The excitement for the start of harvest went up in flames in a matter of minutes on Ropp Farms near Normal in McLean County.
And it left veteran farmer Ken Ropp and his farm manager, Brett Yoder, thankful there were no injuries or major losses to their farm, other than a burned out John Deere 9600.
“First off, safety first when it comes to harvest,” Ken said while removing the corn head from the destroyed combine on Sept. 28. “We hear that year after year, and sometimes you take things like that for granted.
“I think the first 24 hours (after escaping the combine fire Friday, Sept. 24) I was just in shock. Then, I woke up that Saturday morning, and it just hit me,” he noted. “It makes you look at friends, family and your business from a whole new perspective.”
The day of the fire began innocently enough. Ropp was excited to start harvest a little earlier than he previously expected, due to rapid crop dry down in recent weeks.
But, after harvesting the first 3.5 acres of corn, the excitement quickly changed to panic, fear and a rush of adrenaline.
“The wind was real strong that day, I noticed it coming straight out of the south,” Ropp said. “So, as I was running north-to-south rows, of course when I headed north I had a lot of stalks and stuff swirling around the cab. I thought this was strange — this much wind and this much dryness. Then, I got to the north end of the field, and Brett was flagging me down to get out.”
That’s because Yoder could see what was transpiring behind the combine, without Ropp’s knowledge at the time.
“I was coming back from the elevator and I thought I smelled a whiff of smoke. I got around the end of the field and saw flames coming out of the back of the combine,” Yoder said. “I wanted to get (Ropp) out of the combine first and foremost, and then see what we could do to save grain and equipment.”
Once the two were out of their vehicles, they called the fire department and began stomping the flames to prevent the whole field from going up in smoke. They also managed to pull a grain wagon out of harm’s way.
“Trying to hook up the wagon while I was on the phone with the 911 operator was just a crazy time,” Yoder said. “I didn’t think we’d get (the wagon) out, but we did somehow.”
Local fire departments arrived on the scene within minutes and extinguished the combine fire without any other damage to the field, the nearby home of Ray and Carol Ropp, or the Ropps’ dairy, famous for its Ropp Jersey Cheese.
“Kudos goes to Carlock and Hudson Fire. They had three vehicles here – it always seems like an eternity when it’s happening — but within just 15 minutes they had three hoses on it and put it out,” Ropp said.
He immediately filed a claim with COUNTRY Financial, which arranged to remove the remnants of the combine. Cross Implement of Minier quickly located a recently traded John Deere 9760. Ropp sent his existing corn head and bean platform in for modifications and planned to get back in the cab to harvest soon.
“The first three tickets the corn was about 18 percent (the day of the fire), so there’s no doubt it’s dry enough,” Ropp said. “We were about a week to 10 days behind everybody else getting the corn in, so I figured we’d have more lead time. But, those 90-degree days and strong winds we had changed everything.”
As for the cheese business, the Ropps expected about 4,000 people for their annual Ropp Round Up festival Oct. 2, the week after the fire, and sales remain strong.
“I appreciate the public. We had a customer base that really supported us (throughout the pandemic),” Ropp said. “We’re milking almost 70 cows right now and supply and demand right now is nip and tuck. So, it’s one of those things that we’re maybe looking at more animals because things only get progressively bigger, sales-wise, now until Christmas.”
Ropp Farms consists of four owners and includes Ray and Carol, Ken and Becky and their daughter, Leah. They started making their own cheese on the farm in 2006 and, since 2007 use 100 percent of their milk for their famous cheese.
This story was distributed through a cooperative project between Illinois Farm Bureau and the Illinois Press Association. For more food and farming news, visit FarmWeekNow.com.