September 9, 2023 at 8:00 a.m.
Farming in silence
Deafness not a deterrent for Rickert
The Rickert family — Micah (front, from left) and Jonah; (back, from left) Jim, Kelly, Emma, Miles, Shannon and Andrew — milk about 1,000 cows and farm nearly 2,100 acres at Rickland Dairy near Eldorado, Wisconsin. Andrew has been deaf since around 20 months of age after contracting spinal meningitis. (PHOTO BY STACEY SMART)
ELDORADO, Wis. — When meeting Andrew Rickert for the first time, it can be hard to tell he is deaf. Born with normal hearing, Andrew’s world did not turn silent until around 20 months of age after he contracted spinal meningitis. Exposed to a year and a half of sounds would provide him with audible speech later in life.
“Andrew’s speech is so good because he heard for 1.5 years compared to a person born deaf,” said his dad, Jim. “The memory of speech makes a difference.”
Andrew is good at reading lips and can understand much of what people say. He can then respond verbally.
“People know they have to face me so I can read their lips,” Andrew said.
Andrew and his wife, Shannon, and their kids — Miles, Emma, Jonah and Micah — farm with Andrew’s parents, Jim and Kelly; his grandfather, Don; Jim’s brother, Greg; and Greg’s son-in-law, Andy DeVries. The Rickerts milk about 1,000 cows and farm nearly 2,100 acres at Rickland Dairy near Eldorado.
Emma Rickert feeds grain to calves Aug. 17 while her dad, Andrew, pushes the feed cart on their farm near Eldorado, Wisconsin. When he was 4 years old, Andrew received a cochlear implant, which restored his hearing to about 75%. (PHOTO BY STACEY SMART)
Cows are milked three times a day in a double-16 parallel parlor with a rolling herd average of 30,000 pounds of milk, 3.8% butterfat and 3.1% protein.
The Rickerts are passionate about registered Holsteins, and this year, the family received a special honor when they were named Wisconsin’s 2023 Distinguished Holstein Breeder.
The family has bred or developed over 110 Excellent cows and sent 97 bulls to stud.
Andrew is the fourth generation on his family’s farm that dates back to 1936. Over the last decade, he has been transitioning into an owner. Andrew currently works full time on the farm and also hauls the farm’s milk in addition to working full time at Saputo. Andrew manages heifers and steers, helps with fieldwork and manure hauling, and also hauls and chops straw and hay for feed preparation.
When Andrew got his commercial driver’s license, the farm bought three tankers. He recently helped another farm start hauling their own milk and assists them in taking their milk in. Most days, he hauls three or four loads.
He also works 12-hour shifts at Saputo from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. 15 nights per month. Starting in the cheese plant, Andrew now works in the intake department.
“The job provides health insurance for my family,” Andrew said.
Being a part of the deaf community is how Andrew met Shannon, who is an American Sign Language-certified interpreter. The couple met in Milwaukee in 2006 at a comedy show for deaf people and interpreters. Four months later, they were engaged.
Shannon interprets in the community in all facets — from factories and hospitals to schools, theaters and retailers. She previously worked at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for 14 years and began freelancing in the community when Andrew started working at Saputo.
When he was 4 years old, Andrew received a cochlear implant which restored his hearing to about 75%. He was the youngest person in Wisconsin at the time to have the procedure, which was done in Indianapolis in 1987.
“It was pretty scary,” Kelly said.
“The operation was considered experimental at the time, and there was no place around here that did it,” he said.
Andrew’s response to the implant was instantaneous.
“You could see it in his eyes when they hooked it up and he could hear again,” Kelly said.
The following months were filled with Andrew trying to learn different sounds. A year later, he could recognize what the sounds were, and it made sense to him.
“He could even hear a dog barking in the house next door,” Kelly said. “When we were in a store, he could hear people talking on the intercom and would ask, what did they say?”
The Rickerts went back and forth to Indianapolis many times for checkups.
“Rehab was an indescribable amount of work,” Jim said. “They tested sounds to set a map on the implant while determining which sounds were too loud and which were too quiet.”
Andrew’s hearing is different from someone who is not deaf, Kelly said. He hears in tones, amps and frequency which have been adjusted as needed. He can hear 16 different tones. Electrodes were placed into the cochlea during the operation, and the internal piece implanted is the original. The external device is replaced every five years.
“This is the only thing I’ve ever known,” Andrew said. “Without the external device, I can’t hear anything.”
He turns the device off when he is on the farm because it will short out with moisture or dirt. He will put it on for meetings and other occasions.
Andrew began signing as soon as his parents discovered he was deaf.
“The whole family learned how to sign too,” Kelly said. “We all took a class.”
Not only did Andrew’s parents and younger brother, David, learn how to sign, but so did grandparents, aunts and uncles. Andrew relied not only on signing to communicate, but he also read lips and talked.
After learning sign language so she could communicate with her son, Kelly decided to make a career out of signing and became a licensed educational sign language interpreter. She has been interpreting in schools since 1994.
Growing up, Andrew attended a grade school in Oshkosh that had a regional deaf program. From fifth through eighth grade, he went to a local school that had an interpreter. His high school years were spent at Winnebago Lutheran Academy where his mom was his interpreter. She interpreted for Andrew for two years until he told her he wanted to be on his own. Andrew was the third generation in his family to attend the University of Wisconsin Farm and Industry Short Course where he also had an interpreter.
Andrew’s oldest two children, Miles and Emma, know the basics of sign language, and Jonah and Micah are always learning more signs. When communicating with their dad, Andrew’s children use gestures when needed, but Andrew said he understands his family well because he is around them all the time. Texting is another form of communication that has been a great help to Andrew.
“Texting puts him on the same level with other people,” Kelly said.
Never content to settle for mediocre, Andrew was a go-getter who always pushed himself to achieve everything he was capable of. He was successful at showing cattle and consistently placed near the top or took first place in showmanship. In 2001, he took reserve champion of the junior show at Wisconsin Championship Show.
“We were blessed with being able to have a cow board at Tom and Kelli Cull’s of Budjon Farms and be in their show string
,” Andrew said. “Showing allowed me to meet famous people in the industry.”
Andrew was also active in Junior Holsteins, and in 2004, he was one of six youth in the nation to be named a Distinguished Junior Member by Holstein Association USA, the highest honor given to a Junior Holstein member. Andrew was also named Wisconsin Outstanding Holstein Boy that year.
Andrew’s deafness impacted and inspired those around him. For example, one of his 4-H friends became an audiologist because of her friendship with Andrew.
Involved in 4-H and Junior Holsteins, Andrew’s children are following in their father’s footsteps. They show dairy and beef cattle, and each one showed a steer they sold at the meat auction this summer at their county fair. Miles won the 3-year-old quality milk award, and Micah won reserve champion at little britches show in the 6-year-old division. The kids also partake in the fair’s pedal tractor pull. Miles has participated in dairy bowl since age 8 and went to state for dairy judging.
The kids are also involved in many sports, including basketball, baseball, volleyball, soccer, softball and flag football. Emma’s dream is to play volleyball at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and attend vet school there.
Miles, Andrew’s oldest son, covers a lot of his dad’s work on the farm when Andrew is hauling milk or working at Saputo. This includes cleaning heifer barns, giving calves feed, hauling manure, running the footbath, bedding animals and helping check post-fresh cattle on weekends.
Andrew’s busy lifestyle is filled with his family and the farm and other facets of the dairy industry. Determined to excel, Andrew was never concerned with what he did not have, and instead, he fully utilized the gifts and talents he did have.
“If I encountered a challenge while growing up, I always found a way to overcome it,” Andrew said. “I always felt like everyone else.”