"That's what neighbors do" as farm community rallies behind ailing Elkhart Lake dairy farmer

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
Volunteers help harvest corn silage at the Henschel family farm (Deer-Vue Acres) in Elkhart Lake on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021.

When Jim Henschel received his stage 3 colon cancer diagnosis over the summer, his wife Kim Henschel wasn't sure what to do.

Jim, who's in his late 40s, is the lifeblood of the family dairy farm, Deer-Vue Acres just outside Elkhart Lake, where they've been farming for more than 15 years and married for 23 years. Kim also works a full-time job herself and the couple has three kids – Katelyn, 15; Austin, 18; and Sarah, 21.

"It's hard to take the main guy out of the operation," Kim said. "It was very difficult trying to just do the daily routine. Everybody kind of felt that pinch, like everybody had to lift their leg a little bit higher to get the job done."

When harvesting season came up, the Henschels decided to hire out work to harvest the corn silage. Through that, they met Kenny Strack, Jr. of Strack-View Farms in Random Lake, who would provide his own equipment to harvest the 120 acres. But after finding out the reason why he was hired, Strack decided to do part of the work for free as a donation to the family. Many other area farmers decided to help, too, all of whom donated time and resources during one of the busiest times of the year for farmers.

Volunteers help harvest corn silage at the Henschel family farm (Deer-Vue Acres) in Elkhart Lake on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021.

"I always believe in helping somebody out in need when times are tough for them, and I always look at it (like) what goes around comes around," Strack said. "So hopefully with my donations here today, if somebody in my family gets ill I'm hoping the community comes together for us too."

While Strack had only met Jim and Kim just days before, Glenn Ubbelohde, who was also helping harvest corn with his own tractor, has known the Henschels for decades. He was especially emotional during the harvest because of how special his relationship is between the Henschels and his own family. He said he's known Jim since he was young, and their kids have shown against each other.

"I sold my cows last October and Jim bought a heifer from me, so I just thought I'd help," Ubbelohde said with a few tears. "I had the time and I could afford to do it, so I just thought I'd get to work."

Jim Henschel

Rick Knoflicek of Majestic Crossing Dairy in Sheboygan Falls also pitched in. He said when his brother-in-law passed away two years ago, the community turned out just like this to help his family deal with the loss. He sees this as paying the favor forward, even with all the work from his 4,000-acre dairy farm on top of the donated time. Knoflicek said several men were able to harvest about 65 acres a day over a two-day period.

"My dad always said, if you think you're having a bad day, somebody else is having a worse day," Knoflicek said. "If Jim is in the hospital for treatments and they need somebody to just fill in a little bit, I'll do what I can to help out. That's what neighbors do."

Knoflicek's wife Sara and his late brother-in-law Dean Strauss had shown cattle with Jim in earlier days and they had also been in FFA and 4-H together. Because of that connection, he said it was no problem helping out on the Henschel farm. Knoflicek also said he was happy to see people from all sizes of farms turning out to volunteer.

Kim said her daughter Sara, who is the feed manager at their farm, has been waking up at 3:30 every morning to help milk and feed the cows while her dad has been recovering from chemotherapy and other treatments. Jim is also the school board president of the Elkhart Lake-Glenbeulah School District, and Kim said the school district has been immensely kind to her family during this time, and neighbors have even been making meals for the family to make things just a little easier.

Volunteers help harvest corn silage at the Henschel family farm (Deer-Vue Acres) in Elkhart Lake on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021.

"It is so humbling. I don't know another word to say. It's great that so many people care. (They're) friends we didn't know we had," Kim said. "I just want to thank everybody for helping. I don't know what we would do without them."

As Jim continues to undergo chemotherapy treatments, he will begin radiation soon and, Kim hopes, a surgery down the line to remove the cancer completely. The goal right now is to isolate it as much as possible so it's easier to remove, she said. Her daughters Sara and Katelyn also expressed their gratitude for the volunteers helping out on the farm.

"It means a lot just because some of them you know from showing cows and going down to the state fair," Sara said. "Seeing them come out and help, it really means a lot ... even though they have their own farm. They're like a second family."