As the mid-afternoon’s baby blue tapestry began its slow turn to golden-red hues, a masked Ronald Decker squinted into the western skyline across the short grass prairies of RD Farms south of Belfield. Decker sat uneasy in the cab of his F350 as the John Deere green speck in the distance made its approach from the headlands on the far side of the field. Ron wanted nothing more than to be the one behind the wheel — but misfortune stole his ability.
The old wives adage, ‘tragedy strikes in threes’ is one that the Deckers know all too well.
Last fall’s wet and snowy weather kept large swathes of their farm unharvested and with his brother Donald, Ronald Decker watched helplessly as the quality of the grain eroded, as did a year’s work.
In November the Deckers went from the frying pan into the fire as the patriarch of the family passed away, leaving brothers Ron and Don with heavy hearts and without the fatherly guidance and intimate knowledge of the 7,000 acres now solely their row to hoe.
The trinity of misfortune came in early March when the noticeable lump on Ron’s neck was diagnosed as a rare and rapidly spreading thyroid cancer.
“They’ve always been very successful farmers and ranchers, and then a string of bad luck hits the family like this. It’s scary,” Carmie Dukart, Ron and Don Decker’s sister, said. “Do you know how hard it is to fight for your life when every corner you go around there is this virus sitting there? It’s overwhelming.”
With Ron making multiple trips for treatment in Bismarck, more than 15 hours on the road each week, much of the burden of the farm has fallen to his brother Don — a fact that eats at the weakened and immunocompromised Ron.
“I want so badly to help Don with this operation, because he’s been working double time, but I’m on the road five days a week driving to Bismarck to take radiation and chemotherapy. When I get back, I help as best as I can, but I get so tired so fast that it’s just a hardship,” Ron said. “We got really worried that if we couldn’t get these crops in the ground in time, we’d be in a world of trouble.”
Canola, the crop that RD Farms was planting, has a short seeding window running from the last week of April to the second week of May and concerns arose that without the crops being planted in time the farm would suffer yet another financial and emotional setback.
“You can’t insure the crops if they’re not in the ground by May 10,” Ron said. “We needed help to meet that window.”
Farmers helping farmers
When word spread of the troubles facing Ron and RD farms, neighbors and landlords Ray and Georgian Heck sought help from a lifeline native to North Dakota — Farm Rescue, whose mission is to help family farms and ranches bridge crises so they have an opportunity to continue viable operations.
“Our goal is to extend the livelihood of farmers and ranchers so that they have something to pass on to their son or daughter for future generations. The rate still in operation three years after receiving our help is over 90%. And that’s what we want to see,” Dan Erdmann, marketing communications officer at Farm Rescue, said.
When approached, Farm Rescue turns to local volunteers to provide extra assistance and the selfless workers are able to help farmers and ranchers with planting, hauling hay, harvesting crops and feeding livestock.
“We try to have the seasoned veterans on all crews matched with some of the newer volunteers so they can make sure things get done the right way and the safe way,” Erdmann said. “They’re all trained in advance. We also have video training that people go through and safety handbooks that they have to read before they participate.”
According to Erdmann, 70% of volunteers have returned year after year, and new volunteers are placed under the guidance of veterans experienced with the farming methods and the equipment — most of which is supplied by Farm Rescue and its sponsors.
For farmers like Ron Decker, the organization is a lifeline and something that everyone should support if able.
“We’ve supported Farm Rescue in the past and now they are helping us, so it means a lot,” Ron said. “They’ve come all the way from Horace, North Dakota, to help and they are all volunteers. They’ve seeded about 980 acres of canola for us so we’re very blessed.”
Even in weak spirits, Ron couldn’t help but crack a joke — and even behind the mask, his smile was evident.
“I’ll ignore the fact that they use equipment that’s a different color than what we run,” Ron joked. “These are good people and a good organization.”
Georgian Heck took the opportunity opened in Ron’s joke to share a succinct message of what Farm Rescue really means to her friend and her.
“They’re really just angels playing in the dirt,” she said.
It is through the generosity of individual donors that Farm Rescue is able to accomplish its compassionate mission of assisting farm and ranch families experiencing a major illness, injury or natural disaster. Donations will have a positive impact in local communities as it helps the organization with providing their volunteer workforce with meals and lodging, as well as putting fuel in vehicles and machinery.
Donations can be made to Farm Rescue on their website, at farmrescue.org.
A medical fund has been created in Ron Decker’s name at Choice Bank and donations can be made to assist the family by making checks payable to Ron Decker Medical Fund, Choice Bank, P.O. Box 248, Belfield, North Dakota, 58622, or by dropping off funds at any Choice Bank.