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Day by day, season by season: Local farm receives hay donation to stay afloat

This farm has been in Rodney Rebel's family for four generations, but if this drought lasts another year, its future lies in jeopardy. (Iain Woessner/The Dickinson Press)1 / 5
These forlorn corn fields tell a story of the harshness of this drought season. These little green shoots should be much taller by this time of year, according to farmer Rodney Rebel. (Iain Woessner/The Dickinson Press)2 / 5
A truck loaded with hay bales finally approaches the Rebel Farm, which has stood for four generations but faces now existential threat as North Dakota's drought continues unabated. (Iain Woessner/The Dickinson Press)3 / 5
Rodney Rebel unloads a truckload of hay, courtesy of Farm Rescue, while his father, Tony, works in the background. The Rebel family has owned this farm for four generations, but North Dakota's recent dry spell risks to put an end to that if relief doesn't come soon. (Iain Woessner/The Dickinson Press)4 / 5
Rodney Rebel (right) and his father Tony (left) work to unload hay bales, delivered by Farm Rescue to help supplement the Rebel's depleted feed stock as a result of this past winter. (Iain Woessner/The Dickinson Press)5 / 5

RICHARDTON—The sight of a truck ladened with a mountain of hay bales is a welcome sight as it comes down the narrow stretch of North Dakota Highway 8 leading to the Rebel Farm.

It takes the better part of an hour for Rodney Rebel and Jerry Christian, a volunteer truck driver with Farm Rescue, to unload the 37 bales of hay, and stack them alongside the others—all destined as feed for Rebel's cows.

It isn't going to be enough.

"We don't got near enough hay right now," Rebel said. "We only got 500 bales so far. You need about 2,000 to get through winter."

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North Dakota is in the midst of a terrible drought, compounded by a particularly miserable past winter. For farmers like Rodney Rebel, who is the fourth generation of his family to run the Rebel Farm, this means making some sacrifices to get by.

"It's way worse because there is no hay. You end up selling your cows in order to make it. That's pretty much your livelihood," Rebel said. "We've sold 70 cows already. We're thinking we're going to have to sell another 100."

In wetter years, Rebel said they try to stockpile a two-year surplus of hay to serve as feed when the snows and the cold make it impossible to put cows to pasture. Now, it's markedly different after this past winter.

"We're down to nothing," Rebel said. "We've been hauling water to our cows from our well and we've been cutting a lot of our wheat down for hay and that's bad because that's your cash crop."

Farm Rescue's "Operation Hay Lift" is a welcome asset to beleaguered farmers like Rebel, and it's a testament to how bad the drought has become. Farm Rescue generally serves to help farmers who have been debilitated with an injury—in fact, they'd lent a hand to Rebel back in 2013, after he was struck by a semi-truck.

"In 2013 Farm Rescue had come helped me, because I had an accident. I got hit by a semi out here," Rebel recalled. "I broke my pelvis, broke my arm, ripped my tendon off, they had to reattach my bicep muscles."

This time around, it isn't injury that's brought Farm Rescue, but aridity.

"This is the first time it's (because of) drought," Christian, the volunteer who drove these 37 bales hundreds of miles to the Rebel Farm. "Most of the time it's (for) if somebody gets hurt and they can't work. They won't do it year after year for the same person. But if they're gonna get healed up in the next year then (Farm Rescue) will go in and do everything and it's all free. That part I really, really like. A guy's down and they'll come in and help you, that's wonderful."

Nobody can control the weather, and no amount of government nor private investment can bring the rains back to North Dakota, but Rebel said that there's been assistance for farmers like him.

"I don't really know what can be done. They've got some farm programs in place, they got something for hauling water. But it's just not enough when you don't got hay," Rebel said. "What's worse is that hay is $180 a ton right now when before it was $50 a ton, $60 a ton. Supply and demand."

This is about the worst it's ever been to Rebel's recollection. Back in the 1980s he could remember there being some dry years, but even his father, Tony, who lived through during the Dust Bowl years, can't recall a worse circumstance for the farm.

"I still remember when I was smaller, we lived in the sod house here," Tony Rebel said. "There was a fence back there and the fields over there, they blew so bad that you couldn't even see the fence. Everything was covered in dirt."

If you can survive the Dust Bowl, you can survive just about anything, but Rebel said that if things don't change, it may not be possible to keep the farm alive for another year.

"Most people can slide through a year, somehow," Rodney said. "It's not even so much the farmers, the businesses in town are (hurting) already because the farmers won't have no money to spend. They don't have anyone going by."

This affects every industry that supports farming, such as manufacturers and sellers of farm equipment and implements, he added.

The environment maintains a very delicate balance, though, and even one bad year can create compounding problems that only worsen as the dry spell stretches on.

"All the water's bad because we never got no snow or rain and no runoff. The water gets stale and pretty soon your cows start dying," Rebel said.

The state water commission, Rebel said, had been helping pay to haul water up to a certain dollar amount, which has been helpful. In general, Rebel said that support from the state had been good—it just won't be enough if the drought stretches into a third year.

"There's always something you gotta do to make it to the next day," Tony said.

Farm Rescue is a nonprofit organization that provides planting, harvesting or haying assistance to farm and ranch families who have experienced a major illness, injury or natural disaster. According to a press release issued by the organization, free hay hauling will be available through the remainder of the year as funding allows, though restrictions regarding distance and hay quality may be a factor. Anyone willing to provide a gift of hay to help a ranch family in need is encouraged to call 701-252-2017 or visit farmrescue.org/donate.

"We are asking people to prayerfully consider making a special donation of hay or a monetary contribution so we can continue delivering feed for livestock of drought-stricken ranch families during this natural disaster," Bill Gross, founder and president of Farm Rescue, said in the release. "Ranchers who need help in locating or transporting hay should contact our office as soon as possible."

Farm Rescue is also looking for CDL drivers willing to volunteer their time to help deliver loads of hay.

The Rebel Farm is located 11 miles south of Richardton. It is both a farm and ranch, raising beef cattle as well as wheat, corn and barley.

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