Neighbors pitch in, harvest crops for Ritzville farmer with stage 4 melanoma

Aug 2, 2019, 1:19 PM | Updated: 2:25 pm

For longtime farmer Larry Yockey, oeprating a wheat farm in Ritzville — a town of about 1,700 people located 60 miles southwest of Spokane — has always been mostly a one-man gig.

But in February, the 63-year-old was diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma, meaning the cancer has metastasized to other areas of his body — in this case, his ribs and back. He could barely walk at the beginning of his treatment.

Luckily, Yockey’s doctors have the skin cancer at bay for the moment, but the physical challenges from the cancer in his bones have been debilitating.

“We kind of knocked the cancer back in the first two or three months pretty good,” he told KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson. “But the damage had been done so severely to my skeletal system that I was still weak, limited to lifting 10 to 15 pounds maximum, warned not to fall down — I was basically a brittle man.”

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Those parameters made Yockey’s livelihood extremely difficult, especially during the summer harvest. He normally works the farm by himself most of the year, hiring just two temporary workers to help harvest his 1,200 acres of wheat when the season arrives.

This year, however, there was no way he could take on that kind of workload by himself — and hiring help made for a large expense, especially in a year with many medical bills.

“Ag is ag, it’s like a lot of businesses — we operate on a pretty thin margin over here,” he said.

But Yockey’s Ritzville neighbors had his back.

In a scene that could have come out of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” 60 community members surprised Yockey with a “harvest bee.” In the span of just one day, they pitched in and got the entire crop harvested.

“It was just beyond all expectations … unbelievable,” Yockey said. “What I normally take 12 to 16 days to cut, we did in about six to seven hours. We just knocked it out … no complaining, just get the job done.”

Not only was the harvest bee extremely productive, it was also a lot of fun. Some of the people of Ritzville provided doughnuts and coffee. The volunteer fire department even showed up, just in case of a brush fire. There was visiting and laughter as longtime friends got together to share a common goal.

Yockey normally stays pretty level-headed and focused on work when he’s in the fields, but that day he was completely “choked up.”

“It’s unbelievable in these small towns and communities how [people] can come together like that,” he said.

He lived in Seattle for 12 years while earning his college degree and working for Boeing, but the neighborly spirit of rural communities drew him back to small-town life.

“You don’t realize until tragedy or something like this hits … [you should] meet your neighbors; if you’ve got a problem, whether it be a natural disaster or whatever, pull together,” he advised. “It’ll give you such a good feeling to help your neighbors. It’s unbelievable.”

And the experience of seeing how loved he is has given him extra inspiration to beat cancer.

“I want to be around to help these guys some more too,” he said.

Listen to the Dori Monson Show weekday afternoons from 12-3 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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