Illness will force farmer from the fields
HOPE, Minn. -- On a windy, cloudy October day, the roar of a grain dryer dominates life on this farm in Minnesota's Steele County near the small town of Hope. The propane gas is drying corn picked in the surrounding fields. Standing nearby, a thi...
HOPE, Minn. -- On a windy, cloudy October day, the roar of a grain dryer dominates life on this farm in Minnesota's Steele County near the small town of Hope. The propane gas is drying corn picked in the surrounding fields. Standing nearby, a thin figure with a wispy beard, a couple of ears of corn tucked into his back pocket, keeps track of the process.
"It'll roughly do about 300 bushels an hour," Gary Richards says. "It just depends on the moisture of the corn going in."
Richards, 44, has been farming for more than 20 years. Married with three children, he should have many harvests yet to go. But disease has taken a toll. Richards has been diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease. It's attacking his body's nervous system and slowly reducing his muscle strength. Normal tasks like climbing into a truck have become difficult.
"The first day harvesting was the hardest. You really find out how limited a guy is," Richards says. "Stuff that a guy's done for your whole life -- all of sudden, it's harder to do."
Inside a machine shed on the farm, Richards slams the door on a nearly 30-year-old tractor. The machine carries memories of all that's happened since he first started farming.
As the rain pours down on the roof of the shed, Richards says sometimes he has to fight to keep the blues away. The most difficult times are in his doctor's office. He says they ask him whether he wants leg braces, or to be fitted for a wheelchair.
"I don't want to have to think about that kind of stuff yet. You get a hopeless, helpless feeling when you start thinking about what's to come," Richards says.
One year ago this fall, the harvest was fairly normal for Richards. The only problem seemed minor, an annoying muscle twitch in his left arm. He "blew it off," he says, saying he thought he'd pulled a muscle. But the condition persisted and spread, and came to shadow every move he made. He went to a doctor and last February got the diagnosis -- amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
"Talk about your world dropping out from underneath you," Richards says. "It really throws you for a loop, of course."
The disease almost always is fatal. The muscle system deteriorates until the body is paralyzed. Patients typically die of suffocation because eventually they can't breathe.
Even with that devastating diagnosis, Richards has managed to keep an optimistic spirit. He plans to travel and do more things with his family.
Standing in her living room, his mother, Mary Richards, calls him an inspiration. She prays for a miracle, a cure.
"Breaks my heart," she says. "It's hard to see your child, your son, going through what he's going through right now, because I know it's dreadfully difficult for him."
The plan right now is that next spring the Richards farm land will be rented out to a neighbor. Outside, water still is running off the roofs of the farm buildings, but the rain mostly has ended and the skies are even brightening a little.
As Gary Richards eyes the land he's worked for decades, he predicts he won't need a wheelchair or those braces.
"I'm going to beat this thing," Richards says. "I'm going to be one of those guys that they're going to go, 'Wow! He was cured!'"
One of the reasons for his optimism is because of some promising new treatments for ALS -- drugs that appear to slow its progression. Richards expects to be part of a new study that will test the effectiveness of one of those drugs.
But his optimism also comes from faith -- a faith that's essential to anyone who farms for a living. It's a belief that the sun will shine, the rain will fall and the crops will grow. It's especially needed in bad times, when a crop seems to be failing and the harvest appears to be a lost cause.