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Beets as a blessing

GARY, Minn. - For Ryan Mayer, a senior credit analyst for CoBank in Fargo, N.D., the annual ritual of driving a beet truck for the American Crystal Sugar Co. campaign is more than a seasonal job.

GARY, Minn. - For Ryan Mayer, a senior credit analyst for CoBank in Fargo, N.D., the annual ritual of driving a beet truck for the American Crystal Sugar Co. campaign is more than a seasonal job.

It's about of keeping a promise to a longtime college buddy for 11 years straight.

It's about earning extra cash to keep a building fund pledge to his church.

It's about an annual return to the natural rhythm of fall and harvest that keeps his life in balance.

And it's an incentive to recover from brain tumor surgery.

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"I would say it's a 'retreat,'" he says. "You kind of make it your own retreat because you're alone for so long in the truck."

From Mott to Fargo

In many ways, Mayer's life is a typical farm kid from North Dakota.

He was middle child of small grains farmers Francis and De-

lila Mayer of Mott, N.D. There were three boys and two girls in the Roman Catholic family.

"We had mostly wheat, some durum and some corn for the past several years," Mayer says of his parents, who continue to farm.

All three of the Mayer boys went to North Dakota State University in Fargo. First among them was Darwyn, now 41, who went back to the farm after earning a mechanized agriculture and agronomy degree. Ryan, 38, went to NDSU for agricultural economics. Christian, 33, earned his degree in agricultural economics and later migrated to Brooklyn Center, Minn.

Ryan's first awareness of the sugar beet harvest "mystique" was when his brother would visit home from attending college at NDSU. The fall beet harvest in the Red River Valley with the high-value root crops was called a "campaign," and he heard that it required an "army" of workers from outside the region.

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"Beet harvest - row crops in general - were so much different than the way we farmed at home when I was younger," Mayer says. "I thought, 'How do they work? How do they do it?'"

Ryan graduated high school in 1987 and soon followed his older brother to NDSU.

After a brief stint living in a dormitory, he moved to the FarmHouse Fraternity, just off campus. There were about 37 other guys in the house - mostly farm kids.

Among them was Randy Green of Ada, Minn., who later would take a bigger significance in his life.

Mayer looked ahead to a career in agribusiness, but always counted on going home to the farm as a kind of backstop. It wasn't until February of his senior year that it suddenly dawned on Mayer that returning home to the 3,500-acre grain farm simply wasn't an option.

His brother already had gone home, and going home wasn't economically feasible for Mayer.

Mayer figured his parents had paid for his education, so it was up to Mayer to find a job, even in a slumping agricultural economy.

First, Mayer went to Bismarck, N.D., and worked for a time with another FarmHouse alum, feeding cattle and doing other farm work.

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In November 1991, another NDSU graduate who worked with an ag-based bank in Denver was in Fargo for a homecoming and did a pre-interview with Mayer for a job. Mayer ended up in Denver, traveling the United States as a field auditor with an ag-based bank. For nine months, he conducted field audits of collateral for agribusiness loans - grain, equipment and livestock inventories. He was on a plane most every Monday to any place in the country.

"We went everywhere. We counted chickens in South Carolina. We counted dry edible beans in western Nebraska and California and frozen meat in Dallas, Texas. We counted cotton bales," Mayer says. "I had an apartment in Denver, but I didn't see much of it."

In July 1992, he returned to Fargo as a business analyst for the then-St. Paul Bank for Cooperatives. He'd travel to agricultural grain and farm supply co-ops to visit with managers, boards of directors and would negotiate loan renewals or expansions.

In the summer, he always took time off to travel back to Mott and become part of the cadre of relatives that would bring in the wheat crop.

Life was good.

Young, single, and living in south Fargo, Mayer kept touch with college buddies such as Green, water skiing in summer, snowmobiling in winter.

Then tragedy struck.

A funeral, a promise

Randy's dad, Gerald, was diagnosed with cancer.

Mayer says there were trips to Rochester, Minn. People talked about how it had spread, and the prognosis was not good. When Gerald died in 1996, Mayer felt a personal loss. He'd admired Gerald as a farmer and member of an electrical co-op board.

"He was a brave guy," Mayer says.

At the funeral, Mayer found himself standing with his fraternity brothers, pledging to their friend, Randy, that if he needed anything - anything at all - they'd be there.

"Whatever I can do to help, don't be afraid to ask for it," Ryan remembers saying.

In 1995, the Greens had planted their family's first sugar beet crop. They had 70 acres of the sweet roots the first year and 200 acres in 1996.

Soon, he got a call from Randy.

Could he drive a beet truck?

"I thought . . . why not?" Ryan says. "I don't ever use all my vacation. I don't hunt. I don't fish. I don't do a lot of things that other people are interested in."

So he put in two weeks of vacation.

Meanwhile, things changed in Mayer's life.

In 1999, the regional St. Paul Bank for Cooperatives merged with CoBank, which was national.

"I became a senior credit analyst," Mayer says.

In 2000, Ryan met his wife, Lori, through a recommendation from a mutual friend. They were married Sept. 21, 2002.

"We went to Hawaii for our honeymoon. As soon as we got back, I went to haul beets."

For years, Mayer would drive a Chevy tandem axle truck. In 2002, Green had expanded his beets to about 400 acres.

That year, Mayer got to drive a Freightliner tri-axle.

"It's my dream truck," Mayer says, enthusing about its power and maneuverability. "It doesn't have a 'jake brake,' but that's my only complaint. Randy says that the only thing wrong with that truck is that he doesn't have another one like it."

Mayer's life was getting busier. Feb. 28, 2004, Ryan and Lori had their first child - a son, Matthew.

Things went like clockwork - until 2007.

Cancer - head on

It was March or April when Mayer first started to worry. He was having very powerful headaches - one or two minutes in duration.

"Right here," he says, pointing to the top of his head in the middle, toward the back. "It would be almost crippling. I couldn't do anything else when it was occurring."

First, Mayer went to a chiropractor. But by the end of April, the symptoms had expanded to include dizziness and occasional blurred vision. He reported the symptoms to his doctor, but he told Mayer he could find nothing wrong.

"Keep seeking chiropractic care," Mayer remembers the doctor saying.

May 14, a Monday, Mayer went to work at CoBank, as usual. He'd had headaches in the morning and went to the chiropractor at noon. In the afternoon, the headaches returned.

"At 4 p.m., I went to talk to our receptionist, but I'd open my mouth and I couldn't talk. That lasted 10 minutes."

The receptionist thought there might be something emotionally wrong with me, he says.

"I went back to my office, and I could talk again," he says.

The co-workers insisted he go immediately to MeritCare's South University location, a few blocks away. There, the doctors did a CAT scan but didn't tell him their suspicions. They sent him to the downtown MeritCare Hospital.

"They told me they'd call an ambulance, but I passed their vision test, so I drove down there myself," he says.

Soon, he was getting an MRI.

"They said I had a tumor, as big as a small lemon, pushing the mid-line of my (left) brain to the right side. That's what was physically causing my issues," he says. "They said I could have surgery Tuesday or Friday."

Mayer's family rallied. His wife came right away. His parents were summoned from Mott, N.D. Priests were there immediately, giving confession and communion.

"There was lots of prayer," Mayer says.

The surgery went well. Doctors made a 9-inch-long incision in his hairline and took the tumor out. Two weeks later, lab tests confirmed it was cancer.

"It was an oligoastrocytoma," Mayer says.

It's a kind of brain tumor that sometimes is referred to as a "mixed glioma." Only about 2.3 percent of all reported brain tumors are of the type.

"They told me it's a very rare brain cancer, common in my age group. The good news is that it started in my brain and wouldn't likely travel anywhere else in my body."

The bad news was that its "tentacles" couldn't be seen by a surgeon.

To knock out the unseen cancer, he'd take chemotherapy in pill form for 42 days. At the same time, he'd take radiation treatments daily during week days for 30 days.

"I went back to work June 1 and worked until Aug. 1," Mayer says.

Then, another emergency.

July 18, Lori gave birth to their second son, Andrew, also at MeritCare. After the baby was born, at 9 a.m., Ryan simply went down the hall to get his radiation treatment.

"I was wearing a blue wristband, which indicated we had a baby boy. Everybody was happy for me," Mayer says. "That was a nice day."

But July 30, when Lori sent their son, Matthew, to wake Ryan from a nap, she was in trouble. Mayer rushed his wife to the hospital, where doctors found she had internal bleeding, related to the birth. It took several hours of pain and medication to correct the problem.

"I remember praying with Matthew that night," Mayer says.

For the moment, the pressure was overpowering. After Aug. 3, he took about three weeks of well-needed sick leave.

The harvest haven

Through it all, Mayer's friend, Green, had stayed in touch. He'd visited Ryan in the hospital. They'd talked in e-mails.

Mayer told his friend he intended to be back for the beet harvest. He might not be able to put in the 15-hour days of yore, topping beets for a few hours before his 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift.

"But I told him to make sure I'm on that truck because I'm coming," Mayer says. "That was a huge motivating factor for me to get better. I'd save energy - whatever it took - but I was going to be on that truck."

During the pre-pile harvest, Mayer worked Sept. 5 to 7, hauling in the 2.5-ton-per-acre quota. Hours were 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The first day, it was 90 degrees. Mayer says he got by drinking lots and lots of water - most of a gallon container every day.

"To me, it was a good test to see what my body would do," Mayer says.

When the full-swing harvest started Sept. 29. Mayer had committed to two solid weeks of help and finished his stint Oct. 15.

Through his harvest run, Mayer says he felt overly tired only one time. He credits Green and lifter operator Justin Strand for keeping tabs on how he felt.

"I would say it was a very different beet harvest because it was stop and go because of the rain," he says.

Another benefit is that it helps him keep a promise to his church.

"We made a five-year building fund pledge to St. Anne and Joachim Catholic Church," says Mayer, referring to one of Fargo's newer Catholic churches. "Half of my beet check goes to pay off that pledge. I've been a member there since the start. My envelope number is 20, if that tells you something."

One blow came Oct. 10, when he found that one of his FarmHouse roommates, Tracy Sayler, an agricultural journalist from Casselton, had suddenly and unexpectedly died. The funeral was Oct. 16, the day after Sayler's last beet harvest.

Mayer says his two-week stint with the beet harvest gives him time to think.

A self-described introvert, Mayer says he recharges his batteries with time by himself.

"It's like my own 'retreat truck' with a 12-hour shift, day-after day," Mayer says. "You think about life - where you want to go - cancer this year. You think about being a dad, being a husband."

And a friend.

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