Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

Farmers facing health troubles, natural disasters rely on volunteer network to finish the harvest

A group of people pose in front of a Farm Rescue combine.
Farmer John Thomas with his family and volunteers from Farm Rescue who helped him harvest corn and soybeans on his 600-acre farm as he was recovering from surgery.
Courtesy of John Thomas

The number of farms in the United States is slowly dropping and farms are trending larger.

A side effect of this is that farmers are often more separated from their neighbors, which means in a health crisis or natural disaster, there are fewer people around to help.

This is one of the changes the founder of a non-profit Farm Rescue noticed when he decided to start the organization in North Dakota in 2005. The organization has since expanded to dispatch volunteers and equipment to eight states, including Minnesota, to help farmers get through essential tasks like planting and harvesting.

MPR News host Cathy Wurzer talked with John Thomas, who recently received volunteers on his 600-acre corn and soybean farm in Dundas, Minn., and Mike Youngblood, a retired John Deere engineer from Ashby, Minn., who called in from volunteering on a farm in North Dakota.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: You have probably heard, of course, that the number of farms in this country is slowly dropping, and farms are trending larger. That means farmers are often more separated from their neighbors. So if there is a health care crisis or a natural disaster, there are fewer people around to help. This is one of the changes the founder of a nonprofit called Farm Rescue noticed when he decided to start the organization in North Dakota back in 2005.

It has since expanded, dispatching volunteers and equipment to eight states, including Minnesota. In this way, it helps farmers get through essential tasks like planting and harvesting. Joining us right now is John Thomas, who farms and owns 600 acres in Dundas, Minnesota. He recently got help from Farm Rescue volunteers.

Mike Youngblood is with us, a retired John Deere engineer from Ashby, Minnesota, who's been volunteering on other farms. Mike and John, thanks for joining us.

JOHN THOMAS: You're welcome

MIKE YOUNGBLOOD: You're welcome.

CATHY WURZER: Hey, John. I should say "Mike," I'm going to start with you first. Where are you calling from?

MIKE YOUNGBLOOD: Stirum, North Dakota.

CATHY WURZER: Where is that?

MIKE YOUNGBLOOD: It's south of Valley City and straight west of Wahpeton.


MIKE YOUNGBLOOD: About an hour.

CATHY WURZER: Wow. Because you're over there. OK. John-- and you still in Dundas this morning?

JOHN THOMAS: Yes. Yes, I am.

CATHY WURZER: Tell me, John, you recently had some volunteers help with your harvest. Why did you need that help? What's going on?

JOHN THOMAS: In July, I had a surgery, an amputation-- my left leg was amputated. And so now I'm a double amputee. I had the right leg amputated about 11 years ago. So I was kind of down and out on my luck, and was going through some medical issues with my leg, and needed a helping hand.

And Farm Rescue came to the rescue.

CATHY WURZER: Because, of course, now it's crunch time, right? This is the time when you really are working hard in the fields.

JOHN THOMAS: Yes. Yes, it is.

CATHY WURZER: And I'm curious here, Mike, paint a picture for folks who have not been part of something like this before. How do you work with somebody like John?

MIKE YOUNGBLOOD: Well, we show up and try to console them and be as helpful that way as we can. And then the next thing is we try to get their crops out in a timely manner or plant them, as we do.

CATHY WURZER: That must be a ton of work, especially this time of the year.

MIKE YOUNGBLOOD: Yeah. It's regular farming. So if you've got it in your blood, it feels good.

CATHY WURZER: Say, John, curious here-- so the crew from Farm Rescue arrives, and what do they start doing right away? Can you give us a picture as to the logistics and what was all going on?

JOHN THOMAS: Well, first of all, I met with Luke. He's in charge of putting everything all together. We drove around looked at the fields, discussed some things, our operations.

So he got used to our operation and what was going on. And that was probably a couple of months ago. And then about two weeks ago, they showed up with a combine and a semi, and sat down, and talked with us, and just asked what we needed done, what fields we wanted done first, and just got to know us. And yeah, no, everything went very well.

CATHY WURZER: It must have been a big relief.

JOHN THOMAS: Yes. It was a big relief.

CATHY WURZER: Say, Mike, now you're out in North Dakota right now-- how long have you been doing this kind of volunteer work?

MIKE YOUNGBLOOD: Since about 2016.

CATHY WURZER: Wow. OK. So for a while here. So you obviously grew up on a farm before working for John Deere.


CATHY WURZER: OK. So why did you decide to volunteer for something like this? Do you have a personal reason?

MIKE YOUNGBLOOD: Yeah. Well, yeah, I had a friend fell off a grain bin in 2000, and I helped him-- he worked at the same place I did, but he farmed quite a bit. So I went out and helped him. And so I basically helped combine most of his crops that fall.

And then when I retired, a lady, her husband committed suicide and left her with about 3,000 acres and four kids. And my buddies, I didn't know them, but they were nearby. But my buddies volunteered me to run her combine that fall.

And so I combined, harvested all their crops. And so I figured out, well, somebody is trying to tell me something. And--

CATHY WURZER: Wow. And so you've been helping ever since, obviously.

MIKE YOUNGBLOOD: Mmhmm. And actually, one of my buddies at breakfast a week or so after we were done said, you feel like doing that stuff-- and he tipped me off to Farm Rescue. So I looked it up, and volunteered, and the rest is history.

CATHY WURZER: Wow. Say, John, going back to you for just a moment here-- so you got a little bit of short term help, which is terrific, obviously. But what do you need to keep you from going in the long term?

JOHN THOMAS: Well, probably about a month ago, I got fitted for my second prosthetic. And it's just going to take some time to get the balance down and just recovering. I'm healthy otherwise, it's just I got the amputations.

But going forward, I think we should be fine. It's just kind of mind over matter. And I got the theory that failure is not an option. So I'm just going to keep striding away and get things under control. And I can walk very well with a walker right now, and anticipation with being able to walk without a walker in a month or so.

CATHY WURZER: Wow, terrific. I'm glad you got that help, John. This, again, has got to be just a huge weight off of your shoulders, because, again, this is a pretty busy time for farmers. Say, Mike, final question for you-- what would you recommend for folks who might know somebody, because, of course, we're heard all around the Upper Midwest-- knows somebody who might need a helping hand here, what would you recommend for them?

MIKE YOUNGBLOOD: Well, the best way to do it is go online to farmrescue.org. There is a section in there where if somebody needs assistance, you can fill out some stuff, and then somebody will get in contact with them. And that is the best, probably, way.


MIKE YOUNGBLOOD: Just to go online. Yeah, and it's there. So you need to use it. There's lots of volunteers. They've got lots of equipment. And we're willing to help, and it brings a lot of joy.

CATHY WURZER: Because as you know, a lot of farmers don't want to ask for the help. Yeah, it's tough.

MIKE YOUNGBLOOD: A lot of times it's a neighbor or a relative that does it. But that's easy to access online. And you can get a phone number somewhere too-- in a hurry. People call Luke right off the bat when it's immediate.

CATHY WURZER: Yeah. Well, Mike, I appreciate what you're doing. Thank you so much. I know you're pretty busy out there in North Dakota. Thank you for what you're doing. And, John Thomas, best of luck to you. Thank you.

JOHN THOMAS: Well, you're welcome. Thanks for having us on the program. And Farm Rescue is awesome. They really helped us out a lot. That's all I can say. They're super group of people.

CATHY WURZER: Well, I appreciate your time. Thank you much, both of you. John Thomas, farms near Dundas, Minnesota. Mike Youngblood is from Ashby, Minnesota. He's been volunteering on other farms through the group Farm Rescue.

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