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Farmer/firefighter's family adjusts to loss

Firefighter Adam Schiller speaks while at Grand Forks' Station 5 on Sunday, July 22, 2018. Nick Nelson / Agweek

CROOKSTON, Minn.—This is the story of a young man who was "nuts about farming" and later developed a passion for firefighting—and now, against the odds, is doing both.

It's also the story of a man and his family who are slowly but persistently coming to terms with a terrible loss.

"We're still trying to figure it all out. We still have a long ways to go, and we may never get all the answers. But we're working at it," Adam Schiller says. Amber Schiller, Adam's wife and the mother of their three young children, died unexpectedly of natural causes on Jan. 27.

Video: AgweekTV: Firefighter Farmer

"It's left quite a void. The other 50 of your 50-50 isn't there anymore. It's a void that never will be filled again," Adam says.

Schiller, 40, raises about 800 acres of wheat, soybeans, and non-GMO soybeans near Crookston, Minn. He also custom-hauls sugar beets, an important crop in the Crookston area, during harvest.

"I started farming on my own, from scratch, four years ago," he says.

He's also a senior firefighter in Grand Forks, N.D., about 30 miles to the west. He joined the Grand Forks Fire Department in 2011.

Agweek visited with Schiller first at his Grand Forks fire station on one of his off days there, then with him and family—children Addisyn, 9, Ariana, 5, and Aiden 2, and parents Rich and Jackie Schiller—at his Crookston-area farm.

Reflecting the names of Adam, Amber and their children, the farm is known as 5-A Farms. The farm logo now includes angel wings in Amber's memory.

"There'd be no 5-A without Number 2," Adam says of Amber.

Adam Schiller, the son of an ag banker, lived in several Minnesota communities and worked for farmers in high school. Both his grandparents farmed, and he has many other relatives involved in agriculture in one way or another.

Schiller attended the University of Minnesota Crookston, where he met Amber, a Crookston native and UMC student. Adam also met Rob Tollefson, a Crookston farmer. Tollefson had advertised for help during sugar beet harvest, and Adam applied and was hired.

"That blossomed into a great friendship," Adam says of Tollefson, who served as best man in Schiller's wedding.

"He (Schiller ) was just nuts about farming. It was obvious how much he enjoyed it," Tollefson recalls. He and Schiller stayed in touch after the latter finished college, and Schiller regularly came back during spring's work and harvest to help Tollefson.

After college, Schiller held several positions in ag sales and agronomy in North Dakota and Minnesota. At one of his stops in eastern Minnesota, he joined the local volunteer fire department and discovered he had a passion for firefighting.

That led Schiller and his family to move to the Crookston area in 2011, and he joined the Grand Forks Fire Department. Grand Forks has about 57,000 residents, Crookston about 7,800. Later, he and Amber moved to a rural farm house, which they began renovating into what Adam calls their dream house.

Amber worked with children in the Crookston area, both as a teacher and in child care. "Kids were her thing," Adam says.

'To serve the community'

Schiller began as a full-time professional firefighter relatively late in life. "Coming in as an entry-level firefighter at (age) 32 was hard," he says.

But he enjoys the variety and the challenge.

"Some days we don't stop, some days are restful. In the long run, it evens out. And there's training, classes—we're always learning, always improving," he says. "Fire is actually very little of what we do. It's medical calls, car accidents, hazardous material—the range of fire fighting is rather large."

The job is satisfying emotionally.

"We're here for a reason. We only get called on people's worst days. It's our job to show up and to mitigate that. Take a crappy event and sort it out, and in the end, stop a fire or deal with an accident," he says.

"To serve the community and to help people when they're at their worst — that means a lot to me," he says. Then he smiles and adds, "And there's a little bit of an adrenaline rush, too."

He works 10 24-hours shifts every month as a firefighter. "I have 10 days a month to work for the city and residents of Grand Forks, 20 days a month to work for myself," he says.

That schedule both helps and hinders him in farming.

"Working 8 to 5 (in an off-farm job) just wouldn't work for me to farm, too. So that's good," he says.

The downside is that his firefighting job often prevents him from timely farming tasks — spraying crops, for instance — on days those things should be done. One example: In 2017, Schiller had to hire all his spraying done because he was working as a firefighter on days he otherwise would have sprayed himself.

"This (firefighting) job always comes first. Our farm is very important—it's our future—but this job is always priority one," he stresses.

Starting to farm

It's an axiom in modern agriculture that getting started in farming is virtually impossible without an "in", or a connection—usually a relative-- who's farming already.

But Schiller is an exception, or nearly so. In 2015, Tollefson decided to give up some farmland he had been renting and encouraged Schiller to consider farming it. The thinking was, Schiller would work part-time on Tollefson's farm in exchange for the use of Tollefson's equipment on the land that Adam would farm. Adam and Amber liked the idea, and the landowner agreed.

Now Tollefson no longer farms, and Schiller is on his own.

5-A Farms has grown steadily over the past four years, and Schiller now rents from three landowners. He emphasizes his appreciation for their "understanding and flexibility" and their willingness to rent to a beginning farmer instead of an established one.

Schiller has purchased some equipment of his own now—"All my working capital is tied up in iron"—and doesn't own any farmland. But he hopes to buy some eventually.

Financing has been a challenge. He received some initial funding through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency, but soon outgrow its beginning farmer loan programs, he says, adding that he plans to utilize other FSA programs in the future.

Banks in the Red River Valley of western Minnesota and eastern North Dakota have been unwilling to lend to him, he says.

"They tell me, 'We like what you're doing. But you don't have a history, a track record,'" he says.

But Schiller eventually persuaded a bank in eastern Minnesota to work with him, and he says that relationship is going well.

Modern agriculture is constantly evolving. Even established full-time farmers can have trouble keeping up with the changes and new options; farmers with off-farm jobs and commitments can find the task especially challenging.

Schiller says he keeps up by "being willing to ask others, 'Can you help me?' I have a very close-knit group of farming friends—I call them my advisory board—that I lean on. I've realized everybody has limits. I've learned how to rely on others to help you accomplish your goals."

'A heart attack in her sleep'

Schiller relied most of all on Amber. She cared for the children when he was farming or serving as a firefighter. And in countless ways—mowing the lawn, bringing meals to the field, among many more—she helped Schiller juggle his dual career.

"She didn't have an ag degree. But she was always inquisitive and willing to learn," he says.

That changed on Jan. 27.

"She had a heart attack in her sleep. It was a Saturday morning and we were still in bed. We were just talking and hanging out and she said, 'I'm just really tired. I need another hour of sleep. Come and get me then, OK?' I went in up 45 minutes and found she'd passed away in her sleep," Adam says.

"We knew she had a heart condition, but nothing particularly dangerous or out of control. We had no way of knowing it would do what it did," he says.

At first, he says, "I didn't know how we (he and the children) were going to do all of it, let alone any of it. Just being gone at the fire station for 24 hours was a struggle (without Amber's presence at home with the children.)"

Adam Schiller says his parents, who live in eastern Minnesota, have been invaluable. (Amber's parents are dead.)

"My parents both come up here and help. We couldn't do it without them. My mom is retired and basically takes care of the kids," he says.

Jackie Schiller stays in Crookston during the school year. There's a nanny during the summer, but Jackie and Rich come frequently to help on weekends.

Rich, who's in his 45th year as an ag banker, points to his wife and says, "What she's doing is pretty remarkable."

Jackie shrugs and says, "I'm just doing what any mom and grandma would do."

Addisyn, Ariana, and Aiden are adjusting, too, Adam says.

"It's hard for them. But they're doing the best they can," he says.

Adam has made a determined effort to spend as much time as possible with the kids. For example, he uses his vacation days from work as family time, not for farming.

The future

Schiller's immediate focus—in addition to his family and firefighting, of course—is on harvest.

He's finished with his wheat, which he describes "as average. Nothing amazing, but nothing horrible." The soybeans "are looking good," avoiding aphids and mites and catching a "very timely" mid-August rain. Harvest is still several weeks away, he says.

He hopes to add sugar beets to his farm, to help diversify his crop rotation and because "the sugar market tends to be more stable" than wheat and soybeans.

He's interested in expanding his farm over time to 1,500 to 2,000 acres, some of which he would own himself rather than rent. "I don't need to farm 5,000 or 10,000 acres, but I hope I continue to grow," he says. If Schiller does expand, he'd like to hire a college ag student to help, just as he once helped Tollefson.

And Schiller plans to remain a firefighter, at least for the foreseeable future.

"The job pays our (family) bills. The farm pays for itself," he says. "Someday, maybe they'll cross over or maybe one will replace the other. I don't know."

His goal in farming remains "for the farm to pay its own way. This is year four, and the farm has built itself. There's been profit, but at the end of the year—if the (profit) number is zero or above—I feel all right because the farm has taken care of itself and supported itself."

Whatever the future holds, he says, "I want other farmers, especially young ones, to know that if you have the will to do something, there's a way to get it done."

He pauses, searching for words, and says at last, "We're still figuring out the way that's right for us without Amber. And I don't know yet what that will be. But we'll make it work, I'm sure of that."