At his father’s funeral this summer, Rolf Penner spoke of how working alongside him on the farm was a bit like being ‘like an old married couple.’
“We would bicker and fight and argue over things, but when it came down to it we were always there for each other,” he said. And they’d always get the work done.
That relationship ended tragically and suddenly July 31.
That morning Udo Penner, 76, and his wife Charlotte were driving to church when their car was struck at the junction of Hwys. 23 and 200. The other driver slammed into the driver’s side of the Penners’ vehicle. Udo was killed instantly. Charlotte suffered multiple cracked ribs and an injury to her neck, but survived the crash.
Rolf was notified immediately and he rushed to the scene. So did numerous farm neighbours, as word quickly spread.
And in the excruciating hours that followed, Penner had to come to terms not only with this sudden loss of his dad, but the secondary blow all farm families experience when a farm partner is suddenly gone.
There were 2,000 acres to harvest, none of which had been swathed, on the farm near Ste. Elizabeth. And the farm’s hog-shipping cycle was set to start — there were 2,000 hogs to ship to Maple Leaf in Brandon.
Penner was immediately and completely overwhelmed.
“So many shocks come at you at once,” he said. “The farm was set up where I had my jobs and he had his jobs and we’d done it for so long we didn’t have to talk a whole lot about who was doing what,” he said. “And like I said, we’d always known what each other was doing, and we’d get done what needed to get done.”
Yet, in the hours that would follow, Penner would learn he wasn’t the only one wondering what would happen next.
‘We need to do something’
Nearby, farmers Harold Janzen and Art Enns sat on Art’s backyard deck the evening of the accident, talking over what had happened that day. Janzen’s wife and daughter had come upon the accident right after it occurred and had called him immediately. He rushed to the scene, as did other neighbours hearing the news. Several hours passed as they helped direct traffic, while emergency crews attended the scene.
“It was a very tough day,” said Janzen. But while he and Art sat talking and trying to make sense of it, their thoughts were also on what they could do to help.
The Penners would need plenty of emotional support to get through this, they knew. And the family would also need people who could immediately step in with harvest.
“That’s where we said, ‘We need to do something for Rolf. He’s lost not only his father but his right-hand man,’” said Janzen.
Many, many offers
The next morning the two men told Penner they’d help him get his harvest off. There was naturally some apprehension about how this was going to actually happen. But as Janzen puts it, “We didn’t have to go asking for it. Help found us.”
The offers to help the Penners were immediate and plentiful. “We just helped co-ordinate certain aspects of the harvest,” he said. “It has been just amazing how the community has rallied around the tragedy.”
The hog shipping got underway and completed, with extra help from those the farm normally had doing weighing and sorting duties. Meanwhile, farmer after farmer from areas around Morris, Dufrost, Arnaud and Ste. Elizabeth, finding spare blocks of time amidst their tight work schedules, made themselves available to help with the harvest. Decisions were made. Swathing got underway, and cereal crops came off, often very quickly, with multiple combines going at the job.
Last Saturday, with heavy rain forecast, 320 acres of canola untouched, and Penner’s own combine on the blink, neighbours began rolling in one after the other throughout the day. By evening the entire field was lit up with the lights of multiple combines making their rounds. By 11 p.m. the half section was done. Then it began to rain.
No words are adequate to say how grateful he is for this outpouring of kindness from his farm neighbours, says Penner.
“It’s amazing. It’s overwhelming,” he said, his voice catching. “There are times I’ve been completely speechless about what’s happened. The neighbours… they’ve got a hard enough time dealing with their own crops. Yet they put aside their own stuff to come and help.”
He’s not sure how many people were actually involved with the harvest, but guesstimates maybe 40 or more. The logistics of how it all unfolded are equally astonishing. Those helping just kept coming and going with de facto orderliness, getting one job after another done. As of last week, he had just soybeans and a bit of canola left to go.
Yet none of this seems out of the ordinary to Jack Maendel, one of Penner’s neighbours and a member of Oak Bluff Hutterite Colony. They regularly sent over people and equipment to help.
“We knew his dad very, very well,” said Maendel. “Neighbours do what neighbours do. I would like to believe that any neighbour would do that regardless of where that happens.”
Enns agrees. “I saw so many people leave their own fields and come and work for Rolf during the day and late in the evening go back to their fields,” he said. What unfolded in this corner of southern Manitoba this summer shows that spirit of altruism remains in the farm community, he said.
“I don’t think our rural area is any different than anywhere else. I don’t know where that spirit comes from. But I think we all know that we might be that person next. I think that’s part of it.”