By Connor Lynch
SUNBURY — Jeff Ball likes to tell people he goes a long way for a hot dog. The 46-year-old farmer, who has 300 acres of cash crops at Sunbury, 20 minutes north of Kingston, is almost completely blind.
A friend will drive him three hours to hear the sputter and hum of farm machinery which has become music to his ears. “I’ll go to an auction in Western Ontario and never bid or buy. I’ll go just to learn what stuff is worth” and then have lunch.
Ball, who lives on a disability pension, is in the process of taking over the farm from his 75-year-old father Garfield. But the future of the farm is in doubt. His eyesight continues to get worse, almost completely limiting the physical work he can do, and one day he figures he’ll be completely blind.
Ball doesn’t know if his 16-year-old nephew, who works on the farm, will want to stay on after high school and it’s uncertain if the 300-acre operation would even support a full-time income. If his father stays on for another four years, Ball’s girlfriend Debbie Marsh, will likely retire and help out, he said. If it’s not feasible, Ball said he would rent out or sell the farm, open a shop, and buy and sell farm equipment.
As a child, Ball was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited disease that degrades eyesight over time. Doctors told his father that he’d be completely blind before he turned 10. Legally blind, he can’t judge distance, and faraway objects appear only as dark shapes.
The Balls used to milk cows, but Jeff’s deteriorating vision meant that if he went into the barn he couldn’t spot a sick or injured cow. “It wasn’t fair to the animals, that I couldn’t catch them before they were dead.”
His father drives the tractor these days. Ball drove for as long as he could but a growing fear of putting others at risk eventually convinced him to step away from the wheel. Autosteer tractors were an enticing option, but although they can handle a field they can’t spot a rock or figure out that a cultivator has a flat tire.
Driverless tractors are a welcome dream, but Ball can’t see how they could justify the cost of one to farm 300 acres.
“When I had vision, I cultivated, I plowed, I did lots of tractor work up until 2000,” he said. “But it was safer for me to quit before I hurt someone else.
“The biggest frustration is all the beautiful equipment that is bought. I don’t get to enjoy it. I would just love to drive that combine. It’s an incredible piece of equipment but I can’t drive it.”
A distant hope for his vision was dashed after an experimental microchip being developed by an eye specialist in Chicago failed to get approval. “The guy spent $40 million on it from donors and never got anywhere.”
Blindness has had an unexpected upside in the kindness of strangers, he said. Apart from a legion of neighbours and friends happy to help at the ring of a cellphone, Ball said when he heads out to equipment shows and auctions people will come say hi because he can’t see them wave.
“That’s a really neat feeling.”
Ball gets in his kicks where he can. During planting and harvest he’s in the cab with his father. “That was a nice feature with the old combine, the buddy seat. I call it the Jeff seat.” He’s spent as much as 11 hours in a day just riding along in the tractor.
And when custom sprayer Jonah Westerhof, who farms 800 acres at Belleville, comes by, he finds Jeff waiting with his coat and boots on.
“I’m riding in his water bug until he leaves,” Ball said.
The slow loss of his autonomy on the farm hasn’t gotten him down, and neither does the prospect of giving up the farm. It’s a bridge he’ll cross when the time comes.