Honoring a Fallen Farmer

August 22, 2018 01:35 PM
Brock Gussiaas

Standing in a corn field, surrounded by the birth of seedlings and rebirth of soil, Brock Gussiaas suspected what no family member or friend realized: He was dying. Chest heaving with labored breath and muscles aching, he walked away from the din of May planting and left behind a crop he would never harvest, slid into his truck and drove home, the fields of childhood fading one final time. The young farmer, 28, moved slowly into his house, sat at the living room table with pencil and paper, and began a grim race against a malady roaring through his veins. Alone, he wrote his final will, left the paper in plain sight on the table, and crawled into bed. Forty-eight hours later, he was gone.

When Brock passed on May 27, 2014, his death crushed his father’s spirit and rocked a farming family to its core. The loss of an only son and scion of a fourth-generation farm operation to an improbable chain of circumstances seemingly pulled from fiction only compounded the tragedy of Brock’s death. Yet, four years later, the loss of a remarkable farmer echoes with the lessons of a life lived to the fullest, and a family intent on pulling hope from pain and maintaining the legacy of a beloved son, brother, nephew, uncle and friend.

Life often pivots on unlikely moments, never clearer than on the afternoon of May 17, 2014. At the Gussiaas farm outside Carrington, N.D., Brock was preparing ground at the wheel of a John Deere 8530, accompanied in the cab by a Jack Russell terrier. During a pass, he opened the cab and let the dog run free. It hit a scent, dug out a mouse and appeared to make a kill.

Replayed 100 times, Brock would have continued working—not this day. He stopped the tractor, walked over freshly tilled dirt to play with the terrier and picked up what he assumed was a harmless rodent. The mouse, merely injured, bit Brock’s finger. Concerned only by the inconvenience, he took little notice and walked back to the tractor.

Brock continued the tillage runs, unaware a fatal pathogen was charging into his bloodstream, ready to breed infection and move toward his lungs—hantavirus. Spread by rodents via droppings, saliva and urine, hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS) carries a mortality rate of 36%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A pinprick bite from the mouse set the clock running on his life. He had 10 days to live.

Raised on a farm, Brock grew up trailing his father, Roger Gussiaas, through the fields or soaking up business acumen at the Gussiaas seed processing/exporting business, Healthy Oilseeds. At 15, the entrepreneurial farm boy started Sunburst Produce: 25 acres of cantaloupe, sweet corn and watermelons tended with a hoe.

Toward the end of Brock’s college education at North Dakota State University, his drive exploded. “The life lessons kicked in and Brock became a farmer with high goals, all written down. He came home to the farm and was ready to run it as a business,” Roger recalls.

As Brock took the farming reins and Roger helmed Healthy Oilseeds, the pair became a force. In short time, Brock was heavily involved in the seed processing/exporting business as vice-president, and although Roger was an entrepreneurial heavyweight, Brock was the enhanced version. He jumped into advanced business classes at Texas A&M University, traveled to more than 35 countries on business trips for Healthy Oilseeds or for trade missions with the North Dakota Trade Office, and seized every learning opportunity he could access. “I believe in luck,” Brock often declared. "The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

Slowly building acreage, Brock considered farming overseas. He even traveled to Kazakhstan with his dad, meeting with leaders and governors to find the right land and logistics. Setting up shop and physically managing farmland in Kazakhstan became one of Brock’s goals, but it didn’t happen. Instead, his health began to fail.

On May 24, seven days after the mouse bite, with planting season at full-bore, Brock checked into an emergency clinic, short of breath and drained of energy, with a dull ache across his body. Missing the mouse bite and its viral implications, doctors blamed overwork and lack of sleep as the medical culprit and released Brock. He had three days to live.

“He could do anything he set his mind to,” says Brock’s twin sister, Brittney Brunswig. She describes Brock’s stamina and devil-may-care attitude related to a 2012 half marathon: “He didn’t train, and his running shoes were the same ones he used for field work. He blew off the shoes with an air compressor, drove to Fargo and completed the half marathon. We thought he was nuts, but we were so proud of him. You’ve got to have mental toughness and determination to run 13.1 miles without training.”

Despite the tightening in his chest, Brock tried to get back in the fields on Saturday afternoon, May 25, to plant late-season corn. With energy running perilously low, he drove away with the planters rolling. “Brock had never, never left planting in his life,” Roger says. “He, alone, really knew how sick he was, and nobody else did.”

Brock rested until just past Sunday night. At 1:30 a.m., Monday morning, he called Roger and asked for a ride to the hospital. Based on his debilitated condition, doctors suspected an issue beyond flu or dehydration, and he was airlifted to a hospital in Fargo. That afternoon, he went into cardiac arrest. “They revived him and we still didn’t realize it was hantavirus,” Roger says.

The CDC has recorded 728 cases of hantavirus infection, with nearly all (697) occurring between 1993 and 2017. Spread across 36 states, 96% of hantavirus cases were concentrated in states west of the Mississippi River.

After one last dose of medicine, one extra machine and one more tube, Brock’s heart gave out Tuesday morning and he passed away. On May 27, 2014, the only son of a proud North Dakota farming family was gone.

Days later, May 31, 750 people packed Brock’s funeral, some traveling from other countries. Flowers and cards poured in from around the world, all paying tribute to the most special of farmers and people.

On his own with two businesses, Roger walked away from field production after 38 years of farming. He left his equipment to an auctioneer and his land to a lessee. Roger held on to the seed processing business, but the farming operation was too heavy.

Roger often hops on a side-by-side to ride turnrows and gravel roads, and to talk to his son who once sat in the passenger seat. Best friends talking politics, sports, work, family—life. Roger recognizes a plain truth: Other farming families are in pain over the loss of a child or will face a tragedy
in the future. He offers heartfelt advice. “You are temporarily going to be apart from your loved one, but you’ll be back together. When you are alone, talk to them. It’s only my opinion, but I feel they can hear you, just like when you were together here. Those conversations are part of the healing process.”

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