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That's What Neighbors Do

Even in this era of Google Reader and text alerts blasting headlines at us throughout the day, you still sometimes get your news via your parents calling on the phone to read the hometown paper aloud. So it happened a week ago when my dad called from outside Lincoln, Nebraska, and said, “Did you hear what happened to this young farmer you met who was using the horses?”

Last summer, I had the privilege of a quick visit to Robinette Farms near Martell, Nebraska, where Alex McKiernan, 34, and his wife, Chloe Diegel, are making a small-scale farming life the old-fashioned way. Alongside their three daughters (all under 4 years old) and a rotating cast of farm apprentices, they raise a wide variety of chemical-free vegetables and livestock on rented land they hope to buy one day. In the fall, Alex bought a pair of draft horses to do the heavy work around the place because, he told me, they don’t pollute the environment, their upkeep is cheaper than that of the old tractors he could afford and they produce baby horses, which tractors rarely do.

The work on Robinette Farms was obviously hard, the finances undoubtedly a constant concern. But I couldn’t help idealizing the place. I envied the courage Alex and Chloe displayed in chasing this dream of theirs—of working the fields shoulder-to-shoulder with family members in traditional ways, protecting the soil and water and rejecting the materialistic urges that drive so many of us.

The storybook image in my head shattered when Dad called to read the Lincoln Journal-Star story about how Alex was partially paralyzed in a car accident in January. At first, Alex couldn’t move his legs. But with painstaking rehab and the determination of a man who works the land, he’s climbing back. He estimates that he’s regained about 35% of his legs’ function, and he feels new muscles coming back online every day.

Things won’t be the same at Robinette Farms this year. The horses Duke and Duchess went back to their previous owner until Alex is ready to handle them again. The pigs and lambs were slaughtered or moved to other farms. Chloe and the apprentices will keep the vegetable operation going.

But the people around Robinette are stepping into the gap. The volunteers who served alongside Alex on the Southwest Rural Fire Department—the people who freed him from the wreck that day—are doing chores, bringing meals and adding a wheelchair ramp to the house. Alex Loth, owner of the competing ShadowBrook Farm nearby, is helping with chores. "Just because we are competitors doesn't mean we can't be friends as well,” Loth told the Journal-Star.

When I hear statements like that, I think maybe my idealism wasn’t so misplaced after all.

If you’re interested in chipping in to help Alex and Chloe, you can contribute to the Alex McKiernan Benefit Account established at Cornhusker Bank (5555 South St., Lincoln, NE 68506; 877/837-4481).

Photos courtesy of Robinette Farms.