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Published September 22, 2010, 08:11 AM

Neighbors Pitch in to Help Cancer Victim's Family

FISHER, Minn. (AP) — They called it the Big Dig, with friends, family and neighbors coming from miles around to harvest the sugar beets that Todd Radi planted this spring. Radi got the beets in the ground, but his nearly two-year battle with cancer killed him before he could get them out.

By: STEPHEN J. LEE, Associated Press

FISHER, Minn. (AP) — They called it the Big Dig, with friends, family and neighbors coming from miles around to harvest the sugar beets that Todd Radi planted this spring. Radi got the beets in the ground, but his nearly two-year battle with cancer killed him before he could get them out.

Radi was 36 and had struggled with cancer for about 21 months when he died Aug. 12 in Altru Hospital, only days before American Crystal Sugar Co.'s preliminary "pre-pile" harvest began.

The tight-knit part of farm life here near Fisher was on display in a huge way, with what many said is the largest "harvest bee" they have seen: 128 trucks hauling beets from 24 lifters that gobbled up rows of beets that had just been topped by 16 "defoliators," or "roto-beaters."

Another 50 people or more milled around, grilling brats and burgers, using food donated by local businesses, ran errands and just visited, comparing the John Deere with the Case IH.

A fuel man from Fisher stood by to fill any empty tanks.

The least busy were the half-dozen guys in big tractors waiting around to pull any trucks needing a boost in the fields; the rain stayed away and trucks did just fine on their own.

It was well-organized, to the state and county level.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation closed down a lane on U.S. Highway 2 about three miles east of Fisher to allow the beet trucks easier access to turn off Polk County 18 to go east to the American Crystal processing plant in Crookston.

The Crookston plant shut out any other growers hauling in pre-pile on Monday, to concentrate on taking in Radi's beets.

A Polk County road blade operator kept cruising by the fields, scraping the dirt off the blacktop.

It was all to take off four quarter-sections of beets totaling nearly 600 acres after the headlands and trimmings already had been harvested in about eight hours, beginning in the dark at 6:30 a.m. and done by 2:30 p.m.

The full-on beet harvest doesn't begin until Oct. 1, and the beets would keep growing for a few more weeks.

But yields estimated Monday ranged up to 28 tons an acre, way better than previous year's early harvest yields, after a near-ideal growing season.

"Todd actually planted every beet on the farm," Lance Reitmeier said. "He's been doing that for quite a few years. He wanted to see it through. This was kind of his favorite time of the year, beet harvest."

Reitmeier was one of several friends of Radi who grew up with him, went to school with him, farm nearby and who helped organize the Big Dig.

Helping out a neighbor when there is misfortune with a "harvest bee" isn't rare in farm country, and was something Radi himself had helped out with before. But young and old said Monday is the biggest one they can remember.

"It's just kind of testament to the kind of guy that he was," Reitmeier said. "I can tell you he was a good guy, and you can say that about a lot of people. But something like this is kind of proof."

Tanya Scheer, owner of the East Side Travel Plaza, was one of several businesspeople who donated food to feed all the volunteers and watch the circus of farm equipment swirling around roads and fields.

"They just keep coming," she said.

Dave Radi, Todd's older brother, helped keep things going Monday.

"He and I started farming in a partnership in 1996," he said. "But we had farmed with our dad since we were knee-high."

Looking around at the bustle as acres of beets come out of the ground and into trucks at a rate of 1.25 acres per minute, Radi shook his head.

"I can't believe this. It was amazing. People just started calling. We didn't even say anything. And they organized it."

With all this help on the beets, he'll be able to handle the 1,000 acres of beans and 160 acres of corn the Radi Brothers partnership still has standing in the fields.

"I think I'm going to try to hold on to it all," Dave Radi said of his longer-term plans. "I will probably have to hire a full-time guy. It's hard to replace a guy who knew everything about it all."

Radi excuses himself as the horde of harvesters, finished with the first three fields, begins swarming to the final 160 acres.

"I've got to get the heading for this field," he said, referring to the GPS coordinates that allowed each lifter operator to hone in on the satellite data so their tractors' auto-steer technology could take the work out of navigating the half-mile rows.

Scott Cameron, a lifelong friend of the Radis, was keeping lists of truck drivers' names, along with the official American Crystal stickers each one needed to display.

"Here's a list of people who just showed up. We didn't know they were coming. We started to turn people away, we have too many," Cameron said.

Abalia Vila, who works for Dave Radi, stopped the big three-axle truck full of beets on her way out of the field to grab a plate of food.

"If you talk to his family, give our sympathies to them," she told an onlooker before hurrying back to her truck.

Each of the four fields had such a little grill station set up.

"There were so many people donating, there was nothing left to donate," said Wanda Rutherford, a neighbor who kept food and soft drinks going in one field.

"We came down and helped during the grain harvest," she said, adding that Todd Radi kept track of the crops right up near the end. "He was hoping to be here for this," she said, nodding to the lines of equipment roaring by in the dark soil, dusting the brats and burgers on the grill with airborne clay.

Kenneth Eggebraaten, long a friend of Todd and Dave's father, Orville Radi, was up early in the dark to helm a beet topper.

"I was out there roto-beating," Eggebraaten said. "It was good beets and the weather held just perfect: it started misting just as we were finishing up. And it was for a good cause."

Reitmeier said Todd was devoted to his three daughters, 13, 4 and 1, and his wife, Nichelle, who live on the family farm amid the sugar beet fields harvested Monday.

"Todd was well-loved, that was for sure," said his sister, Melanie Holbeck of Crookston, shortly before she headed out with other family members to the big pig-roast at the American Legion in Fisher to end what was a bittersweet day.

"It is a sad day, but wonderful to see all the support," Holbeck said. "Small communities are just fantastic to live in."

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