With father ill, farm becomes teen's responsibility

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Dusten Plenert, 16, loves to play football. A Hillsboro High School sophomore, he hopes to get varsity playing time this fall at running back.

Basketball is a different story. Reflecting on last year’s long season, Dusten isn’t certain he’ll play this winter.

“I don’t want to call it a time-waster, but in some ways it was,” he said. “If I wasn’t playing I could’ve gotten home several hours earlier and got my work done.”

Dusten’s work is running a 500-acre family farm that produces wheat, soybeans, hay, and beef.

“Last winter, after I got out of basketball I’d go home, and I wouldn’t start feeding until 8 or so,” Dusten said. “By the time I get done feeding in the wintertime, it’s usually 10 or 11, then I stay up doing homework until 1 or 2.”

Dusten’s father, Greg, was working for an area feed mill seven years ago when a job-related injury during an ice storm left him disabled.

“It affected his neck; he’s always in pain,” Dusten said. “He can’t move his right leg and right arm as much. He can’t walk good, and the wheelchair has come into play the last year or so.”

Feeding the Plenerts’ 100 head of cattle was the first thing 9-year-old Dusten took on to help out when his father was injured. By the time he was 14, Dusten had taken over most of the farm’s operations.

“He’s been interested in the farm from early on,” Greg said. “Since I’ve got hurt, he’s taken hold of a lot. It’s given him a lot more responsibility. It made it him grow up actually too fast.”

Dusten didn’t see it that way.

“I like the work. It’s fun,” he said. “Every day I can sit down after I’m done and think, ‘Yep, I got a lot done today.’”

Dusten has relatives, friends, and neighbors to call on when he needs a hand. Jim Enns cut wheat for him last year when the Plenerts’ combine broke down. Dusten’s uncle, Joe Alvarez, did morning cattle feedings last winter and helped put up hay bales last week.

“He loves the farm life. It’s first, and everything else second,” Alvarez said. “He’s very knowledgeable, very talented; there isn’t anything the kid couldn’t do.”

Compromise is a way of life for Dusten, and more often than not the farm does come first.

“My buddies are always hanging out without me,” he said. “The other night they were camping out at the lake. I was cutting hay and then baling some other hay, and I didn’t get done doing that until 12:30. I got out there after that.”

Finding time to spend with his girlfriend, Savannah Unruh, is a challenge, too.

“She came out and rode with me in the combine this year,” Dusten said. “There’s a lot of times we make plans and then something happens and I don’t get to go do something with her in the evening. I hate talking to her on the phone all the time; that gets old.”

Whether lifting weights at school or participating in football mini-camp this summer, Dusten’s work followed him.

“Everybody always laughs at me,” he said. “There were five or six days I pulled into the school parking lot this year for weights in the morning with the stock trailer or grain trailer hooked up. I came in with a calf one day, headed to the sale barn.”

There are days the grind catches up with him.

“I missed a few days the past couple of weeks. I just got so tired,” Dusten said. “I got kicked real bad by a cow one day, so I didn’t go to weights the next day.”

Growing up “too fast” has changed his relationship with his father in good ways, Dusten said.

“I’d say it probably brought us a lot closer,” he said.

The two confer about what needs to be done on the farm, although sometimes Dusten takes a “do it now, tell him later” approach.

“Sometimes I’ll just do it; sometimes he’ll tell me. Big stuff I still get his say so,” he said. “The sudan I put in the other day, I went and got the seed and told him after I planted it. I wanted more hay for this winter.”

Conversations with his father are different from those Dusten observes with some of his friends.

“They’re talking to their dads, and they don’t seem like the same conversations that my dad and I can have,” he said. “We can sit down and talk about business stuff all day long if we want to. Some of them don’t even really want to talk to their dads too much.”

Greg can’t do physical chores, but he still can drive a combine, though it takes an assist from Dusten to do so.

“I put him in the loader on the tractor and lifted him up so he could get in,” Dusten said.

Helping his mother, Robin, accommodate Greg’s disability is another responsibility Dusten has taken on.

“There are a lot of days during school I go home over the lunch hour to make sure he’s doing OK,” he said. “A lot of times it feels like I don’t get anything done during the day because he’s calling me to come home to help him.”

Dusten takes time out for fun by riding a dirt bike, and he has driven in two figure-8 races at the county fair. Both choices were influenced by his father.

“He used to drive derby cars,” Dusten said. “He liked dirt bikes a lot. I’ve gotten into that the last few years. I wish he could ride with me.”

Farming is in Dusten’s future, but he is realistic about having a farm that’s a sustainable business.

“If I can expand the farm, get more ground, buy it, rent it, whatever, I’ll farm,” he said. “I plan on always having as much as we do now. I may work a job if I have to, but I’d like to just farm if I can.”

For now, Dusten still has the question of basketball. His parents want him to play.

“Mom tells me I’m only going to high school once so I need to play, but at the same time I’d rather be home working,” Dusten said.

“I think it’s good for him to be in sports,” Greg said. “Then he gets to mingle around with other kids.”

Dusten isn’t sure. Perhaps it doesn’t really matter if he plays.

“It’s always a guessing game, whether we should do this or that, but that’s just how it is,” he said. “I always tell him there’s another day, and if there isn’t, we aren’t going to worry about it anyway.”

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