‘You Cannot Leave the Land’: Randolph Center Farmer Carries on After Stroke
Dairy farmer John Osha of Randolph Center, Vt. had a stroke in October 2011 while recovering from surgery to bypass a blocked carotid artery. The stroke left him with limited mobility in the right side of his body and difficulty speaking. At the time of the stroke, he was transitioning to retirement, and in January 2013 he sold his herd to Vermont Professor of Agriculture Chris Dutton. Osha still lives at home and visits the cows in the barn Monday, May 19, 2014. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
John Osha dresses after a shower in his Randolph Center, Vt., home Tuesday, May 27, 2014. "When I first came out (of the hospital), I couldn't even move my leg," he said. Osha tries to exercise his legs with a daily walk around the house and does resistance exercises with his arms. "You can't see in a day the progress, but in a month, in a year, you can see the improvement. I can talk. I can walk," he said. Osha recalls a visiting nurse telling him, "'I've never seen anyone tie their shoe with one hand.' I said, well, I've only got one to do it with." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
John Osha asks his wife Gail for a favor as she rushes out of his room to run errands Monday May, 29, 2014. Osha stays in a room at the back of the house set up to accommodate his limitations. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Osha struggles to get a word out while talking with Megan Putnam, a recent graduate of Vermont Technical College (VTC), as VTC sophomore Cody Osgood works on a tractor on the Randolph Center farm Monday, May 19, 2014. Osha no longer has control over the operation of the herd, but likes to visit with the workers and share suggestions.
(Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Dairy farmer John Osha of Randolph Center had a stroke in October 2011 while recovering from surgery to bypass a clocked carotid artery. Since then he has sold his herd, but still lives and works on the farm. Monday, May 19, 2014.
(Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
John Osha, 73, naps in his room surrounded by memorabilia of his life before the stroke Monday, May 19, 2014. Ribbons hang on the wall honoring the two Morgan horses he had to sell, and a stuffed beagle is a reminder of the dogs he kept for hunting. "I am tired all of the time," said Osha. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Randolph Center — With the grass about ready to cut for haylage, a flat tire on the Ford just wouldn’t do. So John Osha caught a ride down to the parts store with a student who works on his farm and bought a tube for the tubeless tire. Now he can mow, Osha, 73, said last week, flashing the gleeful grin of a man who’s come up with a creative fix, and of a farmer who after a long, tough winter was more than ready to climb onto a tractor and get out in the fields.
A longtime dairy farmer, Osha had a stroke 2 1/2 years ago that left him with limited mobility on his right side. But that hasn’t stopped him from bush hogging, spreading manure and checking on the cows.
“I can do all the things that you wouldn’t expect me to do,” said Osha, who uses a cane or wheelchair to get around. And he’s determined to keep doing what he can.
Osha grew up on a dairy farm in East Brookfield, Vt., but he wasn’t always a farmer. He earned a degree in economics from Rutgers University and worked for decades in various insurance agencies, including one in Randolph owned by his family. But after his father sold the farm, Osha realized he missed it. In 1978, while still working in insurance, he bought a 240-acre farm in Randolph Center, where he and his wife, Gail, raised their children and still live.
On a recent morning, the deep green hills were speckled with dandelions. The view from their house reaches to other farms in Randolph Center, a village in which the general store boasts a sign urging shoppers to stay healthy by drinking more milk and the spring air smells of manure. Osha could sell the property, but like so many of his neighbors, also aging farmers, it has a grip on him.
“You cannot leave the land, goddamn it. You cannot leave the farm,” he said. “I don’t know why, but you cannot.”
A former board chairman of Union Mutual Fire Insurance Co. and of Randolph National Bank, and a longtime hunter, he’s used to being busy. But after his stroke, he sold the four beagles he hunted rabbits with and backed off from some of the farm chores that used to fill his days. “Now, I don’t know what to do,” he said.
For a month after the stroke, he couldn’t talk or move his arms or legs. He spent three months in rehabilitation and eventually regained the use of his left side. When he first came home, he fell several times. But then, “I got stronger, smarter, a little better balanced,” he said.
Being right-handed, he doesn’t write much, except to sign his name. His wife and a woman who works at the farm help with the paperwork he used to do, he said. He can talk, but sometimes he gets going so fast he can’t get the words out. Still, he’s determined to stay independent.
“I don’t want to go to an old folks’ home,” he said, gesturing emphatically with his left hand.
“He’s amazing,” said Gail Osha, who is a registered nurse. “He is very good about his exercises. Some people might give up on it.”
At first, she was worried he would get hurt by falling. But she’s seen him get stronger.
“I agonize for him every day, but we get along,” she said. And, she added, she’s thankful he is up and about, able to get himself a meal and venture out into the fields. “People figure out how to do things.”
He’s also had help from the Vermont AgrAbility Project, which helps farmers with disabilities and chronic health conditions stay independent and keep working.
When an injury comes along, part of the process is “learning what you can do,” said Bill Snow, an outreach specialist with the program through University of Vermont Extension.
“Farm people in general are very hard, active workers, and they have a strong work ethic, and they just can’t sit still,” Snow said. “It’s so important to their psyches” to know they can do some of the activities they used to, and other things even better than they did before.
Often, an accident or illness makes people vulnerable to secondary injuries. In Osha’s case, because he’s less stable than before, he “needs to be more careful than the ordinary person,” Snow said.
Osha is appreciative of the help. “They’ve been nice,” he said. “They did what they could.”
Vermont AgrAbility made him a step for the tractor, but he hasn’t used it, preferring instead to challenge himself by climbing up without it. “It makes you stronger,” he said.
But a utility vehicle the program helped him buy has been seeing a lot of use.
“It’s a real blessing to have the four-wheeler,” said Osha, who uses it to visit neighbors and his son and his son’s family, who live nearby. Unlike a tractor, the vehicle doesn’t leave tracks or ruin plantings, and it enables him to easily reach every corner of the farm.
“I see it more now than I ever did,” he said.
Several years ago, when he was ready to retire from dairy farming, Osha’s property served as an incubator farm, through Vermont Technical College, in which graduates of the college would buy and care for the cows on the farm, with coaching from Osha. Recently, when the project ended, its creator, veterinarian and VTC professor Chris Dutton, bought the herd. Osha and Dutton, who also directs VTC’s Institute for Applied Agriculture and Food Systems, manage the farm together, with Osha taking care of the crops and Dutton handling the cows.
Osha, the state’s dairy farmer of the year in 1992, has continued to serve as a mentor for young people — four VTC agriculture students live in a trailer on the property and work on the farm. But after more than three decades in the business, he’s no dreamy-eyed idealist.
“Farming isn’t love. You love the land. You love the cows,” he said, but the never-ending pressure to make ends meet is trying. “You don’t hate it, but you do have to work every day, every day, every day.”
Milk prices lurch up and down, and with them, a farmer’s hopes. “You get so discouraged, but you bounce back and do all right,” said Osha. Then, just when prices drop unbearably low, “they up the price.”
Patient and flexible, Osha has been “just the right kind” of Vermont dairy farmer for students to look up to, said Dutton, who’s been cropping with him for a decade. “He’s my hero.”
He creates a sense of pride in the work by insisting everything is kept clean and nice, Dutton said, and both he and the students strive to meet his standards. “Kids recognize, ‘Oh, I got to drive John’s tractor.’ ”
He was “crushed” when Osha had the stroke. “It’s kind of hard thinking about not having that person that’s always inspired you to do better,” he said.
But then, last year, Osha amazed him by mowing. “He had secretly been training … I’m sure of it, to get back on these tractors,” Dutton said, laughing.
Last Tuesday, Osha sat in his wheelchair, looking out his bedroom window, wondering whether he’d mow that day. It’s best to cut the grass early, when its protein content is high, and before the seed heads come, he said. But the sky was cloudy, the wind moving like it might bring rain.
“You want really green grass, but dry,” Osha said. By late morning, he still wasn’t sure what the afternoon held in store.
Aimee Caruso can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3210.