NORTH CAPE, WI
July 23, 2012, promised rain after a long, hot summer.
With an agricultural upbringing bred in his bones, Jim Waldron could feel the storm coming in the heavy, humid air.
Waldron grew up on a farm kept by his family for nearly a century, 300 acres of corn and alfalfa and 150 cows. He participated in Future Farmers of America while at Waterford High School, and at 26 was working on a farm near his family's acreage.
"Farming wasn't work," he said. "It was life."
Waldron whiled away the near-drought that year by driving a truck, delivering bales of hay and straw up north. With the rain coming that July day, the bales had to be covered with plastic tarps to keep dry.
Waldron stood atop a 16-foot high heap of big square bales, yanking a plastic sheet over the pile. He pulled the tie on one bale to flip and center it.
Suddenly the cord snapped. One misstep later, Waldron plunged backward off the pile. He landed flat on the hard, water-hungry dirt. His spine, at a spot about the height of his belly button, cracked.
He had lost the use of his legs forever.
"I was awake the whole time," Waldron remembered about the fall. "The guys who were with me kept touching my legs and asking me if I felt anything. I couldn't. All I felt was a hot spot in the middle of my back."
The road to recovery
Waldron recaps his fateful story, rolling his wheelchair through the family farm. He moves easily from barn to outbuildings. Two dogs trot next to his chair. A goat ambles past.
He was taken to Froedtert Hospital in Wauwatosa via Flight for Life helicopter. He had surgery on his spine. A day later, his surgeon told him he would spend the rest of his life using a wheelchair.
The next morning, a nurse rolled a wheelchair to his hospital bed and asked Waldron if he was going to get up.
"What else was I going to do?" he said. "You have to decide to move on. Lying in bed all the time just wasn't an option. It was time to figure this out."
Waldron began two months of physical and occupational therapy, relearning simple tasks most of us take for granted, such as taking a shower, going to the bathroom, getting dressed and tying his shoes.
"Realizing you can never do anything the way you used to do it strips away all of your confidence," he said. "You have to start over. It became all about small victories."
Back on the farm
By Labor Day 2012, Waldron was back on the family homestead. He moved in with his sister, Jackie Bratz, and her husband, Jeremy, who were running the farm.
The bad times came that spring, the first planting season since the accident. "Staring out the window, I saw everyone else getting the equipment ready, starting to plant, being productive," he said. "Those were the darkest times."
"There have been ups and downs," said Bratz, who is director of the Racine County Communications Center. "Sometimes we talked about it. Sometimes he would decompress in his room, probably trying to not think about it. There have been more than a few heartfelt conversations at the kitchen table."
Slowly, Waldron got stronger and healthier. He had surgery to ease severe leg pain. He stopped taking painkillers. He worked out almost every day. He started seeing a personal trainer once a week. He learned how to quickly disassemble his wheelchair and stow it in his truck. Best of all, he got back to the farm.
Using a special heavy-duty wheelchair, he went out among the cows. He helped with the chores. Last year he helped build a sand-filled, 150-stall barn for the cows.
"The more time I spent outside, the better I felt," Waldron said.
An estimated 19 percent of farmers are unable to perform essential tasks due to a disability, according to AgrAbility, a national organization that assists disabled farmers.
Waldron is not one of them.
Waldron has adjusted the farm's equipment, making it easier for him to use. He added hand controls for the foot pedals on the tractor and, this year, planted the farm's corn crop. He modified a skid loader and climbs into it with no problems.
His side businesses are thriving — he sells crop seeds, planting technology accessories and agriculture equipment parts. He drives to trade shows and farms expos across the Midwest. He meets clients in their fields.
"Regaining that sense of independence and feeling like I am useful is so important to me," he said. "I don't want to weigh down the farm. I want to help raise the value."
Looking to the future
At 28, Waldron knows he'll probably never escape the confines of his chair. That hasn't stopped him from planning and dreaming. He wants to expand his business, perhaps hire some employees, and help small farms get the best deals they can from big seed companies. He wants to build his own house and have a family.
"In a way, this turned out to be a kick in the butt," he said. "It pushed me in the right direction. I wish I could have learned that lesson without the chair, but sometimes that's not how life works."
Waldron grew up on a farm and, for the near future, will stay on the farm.
"I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing," Waldron said. "I'm exactly where I want to be."