When Tragedy Strikes

January 8, 2011 05:20 AM
When Tragedy Strikes

In her weaker moments, Shannon Dell can’t help but wonder why. Why do some people survive accidents and others don’t? Why did her husband and best friend, Tommy, have to die?

Then, she straightens and apologizes for being selfish. She concentrates hard on the blessings that have come with a good man and a loving family. "I know we lived and loved more in 11 years of marriage than most people do in a lifetime," Shannon says.

"Tommy had a mission. He wanted this family farm to endure and that’s just what we will do," she says.

Tommy died Sept. 29, 2010, when he raised the bed of a semi into power lines on his Westminster, Md., farm. His vitality and desire to help his family farm transcend the generations made him a central part of the Farm Journal Legacy Project case study.

Meeting with the Dell family for the first time since the accident, Kevin Spafford, Farm Journal’s succession planning expert, reminds the family that the goals haven’t changed: We continue to take care of this farm so that it provides for those who remain.

"A major player is missing, but that doesn’t mean we cancel the game," he says. "I do think everyone in the family needs to give themselves permission to stay the course for the next year.
"As we go through this next season, we will start to create a business plan with a management structure that helps all of us focus on something constructive."

Harvest had just begun when the tragedy occurred. The family had little option but to knuckle under and bring the crop home. Family members came out of retirement, put off-farm jobs on hold and tended each other’s children.

Gary and Crystal Dell had already purchased most of the dairy operation from the farm. Downsizing the herd has allowed Gary to work the grain side while Crystal does the milking.
Neighbors pitched in from every direction. Three of Tommy’s friends traveled from Indiana to work for three days. Doug’s fellow firefighters covered his shifts so he could work at the farm. Great-grandparents held hands and listened to questions that have no answers.

One certainty the family has come to understand is the generosity of others.

Casseroles still arrive almost daily. Shannon and Tommy’s mother, Della, spend evenings writing thank you notes. Among the hundreds of cards and letters are several from farm mothers and widows whom they’ve never met, but with whom they share a tragic bond.

Next steps. Seasons do not stand still and spring presents challenges. Tommy was the crops guy and some of the jobs such as planting and spraying must still be delegated.

Shannon, encouraged by the farm partners and the regional manager for Channel Seed Company, is assuming Tommy’s seed sales business. She and Greg worked together to make 2011 variety selections.

"Tommy had been teaching me the seed business before this happened," she says. "Who knew this city girl would ever be learning things like trait packages and refuge percentages?"

Shannon has also assumed the bookkeeping role, and she and Greg are working to create a farm budget and financial plan.

Gregory, 16, helped Tommy with planting this past spring. While the family is aware of the teenager’s love for the business, they also want to make sure he doesn’t miss out on high school and further education. Spafford suggests the family create a farm employment policy to clarify what is required before joining the farm team.

"A lot of good communication can come out of this situation," Spafford says. "Everyone’s intentions need to be on the table. You can’t work with what you don’t say or we don’t know."

Doug wonders how his days off from the fire station can be better used on the farm. Shannon asks that others understand her need to plan because it gives her purpose and direction.

"Life is not fair," she says. "There’s no sense worrying about that now.

"It’s time to be thankful for each individual seated around this table and to find some contentment," she urges. "Last year, Pappy [Donald Dell] reminded us that our attitudes are going to make or break us.

"We must put aside our differences when it comes to the farm or it’s not going to be there for us."

Gary shakes his head in wonder at Shannon’s courage. "Tommy would say: ‘Make this happen,’" he says. "He’d be really upset if we didn’t."

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