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Neighbors pull together to harvest farmer's last crop

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 10/30/2017
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ST. CHARLES, IA — It's what farmers in Iowa do for each other, especially in small towns like St. Charles, Truro and Peru, says Lisa Brownlee.

Her husband, Van Brownlee, died of a heart attack in May, shortly after he finished planting his crop. He was 58. 

Three dozen neighbors swarmed Brownlee's fields Wednesday with combines, grain carts and semis to bring in his last crop — about 235 acres of corn and 165 acres of soybeans.

"It's a really good community," says Lisa Brownlee, pausing, taking a breath. "I'm thankful."

It's something Van Brownlee would have done for his neighbors, says Steve Downs, Brownlee's friend since junior high.

It wasn't long ago that Brownlee helped bring in a neighbor's hay crop after the man was killed in a farming accident, said Downs, who organized Wednesday's harvest.

"He was just a good old boy ... a good person who always tried to do the right thing," said Alan Brommel, who farmed a couple miles from Brownlee.

"That's all I'd wish for people to think about me," he said.

The harvest plan spread by "word of mouth, and the calls started rolling in," Downs said.

On Wednesday, more farmers showed up than expected, he said. 

"It's very humbling to be part of this — to see all these people coming out to help," said Brommel, who was combining soybeans. "We're all here for the same reason."

Downs said Brownlee loved being a farmer, raising crops and livestock.

"There weren't many days you couldn't find Van working on farm equipment, feeding cattle or doing chores," said Downs, who lives a half-mile away. "He loved working outside, regardless of the weather."

"He always had a chew in and a hat on," Downs said.

Larry Young, left, and his brother, Roger, get lunch from Connie Brommel in the field on Oct. 25, 2017, in St, Charles. © Brian Powers Larry Young, left, and his brother, Roger, get lunch from Connie Brommel in the field on Oct. 25, 2017, in St, Charles.

Brownlee sat on the Interstate 35 school and the local farm cooperative boards and he was active in Madison County's cattlemen and pork producers groups.

An Iowa State University grad with an ag business degree, Brownlee practiced no-till farming to prevent soil erosion and was concerned about chemicals being over-applied, Downs said.

Farming was always on Van's mind, he said: A few years ago, Brownlee was there when Downs had a bad four-wheeler accident and was carried out of the field on a LifeFlight helicopter.

"When he came to the hospital, he didn't ask me anything about how I was doing. He said: 'You can't believe how much corn that helicopter blew down,'" Downs said, laughing.

"He was a farmer. He was most concerned about the corn."

Brownlee was an avid ISU sports fan and proud of his wife and kids — daughter, Tess, and son, Brody.

"He could tell you about every hit Tess had in softball or 3-pointer Brody made," Downs said. 

He also was proud of his classmate — Gov. Kim Reynolds.

"He had the biggest Branstad-Reynolds sign in the county during the last election," Downs said.

Brownlee's friends will harvest his crops before their own, a fact that makes Lisa Brownlee a little uncomfortable.

She tried to convince the crew to combine their own fields first, but without much luck.

It's the latest harvest in Iowa since 2009, with only 23 percent of the corn and 61 percent of the soybeans out of the fields, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says.

"We're all behind," Downs said. "But we said, 'Let's do it.l We're going to just get it done."

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