By Rae Wagoner
Just about every life has its ups and downs. Luckily, few, if any, of us will experience the downs that 2013 dealt Hodgenville dairy farmer Gary Rock. In May, Rock lost his father, and June brought a tornado that wiped out much of his farm. Proving “bad things come in threes,” Rock suffered a life-changing injury in August 2013 while chopping silage to feed his dairy cows.
Like many veteran farmers, Rock was working alone in the field when the chopper jammed. It was an older piece of equipment, and Rock did what many farmers would do — he tried to clear the jam with his foot without shutting off the chopper. He had done the same thing many times before, but this time would be his last.
“It caught one of my legs and cut it off,” he said. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to free him from the blades, and he lost his other leg in the same fashion. Laying helpless, he didn’t lose consciousness and used his cell phone to call for help.
Rock didn’t have health insurance, but the cost of that decision proved to be high. Between the ambulance, helicopter, hospital costs and rehabilitation, the bills added up quickly. Rock needed a miracle.
The communities, local and agriculture-wide, started a fundraiser called Keep Rock Milking. Neighbors took care of the crops in his fields, and friends from the local stockyard “babysat” his cows while he used all of his energy for rehabilitation.
“People I knew and people I didn’t just came out of the woodwork,” Rock said. “I try to be the kind of guy who would help someone else out, but being on the receiving end of all that help was a real blessing.”
Two years since his accident, Rock has two prosthetic legs and is getting around with the help of a walker and his wheelchairs. He has a lightweight chair for regular use and a track chair (complete with a flashlight and toolbox) for working out on the farm.
Rock’s wife, Karen, said she had no doubt that he would recover. The couple got married last fall.
“When he got that track chair, and I first saw him out in the field in it rounding up cows … that’s when I knew he was going to be OK,” she said.
Rock can’t say enough about the people who, literally, helped him get back on his feet.
“The support of the community, my family, the doctors and nurses and physical therapists, the prosthetics people at Louisville Prosthetics — everyone has been so kind and so helpful. It’s hard to accept help, but sometimes you just have to,” Rock said.
Rock is confident the Lord isn’t finished with him yet.
“I shouldn’t be sitting here talking to you,” he said. “I probably should have died, but I didn’t, and I figure that for now, at least, my purpose on this Earth is to be milking cows. That may change, and if the Lord leads me to something else, I’m open. But the way I see it stuff happens to everybody. If I can inspire others by telling my story, then that’s what I am supposed to do.”
Rock is a big believer in not squandering his second chance at life.
After the accident, Rock said, he never felt like he needed to quit farming or look for another way of life.
“This is what I know. This is what I do,” he said.
Rock speaks in churches from time to time, but one of his favorite outreach activities is talking with children.
“Kids aren’t scared of prosthetics,” he said. “They’re fascinated by them and want to see how they work, so I show them.”
As for his dairy business, Rock and his employees are going about business as usual, along with a few adjustments. He still drives his own truck, which has been outfitted with hand controls and a wheelchair lift from Vocational Rehab, a company he said is great.
“They came out here to the barn, and we showed them what I used to do and how I used to do it, and they helped figure out how I can get back to doing almost everything I used to with a few modifications.”
Rock Brothers Dairy milks 130 cows twice a day, 365 days a year, on land that has been in his family for 280 years. The operation has about the same number of replacement cows, from babies to heifers, ready to rotate into the daily milking when the time is right. Rock said an operation of this size will be hard to pass down to the next generation.
“In this age of mega-companies, it’s hard for the small to medium-sized family farm to survive,” he said. “Diversification is the key to success … Growing your business doesn’t always mean adding more cows. It might mean finding a niche market to produce another revenue stream. Some dairies are making their own cheese; some are giving tours. We’ll just have to see what works out.”
For now, his no. 1 goal, aside from milking cows, is to inspire others and to be an encouragement.
“Through tragedy, I’ve had a lot of doors opened to me, and I have learned that tragedy can be the start of a great blessing.”