“He flatlined three times in the emergency room,” his daughter Tabitha Unhjem, 31, said.
Lane Unhjem, who also had a heart attack several years ago, was airlifted about 100 miles from his farm near Crosby, N.D., to a trauma center in Minot, N.D., where he remains in critical condition.
When other farmers in Divide County, N.D., heard what happened to Unhjem on Sept. 9, they immediately halted their own harvesting. Nearly 60 of them showed up at Unhjem’s farm, equipped with a range of heavy-duty machinery, to finish his harvest for him.
“I made a couple phone calls and started getting equipment offered left and right, plus the help to go with it,” said Jenna Binde, 28, a fellow farmer and family friend of the Unhjems.
“We are small here. It’s a very tightknit community,” Binde said.
Crosby has a population of just over 1,000 people. Divide County, where the small city is situated, is home to about 2,000 residents.
“Everyone knows everyone, so word travels fast,” she said.
Dozens of farmers and neighbors congregated at Unhjem’s farm on Sept. 12, bringing with them 11 combine harvesters, six grain carts and 15 semi-trucks.
They spent almost eight hours harvesting 1,000 acres — an area comparable to 758 football fields — of durum wheat and canola.
Tending to the farm was usually a one-man operation for Unhjem, although he has one part-time seasonal employee and the occasional help of his family.
What the group accomplished in one day would have taken Unhjem nearly two weeks to complete on his own, estimated Brad Sparks, a neighboring farmer.
“There were guys there who had their own harvest to do, and they just quit and came to help,” said Sparks, who was there with his machinery that day.
It’s peak harvest season in North Dakota, the nation’s leading producer of red spring wheat, durum, barley, sunflowers, field peas, beans, lentils and canola.
“In this part of the country, any time anybody needs a helping hand, everybody will stop what they’re doing at the drop of a hat and come help,” Sparks said. “That’s just the way it is here. People from 30 miles away showed up with trucks.”
For these farmers, it’s reflexive because they know the stakes are high.
“If we hadn’t done it, I don’t know if he would have gotten the crop off in time,” said Binde, adding that weather affects the quality of the crops. “It was crucial to get it off when we did. It’s one less thing for the family to worry about.”
While Unhjem — a father of four, grandfather of 11 and great-grandfather of two — was fighting for his life in an intensive care unit, two of his daughters were at the farm, watching as the community rallied for their father.
“Tabitha and Samantha were keeping us updated throughout the day,” said one of Unhjem’s daughters, Toni White, 41, who was at the hospital with her father, mother and brother.
The sisters at the farm sent photos throughout the day of dozens of fellow farmers harvesting the Unhjem family crops.
“Mom was being strong, but every time a photo came in, she got emotional,” White said. “You could see her heart overflowing, and you could also see the relief.”
If the fellow farmers hadn’t stepped up to help, Tabitha Unhjem said, it would have been devastating for them. “This farm is our livelihood,” she said.
Lane Unhjem grew up on the farm, which has been in his family for more than six decades.
“This is the farm our dad was raised on and we were all raised on,” White said. “He has dedicated his whole life to this farm and to this community.”
“We look at this as a little bit of a blessing, because there were people there who were able to get him help quickly,” she said. “We were so thankful for that.”
Unhjem’s family said his prognosis is “hour by hour,” and that his physicians have referred to his condition as “guarded.” Since arriving in Minot, he has been sedated, although doctors removed his ventilator Tuesday.
“He has a long road ahead,” White said. “We are looking at months of recovery. This is going to be a marathon.”
She called it a blessing that the other farmers were able to get to her father and the farm so quickly. “We were so thankful for that,” White said.
But for the farmers, “this is just something that comes naturally. This is the farming way of life,” Binde said.
“What they did is awe-inspiring, but it’s not an isolated incident,” White echoed. “This isn’t the first time we’ve seen the community come together like this.”
Still, “once all the machines started rolling, it was quite the sight to see,” Binde said.
Don Anderson, a local photographer, heard what the community was doing and showed up at the farm, camera in hand, to capture the scene.
“You can’t truly appreciate it unless you were there,” Anderson said. “The ground was rumbling. It’s not only something you felt emotionally, but it was also a physical feeling. It was really something to be proud of.”
And it wasn’t just farmers who came to lend a hand.
“Businesses and people brought food and water,” White said. “Those that couldn’t bring equipment brought sustenance.”
Cassie Bummer, 29, grew up down the road from the Unhjem family and was one of those people.
“Being there actually gave me goose bumps,” she recalled. “There was a point where we just sat in the yard and watched everything. It brought tears to my eyes seeing so many people helping out.”
Bummer, who set up a GoFundMe for the family, has been working with a few others in the community to stock the Unhjem’s freezer with a month’s worth of meals.
“We will definitely continue to support the family, especially when they get home,” Bummer said.
Neighbors visited the farm again the following weekend to move cows to a different pasture and haul hay. A local restaurant is hosting a pancake breakfast Sunday, with all proceeds going toward Unhjem’s medical bills.
Tabitha Unhjem has been thanking her community for weeks. In response, she said she keeps hearing that “your dad would be the first guy to do the same thing, so it makes sense we are doing this for him.”
“Dad is a stubborn man, but he’s also a big teddy bear,” White said.
If he knew what his neighbors were doing for him, she said, “he would tear up and try to figure out how he could ever repay them.”
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