Multiple combines and tractors hauling wagons loaded with corn lined Joyce Miller’s gravel driveway just northwest of Preston.
The harvest was in full swing.
However, this year was different.
In past years, her son Kyle Miller would drive the combine through the family’s almost 200 acres of corn, felling the stalks and stripping the corn from them. Meanwhile, his sister Kallie Miller, 21 years his junior, drove the tractor in line next to Kyle while he unloaded the corn into the wagon she hauled behind her.
The Millers relished the late-fall routine of bringing in the harvest and bonding over the hard fieldwork.
Kyle was missing this year, however. He died Aug. 29 at the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics, a heart attack ending his life only one week before his 41st birthday.
Crops don’t stall their growth so farmers can grieve, and farmers live by the mercy of the weather to harvest the crops they plant for their livelihood. At the beginning of November, the Millers’ corn was ready to come out of the fields.
Longtime family friend Virgil Helmle took matters into his own hands, calling area family and friends to solicit their help to bring in the Millers’ corn in Kyle’s absence.
“If anything had happened to me, I know Kyle and Whitey [Kyle’s father, David Miller, who died in 2009] would have done the same thing for me,” Helmle said as he opened the grain bin door Nov. 5 to make sure the corn was flowing freely inside of it.
In true small-town fashion, more than 20 local farmers and grain haulers signed on to help the Millers, many using their own equipment and fuel to reap what the family had sown earlier in the year.
One crew headed to Kyle’s home along Highway 64 between Maquoketa and Preston. Among the group was Lonnie Trenkamp of rural Preston, a family member and farmer with his own crops to harvest.
“You help your neighbors,” Trenkamp said. “It’s just what you do.”
Trenkamp had about 100 acres of crops left to pick on his own property, and Nov. 5 dawned sunny, dry and cool.
“It can wait,” he said of his own crops. “If we get good weather, I’ll have it all done before Thanksgiving. [Kyle’s] needed to be done first.”
Back on Joyce’s home farm about 10 miles away, another five or six combines combed the fields to strip every stalk of its ears and every kernel off those ears. More farmers waited in line to load the corn into either wagons so it could be put in bins to dry or in grain trucks to be hauled away for sale.
Back in her house, Joyce stirred a pot of homemade chicken noodle soup, cut up red raspberry and cherry pies, and opened a jar of salsa Kyle had canned only months earlier, ready to feed the hardworking volunteers.
Since her son’s unexpected death, Joyce said she hadn’t dwelled on when or how the crops would be brought in.
“I knew I’d get it done,” Joyce said. “I never thought about it. I knew all I had to do was call Virg and he’d be here.”
Joyce peered out the garage door to observe the volunteers’ progress, then released a bittersweet laugh at a text message from her daughter Kallie.
“She wants me to send her pictures of how it’s all going,” Joyce explained. “She said she wanted to be here [Kallie is studying teaching at the University of Northern Iowa]. Kallie wants to bring in the crops like she always did with Kyle.”
The volunteers said they were simply giving back and assisting Kyle as he had helped others. In the week before his own death, Kyle had helped to organize a benefit for his cousin, Dan Miller of Preston, who was in the hospital after his house exploded. Dan died Sept. 4, the day after Kyle’s funeral.
With seven combines and multiple tractors, wagons, and grain haulers, the volunteers stripped all the fields of their fall bounty in one day and relieved the grieving mother of what could have been another burden following her son’s death.
“It’s awesome what they’re doing,” Joyce said. “I just think of the weather we’ve had [a lot of rain and some snow]. They should be out in their own fields bringing crops in. But we thank everyone involved.”