The veterans would learn ways to work around handicaps on the Lehrers’ farm.
“I can definitely relate,” she said.
Scott is currently the muscles behind the farm chores, but it is becoming harder for him remember how to do these tasks. Donna is working with a photographer to document the steps, and the photos will help remind him how to do his chores.
Petrea says it has been sad to see the disease progress for Scott over the three years he has known the hard-working couple.
The couple was initially reluctant to talk about Scott’s diagnosis, partially because of the stigma. But for that same reason, they do talk about it now.
“Rural America is very behind in accepting the concept of early onset Alzheimer’s,” Donna said.
The couple has joined a support group called “Without Warning” at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago and are part of a PBS documentary called “Too Soon to Forget.”
As well as looking to the future, the couple focuses on day-to-day operation. They sell at farmers markets and have operated Big Rock Organics as a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program for 16 years. The consumers subscribe for a share of produce for the year and get a variety of products grown on their farm weekly. Most of their vegetables are heirloom varieties including about 25 varieties of tomatoes. Their Lamb of God sheep operation provides artisan sausage and specialty lamb cuts for people in the Chicagoland area.
All small farms have the challenge of maintaining a positive cash flow, which can be even more difficult when medical issues are added.
Donna’s advice: “Keep on keeping on.”