MILLERSBURG — Lewis Baumgartner hands his polished wooden cane to his wife. Heaving himself into the seat of his blue tractor, he cranks the engine and it roars to life.
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He puts on a boyish grin and starts to drive the tractor in circles around his wife. The tractor slows, and Baumgartner turns off the engine and adjusts his cap, knocked askew by the wind.
As he climbs down, his wife lets loose a laugh. The back of her husband's britches are soaked. He had been sitting in a puddle in the driver's seat.
"Doggone it," Baumgartner says, with a wink at his wife.
"That's the World's Worst Farmer for you," she proclaims.
Baumgartner has built a second career as a comedian out of mishaps such as these. Whether it's damp trousers, faulty equipment or just plain bad luck, his jokes dig at the sometimes funny, sometimes frustrating, job of farming.
He calls himself "the World's Worst Farmer," and he has taken his comedy routine to 39 states as well as Toronto, Winnipeg and Saskatoon.
Over three decades, his comic farmer routine has produced several DVDs, a book titled "World's Worst Farmer... From Ragweed Ranch in Cocklebur County" and a weekly humor column in the Missouri Ruralist. "The World's Worst Farmer" is even painted on his barn.
Six years ago, a stroke interrupted his comedy career. After six weeks of intensive physical and speech therapy in the hospital, Lewis' recovery seemed on track.
But another stroke in 2008 sent him to the hospital a second time. This stroke affected his mobility and speech even more severely. He has spent the past five years regaining his voice so he can once again use humor to share a message.
Managing the land
Growing up in Millersburg, Lewis participated in the Future Farmers of America and spent his free time helping out neighboring farms.
He and his wife, Janice, bought their 120-acre place in the late 1970s and began to raise corn, wheat, soybeans, Angus cattle, chickens and hogs.
The farm crisis of the early 1980s hit the Baumgartners hard. Rapidly rising interest rates on loans for expensive farm equipment sank many small farmers and forced them to declare bankruptcy.
"Right after we bought the farm, we lost almost half of our net worth," Janice said.
The Baumgartners learned that the market can sometimes pay scant attention to hard work and enthusiasm. They had to sell much of their farm machinery in order to stay afloat, and they worked harder than ever to make ends meet.
Spending so much time on the tractor gave Lewis a chance to think. While doing his chores, he dreamed up poems and jokes. Many ruminated on the loss of small, family-owned farms and the growth of impersonal factory farming.
He began to write down his musings. He nicknamed his place in Millersburg the "Ragweed Ranch in Cockebur County," a jab at the land's reluctance to grow anything but weeds. He joked about how the only "black dirt" on his farm was where he poured the oil out of his tractor.
One day, he had an epiphany: He could put together a comedy routine and promote himself as the World's Worst Farmer.
The Baumgartners began to mail fliers to local businesses, selling the comedy routine as wholesome entertainment for company retreats and luncheons. Word spread, and soon Lewis was booking between 50 and 60 speaking engagements every year.
Many people in mid-Missouri could connect with his madcap adventures, as well as deeper themes about changes in the pattern of rural life.
He had turned adversity into an advantage.
Healing through humor
Lewis made people laugh long before he called himself the world's worst farmer.
"I've always been a ham," he said.
As a teenager, he wooed Janice with his sense of humor, and he hasn't stopped joking during their 45 years of marriage, even when times on the farm were tough.
"His sense of humor worked," his wife said. "He has kept me laughing all along, even now."
Lewis also makes his friends laugh. Robert Wright has known Lewis since they went out for a Friday night meal in 1976. Since then, the two men and their wives have made a dinner date every Friday night, rarely missing an evening. Lewis says Robert Wright has "just always been there."
"He's always had a great sense of humor," Robert Wright said about Lewis.
Lewis keeps a packing box stuffed with letters from his fans, the cardboard sides buckling under the volume of paper. Many of the letters include stories from farmers in Iowa, Arkansas, Indiana and Colorado about how his humor lightens their struggles. Others describe how Lewis' poems and columns have resonated with them.
One woman in Defiance, Mo., told him about purchasing his audio tapes and book for her visually handicapped husband, about how he waits for Lewis' magazine column every week.
"My husband looks forward to the arrival of the Missouri Ruralist and for me to read your column — it is the only reason we subscribe to it, I think," the woman wrote.
Recovering from a stroke
Lewis suffered his first stroke in 2007. He and his wife had spent an afternoon hanging drapes for her business. Afterward, they stopped at McDonald's. While his wife was ordering their meals, Lewis collapsed in the bathroom. He woke up in the hospital.
With Lewis unable to work and medical bills mounting, the Baumgartners had to sell 20 acres of their property. But that did not stop Lewis from farming.
"Selling the 20 acres got us to the point where financially we could handle things," Janice said. "That might have been the Lord telling us it was time to quit, but he would never quit."
Months after the first stroke, he regained his ability to speak through intensive therapy. Then the second stroke occurred, again compromising his speech and mobility. Lewis had to confront the reality that he would be unable to farm the way he once had.
The couple also was forced to face a sudden drop in income. Their two children were grown and living with their own families, but the Baumgartners still worried about retiring comfortably.
"We just thought our retirement would be different," Janice said. "We probably could have saved a little more money along the way, but we were working to keep the farm."
After the second stroke, the Baumgartners depended on Janice's drapery business to keep bills paid and groceries on the table.
They also decided to rent their land to other farmers, which has provided an unexpected silver lining. From the porch, Lewis can still see acres of crops and herds of Hereford cattle flourishing.
Despite losing some use of his right ankle, Lewis still drives a tractor. When his neighbor's alfalfa is ready to be bailed, he'll spend days helping out.
"He looks at what he can do, rather than what he can't," Robert Wright said.
Lewis is also determined to continue his comedy sketches. Together, he and his wife have put together a DVD with clips from his routnes, as well as information about stroke prevention, symptoms and recovery.
They want to route the DVD to hospitals, retirement homes and other settings where stroke information and a good laugh are needed. So far, they've made five presentations, with Janice accompanying her husband to help field questions.
"We want anybody that's been through something like this to know that you should never give up," she said. "In the six years since his first stroke, we've come a long way."
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.