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Fighting Cancer, Roahrig Keeps Farming

by Jerry Goshert

Published: Friday, November 18, 2022

Marvin Roahrig is living life one day at a time.

The Bourbon farmer has tried fighting cancer the traditional way, with drugs and radiation, but at age 86, he has concluded that now is the time for him to savor time with family and do what he loves most, farming.

Despite the illness, his hopes are high, and predicted that 2022 won't be his final harvest season.

Last week, Roahrig was helping his oldest son, Mark, harvest corn at their farm along 10th Road west of Bourbon. Marvin drove the combine while Mark hauled the corn to South Bend Ethanol.

"Thank God I can still get in the combine and the tractors and do my thing," Marvin said. "I've farmed to live and I've lived to farm. There's no other way I'd have it."

Marvin's health struggle began over a year ago, when he was diagnosed with cancer in his bladder and prostate. Both organs were removed at IU Med Center in Indianapolis. However, he suffered some complications and remained at the hospital for 77 days, from July through September.

Marvin recalls that experience as "the worst nightmare" of his life.

Brenda, his wife of 61 years, made daily trips to the hospital, staying with family in the Indianapolis area.

After spending three weeks at a rehabilitation facility, Marvin was finally sent home. That was around the middle of September 2021.

With 600 acres to harvest that fall, the Roahrigs had only two workers, Marvin and Mark. As harvest began, Marvin was determined to do his part, even though he hadn't fully recovered.

The first obstacle was how to get in the way-up-high combine cab. Marvin couldn't climb the ladder, so Mark put him in the loader of the tractor and hoisted him up.

"And I just sat there and worked about all day, just pushing buttons," Marvin said.

When they were finished for the day, Mark once again used the bucket so his father could get down from the combine. In that deliberate fashion, the Roahrigs were able to finish the 2021 crop harvest.

Heading into winter, the family was optimistic that Marvin's cancer was gone. But they were disappointed to learn that it had come back.

"He couldn't take any treatment," Brenda said, noting that he had already received radiation in 2021.

Marvin has lost 40 pounds and Brenda says his body simply can't tolerate another round of treatment. The cancer has spread to Marvin's lungs.

"So, he's just going along day-to-day," she said. "We don't really have any help, except for the oldest son, Mark. He's doing all the heavy work."

Marvin has regained enough strength so that he can climb into the combine by himself. To him, it feels natural.

"That's all I've done all my life, is farm," he said.

Marvin lives at the same address and in the same house where he grew up. He and Brenda met while he was serving in the U.S. Army, at Fort Bragg, N.C., in the early 1960s.

"I started going out with Marvin and then he got out of the Army in February of '61 and we got married," Brenda said. "When I came here (to Indiana), I knew nothing—I knew nothing—about the farm," being a native of Virginia.

Marvin and Brenda lived with his parents, Guy and Ethel, for a short time, then his parents moved to another house about a mile away. Marvin and Brenda settled into the house and began farming with 15 dairy cattle and 120 acres.

"And we've lived here ever since," she said.

The Roahrigs sold the milk cows in the summer of 1966 and started raising hogs.

"We did it all the hard way," Brenda said. "We farrowed them out, cleaned pens by hand, slopped them morning and night. That's how we got paid."

They used their hard-earned money to buy the farm from Marvin's parents. They farmed additional land owned by a neighbor and local bank president, Lewis Mason. They split the profits 50-50.

Later, Marvin and Guy began raising and selling purebred Oxford and Hampshire sheep. They did quite well, showing several grand champions at the state fair. In fact, Marvin was a 10-year 4-H member. Guy was a pioneer of the local sheep industry.

Marvin and Brenda's sons, Mark and Brian, both showed sheep and beef cattle in 4-H. Eventually, the grandchildren became active in the 4-H sheep project.

In 1972, the Roahrigs bought a herd of cattle and started raising beef.

Marvin and Brenda sold the sheep flock in the early 1980s, when their youngest granddaughter finished 10 years in 4-H—culminating the family's three-generation run in 4-H.

Mark came back to the farm about 12 years ago, after working at the rail yard in Chicago. At the time, Marvin had fallen and injured his knee. Brenda asked Mark if he would come home and help with the farm. He's been working there ever since.

Marvin and Brenda have four granddaughters, Jenna, Ashton, Aubree and Kaylynn.

Brenda said she cherishes the memories of time spent with the granddaughters.

"We had two granddaughters that loved the farm, and they were here most all summer for 10 years apiece," she said. "They showed cattle and sheep and swine. That was probably one of the things that Marvin and I loved most."

Smiling, she added, "He really loved it in the summer. He loved it in the summer because we got into 4-H baking."

Recently, the family purchased a farm utility vehicle that Marvin uses to motor around the farm.

"Since this operation, all I can do is just sit in this thing and watch him (Mark) repair and do the climbing and lifting and all of that stuff," he said. "All I can do is just get in the combine and tractors and just ride."

This year's harvest season has been special for the Roahrigs.

"Of all the years we've farmed, this was our best farming year," Brenda said. "It was the best yields that we've ever had for corn or soybeans."

Late in December, Marvin will have a scan to see if the cancer has spread. He also has late-stage kidney disease.

"There's not much to be done, because he's also got stage 4 or 5 kidney disease and you can't do chemo if you have that," Brenda said. "He had prostate cancer back in 2008. He took radiation, so, see, once you take radiation you can't do it again. So, he's just praying and biding his time hoping he can not be in pain."

Everyone seems amazed at Marvin's resilience. For his part, Marvin said he wants to keep going for family, especially his great-grandchildren.

"I am hoping to be here next year," he said with a smile.

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