A bittersweet harvest on an Illinois farm Neighbors help bring in the crops after tractor accident kills farmer.

October 10, 1991|By Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- Gerald Steffes used to tell his children not to marry or die in the spring or fall because a farmer had no time then for weddings or funerals.

His own funeral, a large one, they say, was held at the end of August in Morris, a town 25 miles southwest of Joliet.

The farmers who filed into the funeral home and consoled Barb Steffes, Gerald's wife, told her to call when it was time for the crop to come in. She never had to call.

Last week it took just five hours, 21 minutes for an army of farmers and their tractors to bring in the 1,300 acres of corn and soybeans that Gerald Steffes planted but did not live to harvest.

Nobody in these rural reaches of Kendall County around Lisbon had seen anything like it.

Thirty-four combines swarmed over the fields, blowing grain into their hoppers as the silage flew about the fields like confetti. Dozens of trucks rolled away from the farm, heavy with grain and bound for the elevators in Morris and Minooka.

"It's an awesome sight," said Eugene Hatteberg, who at 65 doesn't quite rank as an old-timer in these parts.

But the harvest was bittersweet.

Barb Steffes watched the tractors rumbling across the fields her husband had planted, and she felt that something was terribly out of place.

"It just seemed like he should have been out there in that field," she said as she sat at her kitchen table. Before her lay the family snapshots of the overturned blue tractor, taken the day after the accident that killed her husband.

In the 1980s, the National Safety Council moved farming ahead of mining and construction on the list of the nation's most dangerous occupations.

During planting and harvest seasons, the hours are grueling, creating fatigue, and modern agricultural machinery has grown massive and unforgiving.

Scott Steffes, Gerald's 31-year-old son, can recall three serious tractor rollovers in the fields around Lisbon. One seriously injured a man, another killed a man who had just married and didn't know that his wife was pregnant, and the third killed Scott's father.

Gerald Steffes' last year of farming was not a great one. The yield of 28,237 bushels of corn and 11,088 bushels of soybeans was about half of what it would have been in a year with normal rainfall.

But nor was his last year of farming unhappy, because he tended not to fret or stew during droughts. He didn't worry about the things he couldn't change.

His final crop, shrunk by a drought, was brought in between 7 a.m. and 12:21 p.m. Wednesday by neighbors. Neighbors, as they still say in parts of Kendall County, are people who live within 10 or 15 miles.

"I guess it's just heritage," Hatteberg said. "When Dad was alive, he used to talk about working other people's fields, even husking the corn by hand."

Hatteberg described the mood around the Steffes' farm last week as a complex mixture of joy, excitement and sadness.

"There's joy that we could help, excitement because of all the machinery and people, and sadness because of Gerry," he said.

Gerald Steffes had told his wife he would be happy if he lived long enough to work the farm for just one year after it was paid for. Then it would be their land, not the bank's.

When he died over the summer at 58, five years were still left on the loan.

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