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 ‘Wishing for the Morning of May 9 Again’

Saturday, December 1, 2018
filed under: Harvest/Storage

       Dusty Laufer is faithful about cleaning dust from his combine during the sunflower harvest.
       “I blow off all the dust when I quit at night, and then again about halfway through the day,” he explains.  “I find that if I do so, I generally don’t have any trouble.  We did burn a couple of wires a few years ago when we were cutting sunflower, and this year it [was] so dry there [seemed] to be a lot more dust than usual.  You just can’t be too careful.”
       Like any other producer, Laufer wants to make sure he gets as much of this sunflower crop off the field and into his bins because this year, more than ever, every penny counts.  He and his wife, Shanda, harvested about 400 acres of NuSun sunflower on their farm between Hettinger and Regent, in the southwest corner of North Dakota.
       “I hauled my first load of sunflower to town yesterday,” he noted in latter October.  “After doing the math, we figured it made about 1,900-2,000 lbs/ac.  Considering how dry the weather has been, I am happy if I can get a ton.”
       The Laufers farm about 3,000 acres; about 70% of that farmland is planted to spring wheat, with canola and sunflower filling in the remaining fields. This year, Laufer also planted 50 acres of corn.
       “This is the first time I’ve grown corn,” Laufer observes.  “Last year with the drought, I saw so many of my neighbors grazing their corn.  I thought it would be a good option for me, as I have 30-55 head of cattle, too.  So I planted about 50 acres of corn right next to the pasture.  I got that harvested and hauled off to another guy who will use it for feed.”
       This is the land where Laufer grew up. He came back after getting a two-year degree in mechanics at Lake Area Vo-Tech in Watertown, S.D.
       “I got my own land in 2005 and added sunflower into my rotation in 2009,” Laufer recalls.  “I was working at a farm equipment dealer as a mechanic, and I talked to a lot of guys who were raising nice sunflower.  I didn’t want to buy a planter, though; but a producer from the Meadow, S.D., area convinced me it is possible to solid seed sunflower with a drill and get a good crop.”
       Laufer planted his first field of sunflower in 2009 and has been growing the crop ever since.
       “I’ve always had good luck with them. Even during the drought of 2017, our sunflowers were decent.”
       This year, Laufer wanted to do some experimenting.  He planted sunflower with his drill, some with 10-inch spacing, others with 20-inch spacing.  His brother planted another field for him in 30-inch rows using his row planter.
       “I’ve always done 10-inch spacing in the past.  I wanted to try 20-inch and see how it did,” Laufer recounts.  “I am pretty impressed with the stand in the fields with the 10-inch spacing.  They’ve got a nice, uniform size.  Usually, with solid seeding, we get a lot of variation, or a lot of smaller heads.  I think these look pretty good size-wise, and they’re weighing okay.  During harvest, I’ve noticed the 20-inch fields clean up nice and there are fewer stalks.”
       But his fields planted with the row planter produced yields of about 1,850 lbs and were the most uniform in size. When he compared the three types of fields he planted, Laufer says his overall oil average was near 46%, but he says the sunflower planted with his drill with 20-inch spacing seemed to be the best producing fields.
       “My goal was to compare all of the different ways we planted and see if there is a big advantage to buying a planter or if we can make the same money by planting with the drill.”
       A mechanic by trade, Laufer says he is always tinkering with farm equipment, as he points out the end shields on his combine; he made them himself from plywood and PVC pipes.
       “They do the trick and cost a lot less than if I bought them brand new!”
       Always up for a challenge, Laufer faced his greatest challenge last spring.
       “I spent a lot of days wishing I could wake up and it be the morning of May 9 again,” he begins.
       May 9 was just another day on the farm for Laufer. He was finishing up planting his last field of wheat. Not sure if he had enough grain cleaned to finish seeding, he decided to get some seed from the bin and take it to town to be cleaned, just in case.
       “I hooked the grain vac up and pulled it to the bin — and then realized there was some sunflower gummed up in it from the last time I used it.  I started cleaning it out with my hand.  As soon as I got that gummed-up stuff out, I turned my head away, and that’s when it grabbed my hand.”
       Shanda, who was waiting in the truck with their one-year-old son, shut off the tractor, and Dusty was able to remove what was left of his arm.  Shanda placed a tourniquet on it and called 911.  Ambulances from both Hettinger and Regent were dispatched to the scene.  A life flight helicopter from Dickinson also arrived, and Laufer was flown to a Bismarck hospital. He was hospitalized for five days.
       Six days after the accident, he was back to work on the farm.
       “I had stuff to do,” he says matter-of-factly.  “I couldn’t wait to get out of the hospital and back to work.  I did have good help. My family — brothers, my mom, cousins, aunts, uncles, sisters — all helped us.  But truthfully, I just felt I needed to be out there working.  I think it’s really helped my recovery knowing that I have to get up in the morning and do it.  I still can do what I love to do.”
       Laufer has made a few adaptations, including investing in things such as electric trap openers for his truck and an electric hose reel for sprayer hoses.
       “Things that once seemed like a luxury are now a necessity,” he affirms.  “My vice grip has become my best friend — at least until I get a good prosthesis.”
       Although his brother retrieved his hand from the auger, doctors could not reattach it.  Laufer‘s doctors are working toward fitting him with a prosthetic hand.  He explains that doctors advise waiting four to five months before patients get fitted for a prosthetic.  In mid-October, Laufer was fitted for a myoelectric hand that will run off the muscles in his forearm and can be programed from his iPhone.
       “I’ll be able to make a fist, close two fingers, and more.  It will be really handy for some aspects of farm work, but it’s probably not practical for most things on the farm.  It does come with a power claw that I’ll be able to use more on the farm. There are instances you want to grab things with two hands and that will be handy, but they tell me it's not the sturdiest thing.”
       He will also be getting a cosmetic hand — one he says when worn with long sleeves will be difficult to tell that it’s a prosthetic.
       “It will be nice for the public aspect.  I feel like I stand out right now.  But I really have adapted to not having my left hand. I find things take me a little longer but I can still work. I call it the new normal, and my five-year-old son is really helpful.  He loves to hold my wrench for me.  I call him my left-hand man now.”
       Laufer hasn’t let himself dwell on the accident and has worked to keep his positive attitude while getting his crops planted, sprayed and now harvested.
       “The ‘what-ifs’ could make you crazy,” he affirms.  “What if I would have stuck my pliers in the chain, could that have stopped it?  What if I hadn’t turned my head away, would I have gotten my hand out of there?  You just never know.
       “It still hurts. The skin has toughened up and it doesn’t hurt as much as it did at first, but it still hurts.  I can feel my fingers and move them one at a time because I still have all the tendons. It feels like my hand is stuck in concrete or something.  It’s a cramped, stiff feeling.  I have heard some people say that feeling goes away; but others say it never truly does.”
       What else isn’t going away, is Laufer’s passion for farming.  He has plans to expand his operation. He’s also hoping to share his story.
         “If it stops someone from making the same mistake, speaking at events or even in classrooms is something I might be interested in.  I know it’s changed the way I do things.  I’ve never been as careful as I am now.”
— Jody Kerzman
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