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Forging On After a Farm Accident

by J.F. Pirro

        Know safety--no accidents, right? We should all be so lucky.

        What one Pennsylvania family of farmers has relearned, it says, is to never cut corners, not at any expense, but to take the long way, especially if it's the safer way. Take all the extra precautions, and even if you know what you're doing is safe, make sure it's safe.

        In Perkasie, Pa., the Beer family has always practiced and preached farm safety. It's what Ken Beer's sons, Roger and Rodney, grew up with, and a mantra Roger's son, Ryan, the youngest farmer in the family, has always heard. "'No loose clothing' was drilled into my head and Ryan's, to always turn an unused tractor off, not to crawl under anything," Roger says.

        Most of it is common sense, but Roger says, "Sometimes you don't listen to yourself, and then a fluky thing happens. You can never underestimate how quickly something bad can happen."

        Two years ago, while harvesting the last 20 acres of a 1,000-acre Bucks County operation that's centered around the 200-acre Ken-Jan Farm, Ryan severely injured his left hand. Doctors tried for weeks to save it, but they were unsuccessful and the hand had to be amputated. With his determination and some adaptation, he continues to farm one-handed.

        Now, if there's a silver lining in this classic man versus machine story, his experience serves to educate others on how to rebound after you're injured on the farm. Ryan, now 21, continues to team mostly with his grandfather, Ken, 82. They plant and harvest corn, wheat and soybeans, as well as hay to feed Ryan's small herd of Black Angus beef cows. He's had the herd since his freshman year in high school, when the family loaned him the money to get started.

        Never once since the accident has Ryan thought that the misfortune would, or should, keep him from farming as a profession. "I've had to make a point," he says. "I never once thought, 'I won't be able to do this.' I just always thought, 'I've just got to do this.' I didn't really give myself options."

        How it happened
        Ryan took a call from his grandfather in the fields. The combine had picked up a rock, and that took precedence even over his pouring a cement pad for a new cow barn. The family still isn't sure what happened while he was working on the combine, but once it was in motion, Ryan's left hand was caught inside.

        There were positives. Ken had a cellphone and used it to call 911. The local police and paramedics arrived in seven minutes. He was in a medevac helicopter and on his way to Philadelphia in 25 minutes, an unlikely speed since it takes 15 minutes just to warm up a medevac, but one was luckily already in the air on a test run. Ken also had workers' compensation insurance that covered Ryan for several months.

        When Ken summoned Roger, he arrived to find Ryan, the oldest of his three children, flopping on the ground. Ryan was wearing a long-sleeved shirt, and it may have been what got caught first. Roger used the shirt to make a tourniquet that might have saved Ryan's life. The greatest immediate fear was blood loss.

        "It wasn't a cut," Roger explains. "It was a tear-off. The blood vessels actually contracted, which minimized blood loss."

        Ryan had the dangling left hand, of course, but also a broken jaw, sternum and ribs. After five weeks, his reattached hand wasn't getting enough return circulation. To shield Ryan from the pain and trauma during the amputation, he was put into an induced coma.

        A natural righty, he soon learned that most of what he did on the farm was with his right hand anyway. Most farming equipment, fortunately, is designed for a right-handed operator.

        "If he had left it on, it would have required 1.5 years of surgeries, and there was still no guarantee," his father says. "If it came off, the doctors said that in a month or two he could be back to work."

        Getting back to work was what Ryan wanted most. He says the accident made him want to farm even more, though it has slowed him down. He also lost 30 pounds, mostly because his broken jaw was wired shut and he was on a liquid diet.

        There are things he can no longer do. He can't climb ladders, so rather than use a silo for grain storage to feed cows, he fills giant plastic ag bags with grain. The skid loader, which is designed for a two-handed operator, was converted by Ryan's brother, Jason, and the new lever system allows Ryan to run it one-handed.

        A hands-on kid, breakdowns in the field can sometimes stymie him--not because he can't figure it out, but because sometimes he can't make the adjustment one-handed, and sometimes he has to wait until someone else can help. Sometimes, the fix takes twice as long. "It's very frustrating," Ryan says. "Sometimes the wrenches go flying."

        Anything that requires dexterity is difficult. Holding two wrenches was once easy to do, but his prosthesis--a tool he uses when needed--doesn't bend at the wrist to angle into tight spots. "I'm always amazed at how much he's done, and at what he can do, and at how little he's complained," Roger says.

        Not a fan of his prosthesis, he never really wanted one, except for bow hunting. "Anyone who knows me knows that I don't have a hand, so why try to fool anyone?" he says.

        "It's that personality that got him through," Roger says. "The day he first woke up in the hospital, he asked me if Pop [his grandfather] was going to be OK with him not being able to work. He wondered if it would be OK to have some days off."

        In 2011, Ryan was the recipient of a Young Farmer grant from the Bucks County Farm Bureau. He used the monetary award for his herd, adding headlocks to the stalls in the new barn, the one he was pouring concrete for the day he was injured.

        While Ryan was recovering, a friend finished pouring the barn pad. His sister took care of the livestock. Tasha, his girlfriend, has been very supportive, just like his own parents. One of Roger's cousins has also helped on the farm since the accident, and Roger too is slowly working himself back into farming. He's been a full-time excavator operator for 25 years.

        Like grandfather and grandson again
        At first, Ken felt responsible for Ryan's accident and couldn't immediately visit him in the hospital, not until Ryan regained consciousness. "It was a fine line, mentally and emotionally," Roger says. "I was actually more worried about my dad. At his age, I wasn't sure if it would push him over the edge."

        Only Ken, who married into the farming family, had ever really been injured before on the farm. His ring finger was stripped to the bone when he caught it jumping down from a fertilizer buggy.

        "Other than that we've been fortunate," Roger says. "There have been bumps and bruises, like on any job, but then there was the unlucky day when Ryan was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but he's always been unique. As a young kid, in five minutes or less looking at a tractor, he knew what he was looking at. He was always able to tell what wasn't right. He could catch things and get equipment ready. He had a natural gift."

        The day grandfather and grandson were reunited, it was a good day for both, but Ken pledged never to run the combine again. Still, when the next opportunity arrived when they harvested wheat in July, he was back on the machine.

        Ryan never ran the combine before the accident, though he has since--perhaps as part of the ultimate transition from grandfather to grandson. In fact, this year Ryan cut all the soybeans, about 400 acres' worth and another 50 acres for a neighbor. "I want to be ready, but I don't know if I am," he says. The combine was always Ken's jurisdiction, along with the corn planter. "He was the head guy, and he always thought that if the corn wasn't planted right, then it would be his fault," Roger says.

        Roger says it would be totally different if Ryan was 35 and farming on his own when the accident happened. His doctors suggested that the accident at his age was a best-case scenario. "One of the first things the doctors told us is that he's young," Roger recalls. "I thought they meant that physically he would recover more quickly, but they meant mentally, that he would bounce back."

        His right arm has actually become stronger, but it also tires more quickly. Overreliance and use could cause him trouble down the line.

        "I've always told him that he has to do things better and more efficiently," Roger says. "Now he has to."

        Looking to the future, Ryan knows he'll have to see how far he can develop his beef operation, because, he says, "slowly we know we're going to lose ground."
        A video of Ryan running the tractor in May 2011.

        Photos courtesy of Roger Beer.

        The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th-century America, agrarian culture, land use, and sports and recreation topics.