Guest blog: Marian Viney
It might be a media request call, a member calling in for their membership number, details about a member benefit or to talk to one of governmental relations staff or a variety of other requests from the public, not necessarily Farm Bureau members.
A few requests are memorable. The ‘combine ride for a 60th birthday’ request is one of those and why I enjoy answering the phone: “Good afternoon, this is the Wisconsin Farm Bureau. How can I help you?”
One day last fall, I answered the phone and it was Kate Wilson, she lives near Milwaukee. She explained her request. Her husband’s 60th birthday was in a couple of months and she wanted to surprise him with a ride in a combine. Not any combine … a John Deere 4400, which he drove for several summers harvesting wheat throughout the Midwest.
What a unique and thoughtful gift and as Kate shared the story, I could picture her husband re-living a favorite memory from his youth with a smile.
I have a few friends who do custom field work so I thought I could check with them. I took Kate’s number and said that I would make a few contacts and do some research.
I checked with friends but no one owned a John Deere 4400. I checked with auction sites. I checked Craigslist and found three 4400s (one in Iowa) and contacted them with no response.
The next week, Kate called and I shared what I had done and provided her with the contact number for the Wisconsin Farm Center, which is an extension of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. The Wisconsin Farm Center is a great resource and I give the number frequently.
In the fall life gets busy and Farm Bureau staff were starting to prepare for the WFBF Annual Meeting. I often wondered if Kate had found a John Deere 4400 and thought the request would be an interesting blog someday.
About mid-October, I received a call from Kate. She was over-the-moon excited and told me the details and that she would send photos.
Great! I thought I’d have her email, the photos and I’d write the ‘combine ride for a 60th birthday’ — a memorable request blog.
Because of some health issues, the email didn’t come … until June 20. Thank you, Kate! What a great story and a memorable request.
This is why I enjoy answering the phone “Good afternoon, this is the Wisconsin Farm Bureau. How can I help you?”
Brent’s 60th Birthday Surprise
By Kate Wilson
My husband, Brent, was going to be 60 on November 3 and I wasn’t even thinking about it. It was only September. But he was. He told me where he wanted to go for dinner. I didn’t have to do anything special, but he wanted me to know where he wanted to go for dinner. Two months before his birthday. Now, I knew I had to do something special and it wasn’t just going to be dinner. But what could I do? I had to start planning now if I was going to figure it out.
My list started with the usual events, theater, concerts, a movie (not special enough), a party, a trip. Brent hates crowds; I had done a surprise party for his 50th birthday in the form of a wake (picture boards); he had just been on a trip to his childhood home in Colorado and did not need to go there again; there wasn’t anyone special enough coming to Milwaukee that month for a concert or theater performance. Nothing seemed good enough. This really had to be special. I was stumped.
I was on a phone call to my niece in West Virginia one day and told her my dilemma. She asked me a key question. Was there anything he did as a young guy that he would want to do again? said no and told her about his recent trip to Colorado. But then it occurred to me. Every time we drove past a farm field and Brent saw a farmer working the field he would get this faraway look in his eye and say, “Combine … John Deere combine.” I always wondered if I could pull off a surprise re-drive of a combine for him. Now, was my chance, but could I manage it? Who knew?
I didn’t know where to start, but I knew that I had to first find out what model of combine he drove 40 years ago. All I knew was that it was a John Deere. The only person I could think of to ask, without asking Brent, was his brother, Dennis. Dennis has an amazing memory. When he and I were cleaning out his father’s house, after his father had died, Dennis would find a handle to a tool and tell me what it was for, the year it was purchased and how much his dad paid for it. I was amazed at his recall. I call him “Rain Man.” I knew Dennis could help me. I called him, told him what I was looking for and why. His reply stunned me. “I don’t know.” “What do you mean you don’t know?” I asked. “You have to know. You remember everything.” “I don’t know”, he said. “Well, do you know who he worked for?” “No, but I think it was something like the Hokums.”
I knew it wasn’t the Hokums. And I couldn’t believe I had struck out with Dennis. What was I going to do now? Dennis had a suggestion. He told me that the new combines have vacuums, which he noticed in his farming community of Palisade Nebraska. Maybe I could start a conversation with Brent when he got home from work with that lead-in.
Brent came home and after we talked about the day, as we often do, I casually mentioned that Dennis had called that day. (Lie #1. I had called Dennis.) Brent asked how he is. I said that his allergies are bothering him. (True). But there is something helping, the new combines have vacuums on them. (Not exactly a lie, they do have vacuums, but how much that was helping Dennis was questionable. However, it was helping me start the conversation. It was totally worth it.)
“Did the combine you drove have a vacuum?” (I knew it didn’t.) “No, I drove a John Deere 4400. It had an air-conditioned cab and was a small one.” That was the beginning of 30 minutes of his reminiscing about his favorite job from the ages of 16 to 18, doing wheat harvest throughout the Midwest for the Baldwins of Custom Harvesters in Oklahoma. He drove the combine for three summers and loved it. He knew he had the best job on harvest.
I finally had the information I needed to start looking. But how was I going to find a farmer who had a 4400 that was still running and who would let a stranger drive it after 40 years of not driving one? This was going to be a challenge. I could at least try.
I started by calling the John Deere. The gatekeepers are well-trained. “No, we cannot give out customer information. Call a dealership. Would you like the list?” Somehow, I didn’t feel very good about that option. What next?
Brent and I have great respect for the farmers in Nebraska, where his father lived. When his dad was sick, they drove him from the hospital to a nursing facility. Since we live in Wisconsin, they were a godsend. When his dad died, they helped us again. They put a for sale sign in front of his house during the Memorial Day weekend when tourists would be traveling to the lake community where he lived. They helped us when we had to figure out how to clean out the house and hold an auction. They recommended the local recyclers, auctioneers, shredding company and ways to get everything else done that is required for a job that is daunting. I knew that I had to go to my favorite sources in Wisconsin, for help: a farm organization.
I did an internet search for Wisconsin farmers and found the Wisconsin Farm Bureau. Marian Viney answered and listened with interest to my request. Could they possibly give me a reference to a farmer who owns a working John Deere 4400 combine and who would let my husband drive it as a birthday present? Big Ask. Marian said she might know someone who could help, a friend. She would call me back. A week later, when I did not hear, I called her again. Her friend could not help. I was at another brick wall. But wait. She said she had also tried an auction house and Craigslist, but had not found anyone.
I could not believe the lengths she had gone to. But then again, she works for a farm organization. I could believe it because that’s how farmers are. They go to any length to help. She gave me some other phone numbers to try. I thanked her, but felt I may have tapped out resources. I was losing hope.
I took a day to gather courage, and then I looked at Craigslist. Why hadn’t I thought of that before? Craigslist had four people trying to sell John Deere 4400s. Amazing. I started to contact them. I emailed one and he did not reply. I emailed another who did and told me we could drive it to the junkyard. I emailed the first one again. Then I called him and begged. He did not reply to either request. I called a third who answered. He told me that in Iowa they only do beans. Iowa? I thought it was Waterloo, Wisconsin, not Iowa. Thank God, he did not want to mess it up after cleaning it for the potential sale. We did not have time to drive that far. Now Craigslist was a bust. I had to find another way.
This was looking very bleak. I was going to have to start calling John Deere dealerships around Wisconsin or think of something else. I reread my notes from Marian Viney and noticed a phone number for the Wisconsin Farm Center. What the heck, I called them. Roger answered. Roger is a prince. Roger put me on hold and asked a co-worker and Bingo. They had someone.
Kent in Stoughton has a restored John Deere 4400 and a phone number. I called right away and I left a too-long message explaining my request. I hung up feeling sheepish and then realized I forgot something important, my phone number. I called back and a man answered. It was Kent and the only reason he was in the house was because it was raining. I had caught him because of an act of God. Maybe I was supposed to make this happen.
Kent was great. He laughed when I told him that the Wisconsin Farm Center had said he had a ‘restored’ 4400. “Restored! I just keep the damn thing running!”
He wanted to help and we arranged to make it happen on Saturday, October 15, about three weeks after I started the project. I was beyond excited and had to soft-pedal the idea to Brent. I told him that we were going to Stoughton on Saturday and he would have to dress in clothes that he didn’t mind getting dirty. He was puzzled to say the least. He thought I was going to leave him in the woods or something. I explained that it was his birthday surprise and that was even more confusing to him.
On Saturday, I packed extra water, a book for myself, my camera and maps to Kent’s place. I had given him my cell number and told him it would connect to my car radio, so if he called, he couldn’t say anything that would give the surprise away. He understood. We got out to my car, loaded the trunk and tried to open the door. My remote did not work. We managed to get in and tried to start the car with the push button. It wouldn’t start. My remote battery was dead and so was the spare. We transferred everything to Brent’s car and went to a local restaurant for breakfast.
On the way to the restaurant, Kent called. When I answered, he told me that the combine had broken down the day before. Now what? He said, “That’s ok. He can do corn instead of beans.” I could not ask too many questions, so I just went along with it. But now I was nervous. First my car wouldn’t start, now the combine wasn’t working. How was Brent going to drive a different combine? He knew the John Deere 4400. While at the restaurant, Brent left the table so I quickly called Kent. What were we going to do? Kent’s answer shocked me. “Well, he will drive the other one.” “What other one? Do you have another 4400?” “Well, sure! You always have to have a backup!” I had hit the jackpot with this guy. Two John Deere 4400s on one farm that both ran? How could that be?
We were on our way to Stoughton. When we pulled into the driveway, Brent saw the combine and got very quiet. I was worried. Was he nervous? What was his reaction about? Brent met Kent and a bearded pair was born. They hit it off immediately. Brent got in the combine and started driving it down a lane next to the cornfield. It was like riding a bike. He knew the levers and Kent jumped out after one round through the corn. Brent had this and could do it alone. And he did, for four hours. He harvested, along with another combine driver who had a larger combine. He dumped the corn into a cart when the hopper was full and did not drop a kernel on the ground. Together they finished the field. I could not have been more proud of him.
When Brent drove the combine back he was beaming. I took a picture of him standing on the platform and he gave Kent his card. He told him he would come out anytime that Kent needs help and he would do it for free. A friend was made.
I am so grateful to the village of farmers who helped to make it happen, Marian Viney, Roger at the Wisconsin Farm Center and especially Kent Klogland of Stoughton.
We left the farm and drove to a restaurant near home for dinner. I was still a little flummoxed by his initial reaction to his birthday surprise. Why didn’t he do a happy dance or whoop or something? I waited and suddenly he said, “No one has ever done anything like this for me. I wanted to focus on everything and remember every minute of it.”
As I wrote this, I cried all over again. It was the best present I ever gave to anyone and how special is it that it was for my husband.
Marian Viney is a graphic designer with Wisconsin Farm Bureau. She is an active member of her community serving in a variety of roles on the school board, within her church and other organizations. Her and her husband live in Belleville with their three sons, Matthew, Michael and Benjamin.