Springing to the rescue
One year ago Tom Soat lay in a hospital bed, having just endured three surgeries that spanned 30 hours.
Then doctors told the Milford, Iowa, farmer in his mid-fifties that he would spend several more weeks in a Sioux Falls, S.D., hospital room before he could return home.
It was inevitable that questions would swirl in his mind about how he would take care of the couple hundred head of sheep that were on the verge of lambing and plant the 400 acres of corn and soybeans he rents from an uncle.
Help came to his rescue not only that spring but last fall as well, when a growing organization based in North Dakota volunteered to haul its combine and grain semi to Soat’s farm and rally help from around the region to drive them until everything was harvested.
And the organization stands ready for another spring to dawn — and more farm families to help.
“For people you never met to travel hundreds of miles to help you out is pretty overwhelming at times,” Soat said.
Yet that’s precisely the mission of Farm Rescue, a nonprofit that plants and harvests crops free of charge for family farmers who have suffered a major injury, illness or natural disaster.
“Our ability to help families on the land is 100 percent dependent upon some pretty amazing people — volunteers, sponsors and individual donors,” the organization states on its website. “They give of their time, talents and financial resources to help put a crop in the ground or harvest its bounty for families that are in crisis. Selfless acts. Selfless people. It doesn't get much better than that in our book!”
For Soat, those efforts came in the form of a married couple and three others — plus neighbors, of course.
“They showed up, brought the machine and truck and everything else and stayed until they were all done,” Soat said.
The combine and semi arrived from another job 100 miles to the southeast at about 7 p.m. and work got started right away, running until probably 1 a.m., he said.
That continued over the next three or four days, with personnel shifting around and sharing some meals with Soat.
“They’re a very friendly, talkative group, but they were there for a job and wanted to get to that too,” he said.
At one point, though, they talked to 2 a.m. after shutting off the combine.
After the work finished up, the Farm Rescue crew pressed on to another site near LeMars, Iowa.
“It’s a very good organization. If you need help, it’s a great outfit to work with,” Soat said. “If someone has other health issues, I wouldn’t hesitate to ask them. They want to be asked.”
In Soat’s case, Farm Rescue found out from his brother-in-law.
Soat’s five-way heart bypass and repair of a hiatal hernia — part of his stomach pushing up through his diaphragm — which he said was worse than the heart surgery, were the culmination of a health condition that had its start way back in 1995, when he was diagnosed with lymphoma in his spine.
He said part of his cancer therapy caused the hiatal hernia.
“I tried to learn to live with it as best as possible, but it gradually got a little worse and a little worse,” he explained. “Last winter, I just kind of ran out of air and woke up on the 14th of February feeling really miserable.”
What he thought was an acid reflux attack took him from a hospital visit in Spencer, Iowa, to a six-week stay in Sioux Falls, S.D. And after he was released, he was on oxygen until about the 4th of July.
Early on, “a couple neighbors already told me they were going to plant my crop for me, and they did,” Soat said.
Another couple of neighbors took care of his ewes, which were lambing out at the time.
“Everything was pretty well taken care of when I got home,” he said.
That summer, a brother-in-law who worked at Green Plains Grain Co. in Superior, Iowa, happened to be talking with Farm Rescue and mentioned Soat’s situation.
“They wanted to know if they could come down and do my harvest,” he recalled. “… I was apprehensive at first — nobody likes to ask for help — but if the need is there, I definitely recommend them.”
Founder Bill Gross later visited for a brief interview in person, and then Soat was asked to give them a couple weeks’ advance notice so they could line up the equipment and people.
But by the time the first of September rolled around, he was discouraged by the worsening drought and told the organization that maybe it wasn’t worth bothering with — half his corn yielded three bushels per acre and a quarter of his beans got four bushels an acre.
“Beans at four or five bushel an acre doesn’t pay the combining bill, but you have to do it anyway,” he said.
The folks at Farm Rescue followed through on their offer for help, collecting the better half of corn at 90 bushels per acre while half his beans netted 30 bushels an acre and a quarter got 50.
Because of it, Soat said he saved more than $10,000 in the cost of hiring someone to do it.
As spring approaches, the crisis hasn’t let go of Soat, but it has loosened its grip. His livestock are worth about half of what they were a year ago while the price of grain and feed has climbed higher.
“With no more yield than there was last year, right now it doesn’t look very good,” he said.
But considering where he was, the difference is like night and day.
“It’s good not to have to have that (harvesting) expense out there; that would have been another disaster,” he said. “… It’s much better than it was a year ago. I’ll never be back to perfect, but it’s better than I thought it would be. Some people are surprised I’m back to doing anything at all. I’m back to taking care of as much as before.”
Farm Rescue helps farm families in North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Minnesota and Iowa. Applications are currently being accepted for the 2013 planting season, which can be obtained by calling (701) 252-2017 or visiting www.farmrescue.org. Priority is given to applications received by April 15.