MILDRED, Sask. – When Dale Willick returned to farming in the fall of 1987, he did it in the bucket of a front-end loader.
Unlike three years earlier when he had effortlessly scaled the steps of the family combine and slid his 16-year-old athletic body behind the steering wheel, this time the 19 year old needed help.
With someone in the bucket to keep him from falling out, he was lifted to the combine cab and moved onto the seat. One end of a string was tied to a hockey elbow pad on his left arm and the other end was attached to a lever operating a motor that turned the steering wheel. Levers to control the hydraulic clutch, variable speed control and throttle were close by his right arm. In case of an emergency, another string was tied to a snug-fitting cap and a kill switch, which he could use to turn off the combine by moving his head.
Willick was ready to farm again, three years after a car accident left him a quadriplegic.
“That was my start, or my restart, I guess,” said Willick, who today is 35, married and in charge of a mixed farm near Mildred in northwestern Saskatchewan that grows 600 acres of grain, runs 93 cows and operates a seed cleaning plant.
His father, George, who made the combine modifications, said his son’s determination to keep farming shouldn’t come as a surprise.
“He liked the farm so much and he was so determined to try farming in some way,” George said.
“From the time he was a little wee guy he would come on the tractor with me and fall asleep, and by the time he was 12 and 13 years old, he was hauling silage.”
While farming had been a passion from an early age, so was hockey, which took him to Prince Albert, Sask., to play midget hockey as a teenager. It was there that the accident occurred on Sept. 27, 1984, when the vehicle in which he was riding rolled on the highway.
He spent the next five months in a Saskatoon hospital, focusing on his recovery while continuing his school work.
“It was a heavy workload, with rehab and school, but it was probably the best thing I could be doing while I was in there.”
He returned home in late winter of 1985 and resumed studies at the local high school.
But more hospital time was ahead. The teenager had no control of his body below the neck, but his family had heard that a hospital in Moscow in what was then the Soviet Union performed surgery that might give him limited use of his arms.
The Willicks applied to the Soviet government, which agreed to pay all expenses except air fare.
Willick spent three months in Moscow in 1986, where he also continued his school work, and arrived home in early June in time to finish school and graduate from Grade 12.
The next year was spent in more therapy, and he eventually regained limited use of his left shoulder and right arm, although not his hands or fingers.
“It wasn’t till ’87 where I thought I had enough movement to be able to control anything.”
His first trip back to the combine cab was nerve wracking, even though the family selected the smoothest field on the farm.
“I guess if there were any doubts, that was it. I didn’t know if I could do it.”
But with encouragement from his parents and five sisters, he worked out the bugs and never looked back.
George was impressed with how well his son mastered the combine.
“He’s never hit the bush and if he plugs it, too bad. Mom and Dad have to unplug it.”
Willick hired a mechanic in 1988 to modify a tractor, which he gets into with the help of a winch lift. A four-wheel all-terrain vehicle was built in 1996. He uses it to get around the farm when the ground is too muddy or slushy for his rugged electric wheelchair.
He started buying and renting land in 1991 and took over responsibility of the farm in 1995.
Today, he provides whatever labour he can, offers advice to those repairing equipment and helps with combining, seeding and hauling bales and silage.
He still uses the original modifications made to the combine and tractor, and said it’s a five-minute job to get him into the cab.
“Once I’m in there, I’m in there for the day.”
His primary role, however, is managerial.
“I’m the boss.”
But the Willick farm can never be a one-man operation. Someone must help him in and out of bed, and into his wheelchair and farm equipment. Tasks like shovelling grain, turning a wrench or putting the combine in gear are out of the question. He also needs a driver, since he has decided it would be unsafe for him to control a vehicle on the highway.
His wife, Nancy, whom he married in 1998, provides much of this assistance, as do his parents.
But he also needs a hired hand, and from the beginning the challenge was to find a way to pay for such help from the farm’s limited revenue.
He solved the problem in 1997 by building a seed cleaning plant on the farm that would pay for itself and provide year-round employment for one worker. The plant is exceeding expectations and now also pays for a second worker during the busy season.
Willick is an active member of the farm team, roaming the yard and fields in his wheelchair and ATV. Two-way radios in the combine and tractor keep him in contact with others on the farm, as does the portable radio attached to his wheelchair.
“Otherwise he just yells,” Nancy said.
“Or I wait,” her husband added.
“I’ve sat in the same spot for an hour or more sometimes. It gives me a lot of time to think.”
Willick is an active member of his community. He is involved in Knights of Columbus, coaches a senior hockey team, is president of the board that runs the hamlet of Mildred, and compiles statistics for two hockey leagues and a fastball league.
As well, he is the northwest region’s co-representative for the Saskatchewan Abilities Council’s Farmers with Disabilities organization.
Nineteen years after his accident, Willick speaks almost nonchalantly about what he has accomplished.
“You have a goal and you have a plan, and if it’s in reach, you work for it.”