By Brianna Gwirtz, OCJ field reporter
Riding next to his dad in the tractor, a young Matt Fry could tell there was a problem with the machine. He and his father were working ground on their farm in Bellville when Matt noticed a difference in the way the tractor was running. He could feel it in the vibrations of the engine that something was not right, even before the beeping alarms let his dad know there was an issue. Although Fry was unable to hear the alarms, his other senses alerted him to the problem.
Growing up, Fry never let his deafness discourage him from enjoying life on the farm. Today, he’s a husband, father and full-time farmer. Matt still works alongside his dad, Robert, as the fourth generation on their family farm, where they no-till oats, wheat, hay, corn, and soybeans. He also has his own small herd of beef cows.
Born with the ability to hear, Matt suffered a severe illness as an infant that caused him to lose his sense of hearing. As an adult, his hands serve not only as vital tools on the farm, but tools to communicate and connect with others.
“I grew up as an only child on the farm and attended Mansfield City Schools for their deaf program,” Fry said. “My teacher signed with me and then I had an interpreter when I joined the other classroom. I had other deaf and hard of hearing peers in my classroom.
“After I graduated high school, I worked full-time off the farm and helped my dad when I could. When the economy took a turn for the worse around 15 years ago or so, I lost that job but was able to come home and work on the farm full-time.”
Fry communicates with his dad via sign language as well as paper and pencil.
“When I am on the farm, I mainly use home signs. It’s not true American sign language, but gestures that have meanings,” Fry said. “Texting and video calling are also great ways I can talk to people.”
Matt met his wife Jessica, who is also deaf, at a fundraising event in Columbus. A self-proclaimed city girl, Jessica was intrigued by the farm life but it took some adjusting.
“We met through some mutual friends at a cornhole tournament that was a fundraising event. Once we started talking and I realized he was a farmer, I was just really fascinated by all that he does,” Jessica said. “It’s really rare to find a deaf farmer. There are not very many in the United States. It was at times a tough transition to the farm life for me after growing up in a big city, but there’s really no better place to raise your kids than on a farm.”
The pair wed in 2013 and welcomed twins Matthew and Madeleine a few years later. Both children can hear.
Considered CODAs, or Children of Deaf Adults, the two 5-year-olds are well versed in both American Sign Language and English.
“It’s impressive that they are so young and are bilingual already,” Jessica said. “We will always practice deaf culture in our household. They learned sign language first from us and then later on they learned to speak and write in English.”
Both twins love to help their dad, but their son Matthew is especially enthralled with the farm life.
“Both of my kids are great helpers. Matthew is just fascinated by tractors. He is always wanting to go on rides and spend time with me on the tractor,” Matt said. “Before I leave the house, he is always asking me so many questions about where I am going, what I am doing and why I am doing something.
“Right now I am working on baling hay, and every night when I get home Matthew wants to know when I am going to wrap the bales, so finally the weather cooperated and I texted my wife and here comes Matthew, so excited to go wrap hay,” he said with a smile.
Matthew’s interest at such a young age could lead to another generation on the family farm.
“I hope that when the kids grow up that they do pursue agricultural jobs and want to continue with the family farm someday,” Matt said. “There are just so many different options for jobs in agriculture.”
Watching Matt and his children interact, you would never know that a potential language barrier exists.
“My motto is that my family will always come first, and then the farm,” Matt said.
Farming in general can be a challenging occupation, but being deaf while farming can present its own unique challenges. Luckily, there are plenty of modifications that can be done to make the job easier for Matt.
“Our machines are modified and accessible for me, so I can operate them without having to rely on others,” Matt said. “Our mechanic set up our tractor to have LED lights instead of sounds to let me know when there are problems. So if something isn’t right, a light will flash for me. Then I know I need to stop and check on things.”
Matt also does things the old fashioned way — watching very carefully.
“I am always very aware of my surroundings and try to be extra observant,” Fry said. Additionally, he relies on monitors that show numbers and other information as well to monitor his fields and work. Perhaps what has been more challenging than not being able to hear on the farm for Matt and Jessica has been finding a sense of community within the agricultural industry.
“Being a farmer’s wife is not always easy,” Jessica said. “I do love it, but sometimes I just wish I knew of other deaf women in agriculture that I can communicate with.”
Jessica did share that joining groups on social media has helped, but that it’s not the same as being able to sign with someone.
“Yeah, we know of a few other deaf farmers across the state and in several other states, but there’s no formal organization or anything for us to join to gather or talk regularly,” Matt said. When working with other hearing farmers, Matt often writes out what he needs to say or uses texting or the notes app on his phone. He knows of a handful of other deaf farmers (including an Ohio produce grower and dairy farmer) but they are certainly not common. He does not know any deaf grain or beef farmers in Ohio.
“I feel like I can’t be the only (deaf) one out there,” Matt said.
If there’s anything that Matt wants people to know, it’s that his deafness doesn’t affect his passion for his family or for farming.
“My husband does not like to show his deafness, because then people think he can’t do things,” Jessica said. “Matt is a really fast learner, he’s so observant and just loves what he does. He’s a very hard worker.”
Since he was a boy alerting his father to a problem with his keen other senses, Matt has expanded his knowledge and skills as a farmer to overcome his lack of hearing.
“I can do everything a hearing person can do on the farm. The only thing a deaf person cannot do is hear,” Matt said with a smile. “And I don’t give up.”