Living The Dream: Honoring A Fallen Farmer

08:46AM Jul 10, 2018
Brock Gussiaas walking a trail on Kodiak Island, Alaska. “I know we’ll be together again,” says Brock’s father, Roger Gussiaas. “If you think death is the end, then you probably haven’t had someone close to you die.”
( Healthy Oilseeds )

“Got me an IV for the flu/dehydration from being rundown. Now it's go time again!!!” Brock Gussiaas, May 24, 2014

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 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 agriculture operation to an improbable chain of circumstances seemingly pulled from fiction only compounded the tragedy of Brock’s death. Yet, four years later, the demise 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 to all. Brock Gussiaas was a champion.

River Over A Rock

Life often pivots on infinitesimally unlikely moments, never clearer than on the afternoon of May 17, at the Gussiaas farm outside Carrington, in central North Dakota. Brock was preparing ground at the wheel of a John Deere 8530, accompanied in the cab by a Jack Russell terrier. During the monotony of a pass, he opened the cab and let the dog run free. Minutes later, it hit a scent, dug out a mouse and appeared to make a kill. Replayed 100 times, Brock would have kept driving and continued working—not this day. He stopped the tractor, exited the box, 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, river over a rock, 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 38%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A pinprick bite from the mouse set the clock running on Brock’s life. He had 10 days to live.

It Is What It Is

Home to approximately 2,500 people, Carrington is surrounded by gentle, rolling prairie. Raised on farmland just outside the town, 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. By high school, the entrepreneurial farm boy was gaining steam, and at 15, he started Sunburst Produce: 25 acres of cantaloupe, sweet corn and watermelons tended with a hoe and bent back.

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Toward the end of Brock’s college education at North Dakota State University (NDSU), his drive exploded. “Close to graduation from NDSU, something just flipped,” Roger recalls. “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.”

As Brock took the farming reins and Roger helmed Healthy Oilseeds, the pair became a father-son 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 over 35 countries in 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.”

Particularly for a young farmer and businessman in his twenties, Brock’s appetite for excellence was insatiable, and by all accounts, his ability to develop a rapport with others was phenomenal. “He could talk to anyone,” Roger explains. “Whether business problem, equipment breakdown or even a difficult person, Brock would handle things without stress and say, ‘It is what it is and let’s deal with it.’ And he did.”

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While the business grew stronger and the farming operation grew bigger, Brock eased into a leadership role as the dynamic took a closely wrapped father-and-son team and set the bonds in stone. Hands and heart of the father, Brock was turning into Roger. Blood on blood, the duo met each morning for 15 minutes before work. “I bounced every idea I had off Brock,” Roger remembers. “Two heads thinking alike were so powerful. I can’t really describe how much I miss that daily routine. I miss my son.

Slowly building acreage, Brock considered farming opportunities overseas. Kazakhstan, essentially south of Russia and west of China, is the ninth largest country in the world and an Asian breadbasket. Brock and Roger traveled across Kazakhstan, meeting with local leaders and governors to find the right land and logistics. Setting up shop and physically managing farmland in Kazakhstan became another of Brock’s innovative goals, but it didn’t happen: Instead, May 17 arrived and his health began to fail.

It’s Go Time Again

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. Only three days prior, Brock had posted on social media: “Great day and great forecast ahead of us. Keep grinding!!”

For a young farming buck who coached wrestling in his spare moments, followed NDSU sports at a maniacal level, and drove hard from dawn to dusk, the act of seeking medical attention was a tell-tale indication of spreading pain. Even as he received intravenous fluids, Brock sent out a social media message, anxious to get back to the fields he loved: Got me an IV for the flu/dehydration from being rundown. Now it's go time again!!!”

Entirely missing the mouse bite and its viral implications, doctors pointed toward overwork and lack of sleep as the medical culprit, and released Brock. He had three days to live.

Mouthful Of Rocks

Grit. Determination. Mouthful of rocks. “He could do anything he set his mind to,” says Brock’s twin sister, Brittney Brunswig, 32. 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 the shoes off with an air compressor, drove to Fargo and completed the half-marathon. We thought he was nuts, but we were all so proud of him. You’ve got to have mental toughness and determination to run 13.1 miles without proper training.”

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Passionate. Stubborn. “He was driven and stubborn, and wanted to do things whether someone told him it was possible or not,” Brittney continues. “Brock was passionate in sports, business and friendship. Telling or playing jokes, he loved making people laugh. People gravitated toward him because he was fun to be around.”

Karen Smith, Brock’s aunt, mirrors Brittney’s recollection. “Brock fit in with any crowd. If he didn’t know you, he wanted to know you. There were no pretensions, just someone who was comfortable with himself. Because he connected with people, everyone has a Brock story. We would go in a grocery store and he’d greet everyone in the place by name. That was the kind of value he put on other people.”

In A Flash

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 emphasizes. “He went home, wrote his will and laid it on the table. 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 a medical issue beyond flu or dehydration, and he was airlifted to a hospital in Fargo. On Monday afternoon, in Fargo, he went into cardiac arrest. “They revived him and we still didn’t realize it was hantavirus. He was so strong and I just believed he would be better than ever in the long run. That’s who Brock was,” Roger says.

CDC statistics dated to January 2017, record 728 U.S. cases of hantavirus infection, with nearly all (697) occurring between 1993-2017 (63% male, 37% female, average age 38). Spread across 36 states, 96% of hantavirus cases were concentrated in states west of the Mississippi River. Even more stark, CDC hantavirus data points toward a solemn tally: 36% of cases result in death.

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

My Son

Roger couldn’t accept the death of his boy, and denial became a temporary shield. He drove home to Carrington, cranked up the tractor and began planting beans—alone. Roger and Brock had been a bonded pair: Two men that needed each other. “We started together every day. If we weren’t together, we talked on the phone. Brock was my best friend. My business partner. My son.

Days later, May 31, 750 people packed Brock’s funeral, including attendees traveling from several foreign countries. Flowers and cards poured in from around the world, all paying tribute to the most special of farmers and people. “He was loved because he kept in contact with everyone he met,” Roger says. “He knew the value of others and received respect in return.”

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On his own with two businesses, Roger eventually walked away from field production after 38 years of farming, leaving his equipment to an auctioneer and his land to a lessee. Roger held tight to the seed processing business, but the farming operation was too heavy. “Emotionally, Roger was a void at first and Brock’s loss took a terrible toll,” Karen says. “It’s difficult to describe how special Brock was to us all because he had all the qualities to touch your heart.”

“Dad and Brock had a connection that couldn’t be broken,” Brittney explains. “The love and respect they had for each other was amazing and you knew they had each other’s back both as a father-son duo and as business partners.”

Waiting Game

As Roger wrestled with questions over his son’s death, he realized the seismic impact Brock had made on family, friends and community—literally around the world. Death, in Roger’s eyes, was merely a waiting game. “I know we’ll be together again. If you think death is the end, then you probably haven’t had someone close to you die.”

In the truck, on the turnrow, in a corn field, Roger and Brock are still together. “I wasn’t upset with God. I know Brock lives now as much as he did when he lived with us. The purpose of Brock’s life was to impact so many lives for the better. He did that and so much more.”

“I take more chances now, go out of my way to meet people, grab opportunities and keep my mind open,” Roger adds. “I don’t have time for animosity. A chance to build a bridge is always an honor and that comes right from my son.”

Living The Dream

The harsh maxim of anguish is inescapable: All families are either headed into suffering, in the midst of suffering, or exiting a period of suffering. Despite the most painful of losses, the Gussiaas family is weathering the heaviest of burdens, buoyed by Brock’s indomitable lust for life.

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Remembering her boy with a “contagious smile,” Brock’s mother, Stacey Sullivan, keeps an arm wrapped around his memory: “I think about Brock every day and wonder what he is doing in heaven because I know I will see him again. Cook, travel, farm, sports, he just loved life. Brock was an amazing young man, who was ‘just living the dream.’”

Indeed, “I’m just living the dream,” was the phrase Brock kept in his pocket—and he meant every word. “He is a lesson for others on how to live life. Adventurous, kind, caring and fearless, and only 28 years old,” Karen says. “He used to call all the time to check on me and I thought was special. Truth is, he called all kinds of people just to touch base and treated so many people as special. He passed in his prime, but the consolation is he did more in 28 years than some others do in a lifetime.”

Paralleling Karen, Brittney emphasizes Brock’s whirlwind life: “I want people to remember what he accomplished in only 28 years, which takes some people their whole life, in comparison. If you have ever heard the song, “I lived” by One Republic, that was Brock. He taught people to go for their dreams and never give up.”

Since Brock’s death I’ve learned life can be very short and to take nothing for granted,” Stacey adds. “Tell the people you love that you love them, because you don’t know when will be the last time you’ll see them.”

The Champion

Roger often hops on a side-by-side to ride turnrows and gravel roads, and talk to the young man sitting 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. Same conversations. You can tell a father, mother, son, or daughter how you feel. Those conversations are part of the healing process.”

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Farmer, businessman, traveler, coach, pilot, NDSU devotee, friend, uncle, nephew, brother, and son, Brock’s legacy echoes in the lives of the countless people he touched. If character is measured by how a person treats those who mean the least, then Brock was a titan. By all accounts, he understood simple things matter most.

“He’d be going full-steam if he was here,” Karen concludes. “He never sat still. He was our beloved.”

As a tiny boy on North Dakota farmland, Brock was his father’s shadow. Forever 28, he still is.

Roger pauses for a moment, regains composure, and his voice noticeably drops as he offers a final reflection: “There was a brightness in Brock and I carry it with me. Don’t tell me money and work are what this world is about because I notice all the tiny miracles around me every day that I used to take for granted. Brock was my son and I will see him again. He was my champion.

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The Secret Life of Farmland Marbles

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