Volunteers make harvest happen

Tuesday, September 25, 2012
Levi Wielenga, a Farm Rescue volunteer from Sioux City, combines soybeans on Tom Soat's farm between Fostoria and Milford on Monday afternoon. On Friday, Wielenga and other volunteers began harvesting crops for Soat, who underwent a quintuple bypass and hiatal hernia surgery in February. (Photos by Gabe Licht)

When a Feb. 14 quintuple bypass and hiatal hernia surgery kept Tom Soat from planting his crops, friends and neighbors came to his aid. As harvest time neared, strangers were thrown into the mix.

"Isn't that the funny part?" Soat said of Farm Rescue volunteers. "Strangers we've never met before and may never meet again stopped what they were doing to help do this. It's hard to put it in words."

Levi Wielenga, of Sioux City, was among those strangers as Farm Rescue team leader of Soat's harvest operations near Fostoria, Milford and Langdon.

Wielenga, a railroad engineer, grew up on a Sioux County farm where his family still farms 650 acres and raises cattle.

When his brother shared an "American Profile" article about Farm Rescue, Wielenga knew he needed to get involved.

Levi Wielenga is a railroad engineer who grew up on a Sioux County farm and enjoys planting and harvesting for farmers in crisis situations. He first learned about Farm Rescue two winters ago, and has been volunteering with the Jamestown, N.D.-based organization since.

"Not to over spiritualize it, but I feel I found my calling in life in volunteering and serving with Farm Rescue," Wielenga said.

Soat also learned about the Jamestown, N.D.-based nonprofit organization from a relative.

"My brother-in-law knew about this outfit out there in North Dakota and gave them a call," Soat said. "Since it was a little late in the spring by then, they asked if they could get involved with the harvest. One thing led to another and here they are."

While Soat said he is physically able to operate farm equipment, his health -- coupled with dry conditions -- left him with other challenges.

"Financially, it hasn't been a good year with all the expenses and the crops that have withered," Soat said. He pointed to an 80-acre field of corn, with an estimated yield of three bushels per acre, that was chopped for silage, in addition to single-digit soybean yields in the field harvested Monday.

"It just quit raining all over," Soat said. "This particular piece of ground is a bit marginal and it caught it at the wrong time this year."

In addition to Soat's land, he maintains about 200 ewes that were lambing while he was laid up in the hospital. Neighbors stepped up to keep the operation running.

"I wouldn't be here now if it wasn't for all those guys helping," Soat said.

During the harvest, neighbors and friends have been working hand-in-hand with Farm Rescue volunteers, lending both time and equipment.

For Wielenga, the choice to volunteer is personal.

"I think back to when I was a kid, if my dad had an issue, how thankful I would have been to an organization that came in and helped," he said. "It's healthy for us volunteers. There's nothing like getting over depression or a bad mood, that helping someone. It gets our minds off ourselves. It makes you grateful for the health you have. Sometimes, with the struggles we have, this takes the focus off ourselves and we realize we don't have it so bad."

So when a bearing went out in the combine Wielenga was using on Friday, he stayed positive. The setback pushed harvesting back a half day, but Wielenga still took Sunday off and returned Monday to finish the job.

Just as farming was a family affair for Wielenga growing up, so is volunteering with Farm Rescue. His wife, Carol, and young son, Lincoln, accompany him in the field.

Soat was taken aback by their actions.

"A thank you doesn't go very far," he said. "It doesn't do it justice. Levi and his wife are strangers giving their all. They have their 10-month-old baby with them. Not many people are willing to do that."

Wielenga was thankful both for the volunteers that assisted with the project, as well as the numerous sponsors that support Farm Rescue.

Without those volunteers and supporters, Soat's year would likely not have a silver lining.

"This has been an overwhelming year, a frustrating year," Soat said. "But it's been overwhelming that these guys would stop what they're doing to help."

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