COVER STORY: Family helps mom of eight keep S.D. farm moving

BRYANT, S.D. -- Faith, family, friends and farming. These are the four things that keep Anita Hilliard moving ahead these days -- leading a brood of eight children toward brighter days, after the tragic and unexpected death of her husband, Vance,...

BRYANT, S.D. -- Faith, family, friends and farming.

These are the four things that keep Anita Hilliard moving ahead these days -- leading a brood of eight children toward brighter days, after the tragic and unexpected death of her husband, Vance, in May 2008.

"The love we were shown was overwhelming," Anita says of the community response.

Among other things, she stepped up to farming. She was on a list of South Dakotans who were approved for federal grants and loans through the Rural Energy for America Program, which helped pay for a $130,000 grain drying and handling system to keep her family energy efficient and competitive as she helps move it into a new generation.

"Right now, I want to be the farmer," Anita says. "It's something that keeps me busy and occupied. I don't know if my family is old enough, I might want to step down, when I no longer have children to support."


A faith connection

Anita, 37, grew up in Washington and graduated from high school in 1991 from Battleground, Wash., near Vancouver.

"We didn't have anything to do with farming," she says of her family.

Her father was a millwright and her mother was a baker. She had two sisters and three older half sisters and an older half brother. The winter before her graduation, she traveled to Minneapolis for a Christmas meeting with the Old Apostolic Lutheran Church, with its Scandinavian connections.

There, she met Vance Hilliard, who was the eldest son of Terry and Cheryl Hilliard of Bryant, S.D. He'd started his own operation while still in high school, but in strong cooperation with his parents and a younger brother, Jesse, who now is 29. The family raises primarily corn and soybeans, but some wheat and beef cattle.

"After I graduated, I came and stayed with my sister who lived in this area and was married to Vance's cousin at the time. So I got a feeling of what farming was like around here."

Soon, she and Vance were married.

The plan was that Vance would take care of the farming while Anita would take care of their growing family. After Trenton was born in August 1992, there was Ashley, April 1994; Stacy, January 1996; Levi, July 1997; Carson, December 1999; Layton, June 2001; Basil, February 2003; and Tommy, April 2007.


Anita says larger families are quite common in their faith community. Vance came from a family of seven, including his one brother.

"I guess we just felt that children are a blessing from God," Anita says. "We would just take whatever God would give for us. My goal was that I would be at home and take care of them. We were able to do that."

The young couple wanted the farm to grow so that their children could have an opportunity to farm with them. They purchased a seven-year-old house on a neighbor's quarter-section of land in 2004.

Things were looking up.

One of the critical needs was bin storage and grain drying, she recalls.

"We'd been adding bins since 1998, and we talked about a new dryer," Anita says. "Especially when we had wetter years, that was something Vance talked about a lot."

Vance and Anita's farmstead is about a mile south of Terry and Cheryl's. There wasn't a lot of room for a new bin site near their house site, but a hilltop between the two farmsteads had room and offered accessibility. They put up two 56,000-bushel bins in 2007 and had talked about drying there.

Anita was doing some farm work.


"We have some land 50 miles away at Raymond, S.D.," Anita says. "When they were that far away, they needed some help, so I went along to start to do some of that, training on a grain cart. I thought as long as I don't have any new little babies, I could help in the fall."

Soon, she'd have to do much more.

Unexpected crisis

On May 28, 2008, everything changed.

Vance was in the field driving a tractor and planting.

"He just felt some severe tightness in his chest and called his dad, Terry," Anita says. "He was still able to be talking. At the time, Trenton was 15 years old and was with his grandpa. Carson was 8 and was with his dad.

"Terry radioed Jesse and told him to call an ambulance. He thought Vance was having a heart attack. Terry and Trenton went out and loaded Vance into a pickup and went as far as they could. But he stopped breathing, so they did CPR in the back seat until the ambulance met them."

The ambulance crew started Vance's heart, but he'd suffered a severe heart attack. He went to the hospital in Watertown, S.D., and later was taken to Sioux Falls, S.D.


"It was a main vessel that fed the brain and his lower body," Anita says.

The medical staff cleared the blockage and installed a stent, but Vance's brain had been deprived of oxygen for too long. They brought him home to Bryant, where he died with hospice care June 6.

"There was no prior warning," she says. "The doctor said the heart was in superb condition, no weaknesses. There was no indication as to why and no reason, other than it was his time to go."

(Tragically, Terry, she says, was a youth when he was with grandfather who also died suddenly of a heart attack while doing farm chores.)

The community rallied around the Hilliards.

"The neighbors -- neighbors, family and friends -- came and finished the planting," she says. "One man told us later that when he came to help it was hard to find a place to park in the yard because there were so many pickups.

"We had help through the year, too. One day during the harvest, my son and I attempted to 'cart' for five combines with one grain cart. The love we were shown was overwhelming."

One thing seemed clear for Anita.


"What Vance and I wanted for our family was farming," she says. "I just knew, right away, that this is what I wanted. Terry and Jesse had said that I could do whatever I wanted to do, but they said we'll be here, and we can do this together if you choose. The kids go to school, so I knew I would have to have something to keep me busy, keep my mind focused. So I had a two-fold reason why I chose to continue farming."

Looking up, ahead

"We all farm together, but we all have our own land," Anita says. "Terry has had a lot of the equipment and we help him work the land. We all use the equipment and help one another with our fields. Jesse and I are slowly going to buy more of the equipment."

Last February, the family hired a part-time farm worker to fill in the gaps.

In winter and spring, they started discussing the bin site where Vance had planned to put in the drying system.

With the help of the government's REAP program and Rural Develoment, they planned the dryer and added a 27,000-bushel wet holding bin. The entire investment is about $130,000, plus about $38,000 for the wet holding bin, which technically couldn't be part of the grant.

Jesse heard about the program from a grain dryer dealer and Anita followed through. This year, the new Sukup dryer should be in place to handle about 1,000 bushels an hour.

Anita is following through on a lot of things.


"I run the grain cart as much as I can," Anita says. "Levi just turned 12, so he'll come home from school and start running the grain cart and I can head for home and get supper started. Trenton hops in a combine or a grain truck. Ashley has been training on the semi."

Trenton has been going to school in Willow Lake, S.D., where they are offer a four-day school week.

Anita says there is a learning curve in farming, but she's working to overcome it.

"I market my own grain now," she says.

She huddles with her in-laws in the morning, checking the opening markets.It's been a challenge.

"Vance had done everything to do with the farming in the past, and I'd just signed my name on things," she says. "So I've had to learn to do books on the computer, with respect to the farming, and how to get the taxes ready."

Of course, it is a considerable challenge to keep track of eight children.

Basil is in first grade and has joined his siblings at Hamlin (County) Education Center, a rural school near Hayti, S.D. The family remains active in the church, which is replacing its existing sanctuary and building with one that'll double its capacity to 1,200 to 1,500 people.

About three years ago, her parents, Paul and Terry Nylund, moved to the area from Washington three years ago. Two of her sisters also have moved to Bryant and work in Brookings, S.D.

"It's a day-to-day thing," Anita says. "I just have to look at things one day at a time."

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