By Tim Eberly
If Jesper Bonnez paid heed to his doctor a decade ago, he never would have found the Neufelds.
In 1991, when Jesper was 12, he was hit by a truck while riding his bicycle across a street about a half-mile from his home on Denmark's mainland. The unyielding steel of the 18-wheeler grated the inside of Jesper's right ankle and heel down to the bone. It also nearly severed the front half of his right foot.
Skin grafts were removed from one of his thighs to replace the missing skin on his foot and ankle. Kurt Bonnez, Jesper's father, successfully lobbied doctors to reattach his foot, which they wanted to amputate. And at the end of the ordeal, doctors attempted to dissuade Jesper from continuing his burgeoning farming career, already two years in the making with his custom-cutting father.
"The doctor said I should get a desk job and that I should never become a farmer because I shouldn't be too hard on my foot and my back," said the 22-year-old Jesper, who also suffered permanent back injuries from the wreck. "But I can't sit behind a desk all day. I would get bored."
Undaunted, Jesper resumed farming, wrapping a bandage around his right heel and ankle a daily ritual to this day to provide cushion during the long hours spent on his feet.
Seeds were planted for Jesper's introduction to the Hi-Line, and Marvin and Barbara Neufeld, in 1999. The Neufelds' youngest son, Craig, participated in an International Agriculture Exchange Association program called Agriventure. For seven months, Craig moved to Raventhorpe, Australia a small town in the southwestern part of the continent to work and live on a farm with a family. When he returned, Craig gushed about the experience.
"He was the one that really encouraged us to be a host family," said Barbara, 52.
The Neufelds, who celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary during summer harvest on July 10, started their custom-combining business, Crossroads Harvesting, in 1973. Every summer and fall harvest, they load up their 43-foot trailer house, drive south with two grain trucks and a combine, and shear wheat, corn, sunflower and soybean crops at farms for two months at a time.
"You just go to the area where they're farming and you find work," said Marvin, 54. "You don't know if you have a job from one year to the next with the same people."
Despite the job insecurity, Crossroads Harvesting once required as many as six seasonal employees, three combines and four grain trucks. In 1991, the Neufelds downsized to a family operation, shedding their seasonal employees and two grain trucks while trading two obsolete combines for a more efficient New Holland combine. Another grain truck was sold in 1996, further scaling down the equipment while maintaining their productivity.
"I think we do as many acres now as we did back then with all those employees," said Marvin, who was born and raised north of Glasgow. "These new combines, they're high-capacity."
But when their sons both moved away before this summer's harvest Craig to Minot, N.D., and Deric to Kansas City, Mo. the Neufelds found themselves with an empty nest and short one employee. Asthma forced Deric, now 27, to stop farming after high school but Craig was still working for his parents. Therefore, Marvin and Barbara began to consider enlisting international help, such as Jesper, instead of local farmhands.
"Almost all harvesters bring people from overseas," Marvin said. "They just don't want to do that kind of work over here in the country anymore."
They attended an annual Agriventure orientation meeting at the 15 West Bar and Eatery last October, and later sifted through applications of potential agriculture trainees.
Jesper, who arrived in the United States on March 27, was an easy pick. He graduated from a three-year agriculture school in Denmark in June 2000 and deftly maneuvers the heavy machinery. And his work ethic has easily compensated for his aching foot and back.
"There's nothing he can't do," said Barbara of Jesper, who learned how to speak English in the fifth grade. "Our quote for Jesper is that he always goes the extra mile. He really impressed us because of his attitude on life after the accident. He's not going to let life let him down."
Their twice-yearly trek south extends to Texas, weaving through Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and back again. The Neufelds have been doing it since 1980, and spend roughly 10 days on each farm. During the summer harvest, Jesper and Barbara drove the grain trucks, alternately filling up and emptying them in nearby grain elevators. Meanwhile, Marvin, a Vietnam veteran who also worked briefly as a military police officer guarding Camp David, groomed the field with the combine.
"I figured that going on a harvest run from Montana to Texas and doing a little work, it can't get much better than that," Jesper said.
Six hundred dollars accounts for Jesper's monthly wages, coupled with free room and board. He lives in a living quarters detached from the house, and makes daily notes in a travel diary in the evenings. With weekends off, Jesper has visited Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, Jackson Hole in Wyoming, and even soaked in his first professional hockey game last weekend in Calgary the NHL's Flames against the visiting Chicago Blackhawks.
More than two dozen international agricultural trainees, just like Jesper, are sprinkled across the country. A healthy portion of them 14 to be exact attended Jesper's 22nd birthday party on Sept. 22 at the Neufelds' house, four miles south of Havre. One of them was 21-year-old Ann Thugeson, Jesper's girlfriend of five weeks. Also a native of Denmark and a member of the Agriventure program, Thugeson lives four hours northwest of Havre, in Taber, Alberta. Jesper, who met Thugeson in the United States, visits her almost every weekend. Trainees from England, New Zealand, Sweden and Australia also joined in the festivities.
"That was really fun," Barbara said. "They have a core group of friends that get together and hang out on the weekend."
Today, Jesper's commitment with the Neufelds is satisfied. After spending almost seven months with them, Jesper is allotted vacation time before he returns to his hometown, Arshus, on Denmark's main island, Judland, on Dec. 2. Three friends from home are flying out to meet Jesper on Nov. 1, and the trio is planning a road trip all the way down the West Coast to Los Angeles and then to Las Vegas.
Upon his return to Denmark, Jesper isn't planning on straying too far from the familiar. "I'm probably going to work on a farm," he said, adding that he may drive a truck in the off-season. "They lay off a lot of people in the winter time."
Marvin and Barbara will be at 15 West on Sunday for the annual Agriventure meeting. The process of finding another trainee from a distant land will begin anew. The Neufelds still consider Crossroads Harvesting a family operation. It's just that each year, they'll add a new member to the family. They'll just have to avoid making comparisons.
"Jesper spoiled us rotten," Barbara said. "I don't know if we'll be able to replace him. He'll never be forgotten. And I know Marvin feels the same way.