One rancher had cancer. Another lost an arm. Their community stepped up to help.
EMMONS COUNTY, N.D. — Mark Naaden gives cryptic instructions to his place: "When you see Jesus, turn toward Jesus."
The site of the towering metal crucifix along the road heading west into Braddock, N.D., clears up the mystery. Just beyond the sculpture lies Naaden Ranch.
Naaden's father, Pete, had a stroke years back and resolved to put up a monument as a symbol of his faith and his thankfulness to God. So he commissioned "Cross on the Prairie."
Naaden knows something about being thankful in the face of adversity after the help he's received through bouts of cancer. So does Doug Bichler, who ranches farther south in Emmons County near Linton and in June lost his arm in a baler accident.
Across the country, farmers and ranchers get sick. They get hurt. They die. And in most cases, someone is there to help plant or harvest or get the cows fed. Someone brings a meal and someone brings support.
"With everything going on today in the world and everything that you see on the news and hear on the radio, it's nice to know that there are so many good people out there, and they're willing to help," Bichler says.
Two rounds of help
Naaden and his son, Theo, raise small grains, corn, sunflowers and cattle. When Naaden needed an operation for colon cancer four years ago, Farm Rescue put in his crop.
This summer, tests indicated the cancer may have returned, which was confirmed by a lymph node biopsy. Naaden needed chemotherapy. But he didn't want to leave his son with all of the harvest tasks.
So Naaden again applied for help from Farm Rescue. They came in August and combined his wheat. A neighbor also came over with a combine to help.
"It meant a lot for us. We were able to get our harvest done in a timely fashion. Without them, we'd have been working another 10 days trying to get our wheat harvest done," Naaden says.
The Farm Rescue volunteers came from all walks of life, including a father and son from Florida, a UPS pilot and a man who turned out to be a distant relative of Naaden's wife.
The distant relative, Garry Deckert, delivered a combine. When they realized their connection, Naaden's wife remembered that Deckert's mother had been the first person to show up to offer condolences and food after her father died.
"And here was Garry," Naaden says. "First one to show up, just like his mother."
Safety and appreciation
Bichler, who runs Bichler Simmentals, has told his story many times in the months since his accident. It was June 26. He was getting ready to bale the first cutting of alfalfa, cutting net wrap, greasing the baler. He had the tractor running, the PTO going. He saw a piece of net wrap that had fallen off the roller.
"Before I even thought about what I was doing, I went to grab it," he says.
His right hand got caught between two rollers, with the belts still moving. He thinks he was unconscious for more than half an hour and came to only when he couldn't breathe because his shirt started strangling him. He doesn't remember exactly how, but he was able to rip his shirt and free his hand from the baler.
"I knew as soon as I was able to look at my arm — I knew I was going to lose it," he says.
He managed to wrap his arm and call 911. The rest, he says, is history.
Bichler hopes his story helps someone else learn about machinery safety.
"I just want people to be safe, and I want people to appreciate each other," Bichler says.
He's found plenty of reasons to appreciate the people in his life and in his community.
His wife, Maria, was pregnant and in her third trimester at the time of the accident and continues to support him. And when conversation turns to his new daughter, Amelia, Bichler's face lights up.
"She's been really great medicine," he says.
Bichler, one of eight children, considers the assistance he's received from his family to be nothing short of amazing.
"There are no words to describe how great my family is," he says.
His nephew, Patrick Schumacher, went to work with Bichler on the ranch in March 2017. Bichler was grateful then, but "I didn't know how fortunate I was until all of this happened."
Bichler's brother Paul and Schumacher spent the summer at the ranch, doing the day-to-day things that need to be done on a ranch.
But it wasn't just family who stepped up.
The North Dakota Stockmen's Association held a "work weekend," where they completed necessary maintenance around Bichler Simmentals.
"There's not a day that goes by where I don't walk through this facility now and think about all the people who were here that stepped up and just took time out of their day to come and help me," Bichler says. "I still can't believe that all those people did that for me."
Neighbors donated hay, and Farm Rescue brought in another three loads. That was helpful not just because of Bichler's accident but also because of drought conditions in Emmons County.
"Every bale of hay helps," Bichler says. "The community has rallied around us."
More than 500 helped
Farm Rescue now has helped more than 500 farmers and ranchers, with the loads of hay to Bichler representing the organization's 500th case, says Dan Erdmann, Farm Rescue's marketing communications officer. The organization helps farmers who have experienced injury, illness or natural disaster in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Montana, Iowa and Nebraska.
Bill Gross, a UPS pilot who grew up in North Dakota, started Farm Rescue in 2005 to fulfill his dream of helping farmers in need. The group helped its first farmer the following year, with Gross and another man making up the entirety of the volunteer roster.
Now they have a database of more than 1,000 volunteers, and they provide free planting, haying and harvesting services, along with hay hauling through Operation Hay Lift, which began in light of this summer's drought. Erdmann says Farm Rescue has hauled around 170 loads so far, with more still to go.
Farm Rescue always is looking for new volunteers, and with loads of hay left to be hauled over the winter, CDL drivers are a pressing need. Donations and sponsorships also are vital, and those interested can visit farmrescue.org/donate.
Though the help provided to farmers and ranchers like Naaden and Bichler can seem like "a drop in the bucket," Erdmann says Farm Rescue has become vital for many.
"There aren't a lot of organizations like Farm Rescue, and there's a big need for the services," Erdmann says. "A lot of times it can be the difference between a family farm having to hang things up or leaving a legacy for future generations"
Last year, Bichler custom artificially inseminated more than 1,000 head, in addition to breeding his own cattle. The accident took the hand he inserts in the procedure. But he has a friend with the same amputation who has resumed AI'ing, so Bichler is confident he will figure out a way to relearn it with his left hand once he gets a prosthetic.
"There are some things, obviously, that I cannot do, but there's a heckuva lot that I can do," he says. "And I try to do as much as I can."
Naaden still is getting treatment. He opted for chemotherapy via pills and only going to Bismarck for intravenous treatments every few weeks. He's getting along well. The cold weather that set in during early November has been harder on him because of the chemo, but he only half jokes about joining his sister who lives in Arizona.
"The cancer numbers are coming down. So that's a good sign," he says.
While his father showed his thankfulness in part by putting up a cross, Naaden hopes to show his in a different way.
"I just hope that someday I'm able to volunteer for Farm Rescue," he says.