BRUNO — Mike Ostry is proud that for more than two decades, when his children brought him lunch in the field behind their house, he could hop off his 1970s-era John Deere tractor, sit with them in the dirt surrounded by organic corn and know the grains he sowed would buy their clothes and keep them fed.
“We always thought we could take care of ourselves,” the 52-year-old farmer said.
But the life he built with his wife and their 11 children on 372 acres just east of Bruno in Butler County has been upended by tumors in Mike’s brain that robbed him of his sight and balance and are threatening to take his livelihood.
Mike and his wife, Karen, both grew up in the Bruno area, but didn’t meet until after high school when they struck up a conversation at a dance in Abie, another Butler County village.
Mike called Karen’s parents’ house three weekends in a row after that. But she was away at Wayne State College studying music education, so he talked to her father. He eventually got her on the phone and ended up following her to Wayne, enrolling at the college and joining the choir she was a member of, despite knowing next to nothing about singing.
They married in 1988, bought land a year later from his father and named it Wagon Wheel Farm.
"Years ago, it had 300 wagon wheels making up fences around the yard," Mike said.
Those first few years were lean. Karen taught at East Butler Schools in Brainard to finish her education degree, then later at the Bruno elementary school, which since has closed. When Karen got pregnant with their first child, who was born in 1989, she decided to stay home. She home-schooled all their children.
Mike worked in the field, where he spread fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides along with his seeds.
The farm just broke even, and he worried about the chemicals and the effect they could have on his children, now 3 to 24 years old.
Farmers had produced for generations without the chemicals, so Mike figured he could, too. And the organic label brought a premium price.
Organic feed was a small niche in the 1990s, and folks raising animals on a small scale found it difficult to get. Pretty soon the Ostry phone started ringing; word had gotten out that Mike ground his own feed.
Today, the Ostry family makes weekly trips to Lincoln to drop off feed and has customers throughout the region, including the Carmelite monastery near Valparaiso. Mike said selling to folks with only a few chickens or goats doesn't bring in much money, but every bit helps and he likes to support the homegrown organic community.
Ruth Chantry, the mom half of a mom-and-pop farm near Raymond, gets oats and hay from the Ostry family and is organizing a fundraiser for Mike.
“Mike Ostry has given tremendously to his local community and to the greater organic farming community over the years,” she said in a recent fundraising plea. “Together we can ease some hardship for this family.”
Mike said he’s grateful for the prayers and help offered, although being on the receiving end of charity hurts his pride a little.
“I'm surprised people would actually want to do that for us,” he said.
Mike felt run down the past few years, but he chalked it up to age and stress.
Three years of drought had taken its toll on the farm. There wasn’t enough water to irrigate the fields and Mike found himself borrowing more money than he liked to keep the operation going.
Then in September, the headaches started. The pain would wake him about midnight.
“It was like a bunch of nails in my head, right around the cap line,” Mike said. “They would throb.”
He would get out of bed, go to the living room of the ranch-style home he’d designed and built himself, and sit in a recliner. Being upright helped the pain and after two or three hours he could drift back to sleep.
Karen said her husband seemed to age 30 years in a matter of months. A doctor gave him blood pressure medication and diagnosed him with chronic fatigue syndrome. He saw a chiropractor, who told him to rest and let his oldest boys take over the farm work.
“I cut back and slowed down and kept getting headaches,” Mike said.
In early February, two nights went by without headaches. On the third day, Feb. 10, he had a seizure and was rushed to the hospital by ambulance. Doctors did a brain scan and then sent him by helicopter to the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.
Mike had brain tumors.
As Karen headed for the hospital by car, her cellphone rang. The Omaha doctor wanted permission to operate. She gave the OK and prayed.
“I had nowhere else to turn," she said. "It was all in God’s hands.”
Surgeons took out 80 percent of the main tumor, which they believed to be non-cancerous, and left Mike with 17 staples running up the back of his head. They hope to remove the rest of it and a second tumor near his left ear, but first he must heal and regain his strength.
While Mike and Karen were in Omaha, 17-year-old Helena Ostry, the oldest child still living at home, took over running the household — cooking, cleaning, watching her five younger siblings, answering customer calls and talking with well wishers.
“It was like being a little girl and putting on big shoes,” Helena said.
The hardest part, she said, “probably was assuring the little kids Dad was OK, when I didn’t quite know myself.”
After the surgery, Mike hallucinated for several days that he was sitting in the back of a pickup that nobody was driving, coasting through the village of Dwight, up and down country hills.
“He saw the corn, he saw the corn seeds, he saw the animals, he saw his kids, but they wouldn’t answer back to him,” said Karen, who stayed at his side while he recovered.
His first post-surgery memory Mike has is of having a CT scan done -- and realizing he was blind.
All he sees is a wood grain texture and sometimes little blue lights. Doctors told him there is a chance his sight could return, but it could be months or years.
“The textures that I see kind of change. They’re softer than when I first opened my eyes. Sometimes I’ll see something float across, but it’s probably an optical illusion,” Mike said.
Twelve days after the seizure, he got to go home. The Ostry children all piled into the family’s 15-passenger van and drove to Omaha to pick up their parents.
Mike’s making the best of his situation, he said recently while sitting in a padded chair next to a corded telephone in the living room. Karen affectionately gave him a quick rub on the top of the head as he talked about having showered on his own twice and crawling on his hands and knees across the living room because he feared falling while alone in the house.
“I can feed myself, as long as someone fills my plate,” Mike said.
Gabriella, 5, added: “But he asks whether his plate is clean.”
When in doubt, he puts the edge of the plate to his mouth and shovels. Soup is easier, he said. He can just scoop.
With Karen doing the writing, he has filled out the farm plan for the year. He spends a lot of time on the phone now, making seed orders and chatting with friends.
“I can do the talking,” he said. “As long as someone dials the number.”
And he can sing. The Ostry family has made a name for itself throughout eastern Nebraska performing Czech songs and dances at festivals, nursing homes and in church halls. Some Sundays they have been known to perform at three different church services, first at St. Anthony's in Bruno, then St. Luke's Czech Catholic Shrine in Loma and finally St. Francis of Assisi in Lincoln.
The family has started practicing a pageant for the festival season. The theme is Czechs out West, and it's filled with songs about riding horses and giving a horseshoe to a pretty girl.
Mike says he'll have a singing part, but he'll probably be sitting in a chair off to the side.
With their father unable to drive a tractor or run the family’s old red International combine, his children are caring for the farm and are looking forward to planting.
But Mike worries. He didn’t have health insurance. He couldn’t afford it. He does qualify for Medicaid, but it won’t pay all the bills.
And, like most farmers, he has debt. When his grandmother died six years ago, Mike bought out his aunts’ share of the family farm and is still working to pay that off.
“That is probably the bigger challenge of my predicament — debt,” he said.
But another challenge is yet to come: spring, and having to sit in his chair next to the phone while his sons and daughters plant the rows.
“I’m not an indoor person. I like being outdoors on a tractor,” Mike said.