Wheelchair hasn’t robbed Duane Pung of his joy in life and farming

By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
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While still in rehabilitation at Courage Center in Minneapolis in 2003, Duane Pung designed a lift that takes him from his wheelchair into the seat of any farm machinery. Jerry Mayers built it for him, making sure that it operates slowly enough to be safe.

Although a car accident in 2003 put Duane Pung in a wheelchair, it didn’t diminish his zest for life and his enjoyment of farming.

When hit by another vehicle, Pung and his two sons didn’t have a scratch on their bodies. But the impact was enough to snap Pung’s neck.

His spinal cord was severed at the C6 vertebra and he is now a quadriplegic.

“I’ve always been upbeat — you have to be to be a farmer,” said Pung. “There are too many things that could get a person down, like the weather and prices. My family and friends and the farm give me strength.”

“Every single time there is a big serious moment, five minutes later he cracks up laughing and you’d never know something was wrong,” said 10-year-old Vanessa Pung.

In 2003, Duane had to start from scratch, just like a baby. He spent a couple months at the Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute in Minneapolis. Then he spent a few months at  Courage Center.

“They worked the hell out of me there,” Duane said. Now he sees a doctor once a  year because he has to, but they mostly talk about the weather.

While at Courage Center, Duane designed a lift that would move him from his chair into the seat of farm machinery. He took the design to Jerry Mayers to build.

The lift has made a big difference in what Duane is able to do on his own. He is in the skid loader almost every day.

“I like to haul manure,” he said. “It’s so peaceful and I can do it alone. I can go all day long with no help, one load after another.”

Duane does all the hauling with the van and trailer. He’s also Vanessa’s chauffeur. But when it’s his turn to cook, they usually head to Charlie’s Cafe.

Duane and his wife Kathy hosted 23 exchange students between about 1987 and 2003, through the Communicating for Agriculture Education Programs.

“They weren’t employees,” said Duane. “They were more like trainees, and we needed to work alongside them.”

After the accident, the Pungs couldn’t accept any more students, but they have received many wedding invitations from overseas. “Linda from Norway is coming to visit this summer,” said Duane.

Son Jeremiah attends Ridgewater College in Willmar. When he’s home he attends farm meetings with his dad. “It’s nice to share the ideas with him,” said Duane.

Son Josh, 17, wants to learn welding. “We tell the kids they have to leave the farm for a while,” Duane said. “Then if they want to come back and farm, that’s fine.”

The Pungs have two older daughters, one of whom farms with her husband near Glenwood. Earlier this year they made the Pungs grandparents; little Hailey has been a delight.

“And now that I’m a grandpa, I can ‘legally’ take a snooze at noon,” Duane said.

The Pung family farms 500 acres, 400 of which they own. They milk 158 cows and grow corn, alfalfa and hay.

Duane grew up on the farm, which was established by his grandfather Frank, and farmed by his father Al, too.

Friends and neighbors have made a significant difference in the lives of the Pungs. In 2003, Timmy Linn coordinated the planting and later harvesting of the crops while Duane was hospitalized.

Two years ago, following a fire that destroyed the Pungs’ barn, the Wilwedings took the cows for 18 days while the Pungs repaired the minor damage to their milking parlor. “It could have been nine days, but Minnesota is the only state in the union with a law prohibiting milking cows under the stars; we had to have a roof over their heads,” said Duane.

Although there are some things Duane won’t do, such as hay cutting because it moves too fast, and round baling because it requires too much strength, he enjoys doing so much field work.

“My mind has to be going,” he said. “And I have to avoid negative people.”