This article originally appreared in Ohio's Country Journal on January 29, 2024. Brianna Gwirtz is a 2016 graduate of Ohio State ATI.
By Brianna Gwirtz, OCJ field reporter
This past summer, Cooper Meshew packed his bags and headed west to join a custom harvest crew. The days were long and plains were vast venues for the orchestrated dance between combines and grain carts across thousands of acres. The task may not initially seem that extraordinary, but the average onlooker would never know the adversity that Meshew had to overcome to cross off this bucket list item. His journey into agriculture has been far from the ordinary.
As a child, Meshew was diagnosed with a life-changing diagnosis; he has a degenerative nerve disease called Charcot-Marie-Tooth (CMT). The disease affects 1 in 2,500 people, but Meshew has a rare variant of the disease, one that only about 1 in 10 million people worldwide develop. CMT affects sensory and motor nerves in the hands, feet, arms, and legs, resulting in muscle weakness and atrophy.
Along with the challenges of CMT, Meshew does not have a background in agriculture. The self-proclaimed “city kid,” grew up in Wooster but has long been fascinated by machinery.
“Nobody in my family farms,” Meshew said. “But I grew up with many toy tractors and did quite a bit of carpet farming over the years.”
With his infectious enthusiasm for farming, though, Meshew has cultivated a path uniquely his own. Because of his CMT diagnosis, Meshew was assigned an IEP or an individualized educational program. In high school, he was given the option to attend the local career center, but instead applied to post-secondary courses at Ohio State ATI. Meshew was accepted and began his crop management courses as a junior in high school.
Around the same time, Meshew started his own landscaping company called Buckeye Brush and Turf.
“My main focus was weekly residential lawn care and brush clearing. I learned a lot about being a manager and having employees,” Meshew said.
While the business got him closer to operating equipment and being outdoors, it still wasn’t quite what he hoped to do.
“I’ve always liked farming. I figured if I could play with tractors all day for a living, that would be pretty fun,” Meshew said. “However, after my first week at ATI, I realized it was my passion. We had already gone out to the corn field, met the seed salesmen, and then ran equipment in class.”
While attending Ohio State ATI, Meshew posted in the Wooster Insider Facebook group asking if any local farmers needed some help. Specifically, Meshew asked to do work that involved running a tractor.
“I had quite a few people call me and offer me jobs milking cows, but that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I said I would even work for free as long as I got to be in a tractor,” Meshew said.
Seth Houser of Houser Custom Harvesting based in Wayne County took Meshew up on the offer. Meshew stopped by to visit Houser one day, and two hours later, he was running a grain cart for the crew. Meshew graduated with his associate’s degree in 2022 at the young age of 18. He spent time running his lawn care business and helping out Houser during the busy seasons. His time spent in a grain cart in Ohio got him thinking about heading for larger fields in the West.
“Without my parents knowing, I made a post on the US Custom Harvester Facebook page looking for crews that were hiring,” Meshew said. “I went to shower, checked my phone, and had 20 companies wanting to interview me. One of those offers was from Danielski Farms. When I talked to the Danielskis about my physical disabilities, I told them that the main thing was I couldn’t turn a wrench and that I needed a device to help me run the equipment. They said it wasn’t a problem at all.”
Due to his CMT, Meshew has limited mobility in his right hand and right arm. However, adaptive devices like spinner knobs help him do everyday tasks, like driving his truck or, in this case, operating a tractor. He had never left home before but knew it was something he wanted to do. Meshew left in April 2023 to start his new job in Valentine, Neb.
“There’s a lot you don’t think about when you’re preparing to live on your own, but I think I did pretty well. I liked learning how to become independent,” Meshew said. “This job has been monumental for me.”
Meshew started by doing spring tillage work for a few months in Nebraska, getting accustomed to the job and the equipment. When summer rolled around, the harvest crew expanded and began to work across Oklahoma for wheat harvest.
“Combines in Oklahoma do Kansas corners, where your combine head never comes out of the crop, so there’s always a bit left behind. So, you are running the steering by hand in a circle, then go back and get the corners. It was definitely challenging to run the grain cart with hand steering while the combine is also hand steering,” Meshew said.
From Oklahoma, the crew headed south.
“My favorite part was definitely working on the King Ranch in Texas for five weeks. We harvested 28,000 acres. The smallest field we worked in was 600 acres, and the biggest was around 4,000 acres,” Meshew said. “I got to see milo, a crop we don’t grow much here in Ohio. We also harvested popcorn, which was pretty neat.”
While initially intimidated, Meshew got the hang of the job and really enjoyed it.
“I was kind of familiar with farming, having grown up in Wayne County and reading things in magazines or seeing it on YouTube, but this was a new look at the industry. Without growing up on a farm, I think it was good for me because I had fresh eyes on the operation and had no bad habits,” Meshew said.
After seven months of long days and plenty of hours in the tractor cab, Meshew returned home to Wooster in mid-November.
“I am very grateful to Danielski Farms for allowing me to do the job. They could’ve very easily said, ‘No, I don’t want to deal with that.’ They gave me the chance, and I proved myself,” Meshew said.
Meshew helped harvest a variety of crops over thousands of acres for Nebraska-based Danielski Farms. Photo provided by Meshew.
Meshew hopes to head back West again soon to continue his career in agriculture. His passion for the industry and his initiative to learn more have helped him land some exciting job opportunities. For now, he’s enjoying time with family and helping with the non-profit organization his family founded, Hunt For Hope. The organization takes kids with illnesses or disabilities on once-in-a-lifetime, all expenses paid 3-day hunting trips (including clothing, tags, processing, equipment, lodging and meals for the hunter and their family) in Ohio, a hobby that Meshew enjoys.
In all he does, Meshew keeps his focus on the task at hand and not his potential limitations.
“I try not to think too much about my CMT. I keep on moving,” Meshew said. “I live life to the fullest. I would say I am driven. If I want to do something, I will figure out how to do it.”