Oct 6, 2009Farming on Wheels: Life-changing accident doesn’t stop young farmer
When he was 15, Brian Rajzer knew he wanted to be a farmer.
By the time he was 16 and confined to a wheelchair, he still knew.
Now 29, he’s growing produce and flowers with his parents at Rajzer Farm Market and Greenhouses in Decatur, Mich. His life-changing accident made farming more difficult, but it didn’t deter him from his goal. If anything, it gave him boundless motivation.
“I was pretty much determined to figure it out,” Brian said. “I still am.”
It happened three days before his 16th birthday, when he was setting up a tree stand prior to hunting season. He fell out of the stand, broke his back and ended up paralyzed from the chest down.
For a long time, the Rajzer farm was a part-time operation. Brian would help his parents, Chris and Dina, grow vegetables, and would keep an eye on things if they were gone. By the time of Brian’s accident, the farm had become the family’s full-time occupation.
Chris described the farm as a “hobby that got out of hand.” He had always had an interest in agriculture, but had never planned on farming for a living. After getting a master’s degree in horticulture, he worked for an orchard and a grape company. He also was an Extension agent with Michigan State University for several years.
Chris always grew crops on the side, though, and by 1996 his hobby had evolved into his full-time job. He, Dina and Brian (they have another daughter who isn’t involved in the farm) grow field crops like corn, soybeans and wheat, along with produce like asparagus, grapes, blueberries, winter squash, peppers, cucumbers, sweet corn, potatoes, cabbage, melons, eggplant and about 20 acres of strawberries.
They’ve cut back on certain crops this year, like Indian corn, due to economics – the same reason they’re cutting back on some wholesale acreage, Chris said.
“Demand has changed,” he said. “You’re constantly assessing everything you’re growing, trying to be profitable.”
The farm has eight year-round employees, plus 40 or 50 seasonal employees – either migrant workers or high school students, Chris said.
Strawberries were the focus when the Rajzer farm was visited by a North American Strawberry Growers Association (NASGA) bus tour in August. Chris inherited the strawberry side of the business from his father-in-law. The Rajzers mainly grow Jewels and sell them fresh from their market, or sell them to other markets. Chris isn’t interested in u-pick.
Dina and Brian showed their NASGA visitors the farm market and greenhouses, which they both manage. For a long time, the market was just a produce-filled wagon, but they built an on-farm structure in 2000. They use the greenhouses to grow bedding plants and vegetable transplants. Brian oversees the bedding plants.
“He enjoys growing them,” Chris said. “He knows his varieties and knows his customers.”
Brian plans to eventually take over the market and greenhouse operations. Chris hopes his son will be able to make a good living by the time he takes over.
Brian was a junior in high school when he had his accident. After graduating, he went to Michigan State University, where he got a degree in ag business management. Then he came back home to the farm.
There are programs out there that can help disabled farmers, such as Michigan AgrAbility or Purdue University’s Breaking New Ground Resource Center, but when it came down to it, Brian had to overcome a lot of obstacles on his own.
“Every corner you turn around, there’s an obstacle,” he said.
Even the simplest tasks, like scouting a field, are extremely difficult when you’re confined to a wheelchair. Probably the biggest challenge for Brian was figuring out how to get into and operate tractors and other heavy equipment. He had to learn to make certain modifications – like changing the foot pedals into hand controls – or purchase them when they were available. As far as getting into a tractor, most are low enough to the ground that he can just hop in. It requires a lot of upper body strength, but it’s doable. All that’s needed is a little determination.