My Generation
ALS, Ice and an Illinois Farmer

ALS, Ice and an Illinois Farmer

Morrisonville Master Farmer Lamar Fesser was an example of a life lived well, and the AgChat Foundation honored his memory with their own ice bucket challenge.

I met Lamar Fesser back in 2004. He'd been named a Master Farmer by our magazine, one of the highest honors for an individual in production agriculture. My colleague, Cherry Stout, visited Lamar at his farm in Morrisonville and wrote the story about him, and he was fascinating. Lamar loved to support young farmers and went on to join our first class of Cultivating Master Farmers – a mentorship program for young farmers and Master Farmers – in 2005. It was there that I got to know him better.

This is one of my favorite photos of Lamar and Bryan Fesser, captured by Kay Shipman at Illinois Farm Bureau.

CMF allows for a lot of open exchanges between its members. Young farmers tend to ask a lot of questions about balancing their farm and their family, and I'll never forget Lamar's tireless, relentless advice: he loved his farm but his family always came first. Always.

Lamar's wife died in 2000 from cancer. He farmed with his son, Bryan, with his grandchildren just down the road. Soon after being named a Master Farmer, he was diagnosed with ALS. It's a horrific disease that slowly paralyzes its victim, and it's always fatal.

You might think something like ALS would slow Lamar down in the meantime, but you'd be wrong.

Wheelchair bound and with a care giver at his side and with the support of his family, he put 30,000 miles on his handicap-accessible van in one year visiting field days, implement dealerships, livestock auctions, county and state fairs, grain elevators, Farm Bureau and other meetings – including CMF. I can remember well Lamar and his van, faithfully attending. And always willing to share his experience, and even learn from the younger families. He was relentlessly encouraging. When he died in 2008, it was an absence that every one of us felt acutely.

Says his daughter, Debbie Rudin, "During his three-year battle with the disease, Dad lived each day to its fullest, doing farm business and visiting family and friends 12 hours a day, 7 days a week; an admirable feat given his rapidly declining physical capacity."  

And so it was when my friend and AgChat Foundation board member, Emily Zweber, put out a call looking for a farm family affected by ALS, that Lamar leapt to mind. You've likely heard about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge that's sweeping social media and raising scads of money for ALS. AgChat's friends at Monsanto had offered them the ALS ice bucket challenge. They wanted to do the challenge but they were looking for a farm family to honor. I'm proud to report that AgChat president Jeff Vanderwerff, himself a Michigan farmer, took a bucket of ice with pride and says the board raised $300 for the St. Louis ALS Association – an organization that helped Lamar and his family with tools like wheelchair lifts and voice amplifiers.

The Ice Bucket Challenge has raised $53.3 million, compared to $2.2 million in the same period last year, and donations have come from 1.1 million new donors. If you're interested in donating, you can do so at the ALS page. (In response to concerns from the Catholic church and other pro-life advocates, ALS spokeswoman Carrie Munk says you can stipulate that your donation not be used for embryonic stem cell research.) And if you're worn out by the whole ice bucket thing, read these thoughts from an ALS-affected family.

In the end, I think of Lamar and an incredible will to live, to farm, and to share his life with the people around him, despite the onslaught of ALS. It's good news to know a group of farmers came out to support his memory. Always.

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