Grey Eagle – In his entire 51 years, Jimmy Johnson has never thought twice about being there for his family. As a single farmer living alongside his parents, Jim and Virginia Johnson, most of his life, Jimmy served as the go-to when his family needed a caretaker or mentor. Jimmy’s dairy farm naturally became the place for nephews and nieces to gather and learn life lessons.

Now, it is the family’s turn to be there for Jimmy.

“It feels really good to have them all back me,” Jimmy said.

In October, Jimmy was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer and has been undergoing treatment since. His sudden illness and ongoing treatment have set his family into overdrive to keep the 60-cow dairy going, as well as harvesting 700 acres of corn, soybean and alfalfa on his farm near Grey Eagle.

“We all grew up coming to Uncle Jim’s to help out,” said Mitch Johnson, a nephew. “When we were kids, coming to the farm was part of growing up.”

Jimmy began feeling sick in June. He was initially diagnosed with diverticulitis and given medication. As soon as the medication ran out, Jimmy began feeling ill again.

“The second time I went off meds, I crashed,” Jimmy said. “I knew something was majorly wrong.”

On Oct. 1, knowing something more had to be done, Jimmy got a second opinion from another doctor.

“That is when they found the cancerous tumor in my large intestine,” Jimmy said. 

During surgery, the tumor ruptured causing an infection in Jimmy’s intestine. A portion of the intestine was removed but not before infection spread throughout his body causing him to go into septic shock. Jimmy spent 10 days in the hospital.

“The doctors told me there were 24 hours where it could have gone either way,” Jimmy said.

While his sisters and mother stayed vigil at his bedside, Jimmy’s brothers, Art and Jeff, nephews, Mitch, Devon and Peyton, along with numerous other family members and neighbors, stepped up to keep the farm going.

Without guidance from Jimmy, the family managed to milk the cows and continue harvest. A neighbor who does custom harvesting combined the soybean acres. One retired neighbor helped feed calves. Art, Jeff, Mitch, Devon and Peyton coordinated work schedules, school and school activities to make sure both milkings were done every day.

“Mom and Dad were helping every day, too,” Jimmy said. “They are in their 70s and 80s, and Mom fed calves every day and Dad did fieldwork. I didn’t have to say a thing and everyone stepped up.”

Even with family and neighbors pitching in, maintaining the daily routine was challenging.

“We didn’t go four days without a cow freshening,” Art said. “Not a big thing, it’s just that we are all trying to get to work and it takes extra time to work with a fresh cow.”

The wet fall and cold temperatures also added to the already challenging harvest for the fill-in crew.

Jimmy returned home Oct. 10. He is limited to the amount of activity and work he can do. In the last 10 days, he has eased his way to the field to drive truck and haul grain. 

“I have to do something,” Jimmy said. “If I sit down and think, my anxiety kicks in.”

Jimmy is not allowed to be in the barn so Art, Jeff, Mitch, Devon and Peyton continue to milk. Devon, 20, and Peyton, 17, have more recent experience doing chores and have been an enormous help in managing the dairy herd.

“It’s been hard on them all,” Jimmy said. “They all have jobs. Peyton played high school football. Devon is going to college and working. They’ve all stepped up to the plate.”

Jeff also has two daughters Kailee, 13, and Avery, 8, who pitch in. Art and his wife, Cindy, along with their grown children, Mitch, Bridget and Amanda, and her husband, Luke Fuechtmann, have all helped. Mitch’s children, Gavin, 10, Clayton, 8, and Abby, 4, have also been able to help on Great Uncle Jimmy’s farm. 

Jimmy’s ordeal is not over, but according to his medical team, the cancer is easily treatable. He is scheduled for preventative chemotherapy treatments this winter and will have a scan to determine whether the cancer has spread to other parts of his body.

“They say it’s a miracle the way I quickly recovered,” Jimmy said. “Hopefully we have the worst behind us.”

Doctors are encouraging Jimmy to discontinue farming, but the Johnson family is determined to keep Jimmy farming as long as he wants to.

“I’d like to keep farming,” Jimmy said. “Hopefully one of these boys will stick around and keep helping. But if we get bad news, we will discuss the next step.”

Jimmy cannot even begin to start thanking those who came to help on the farm. Jimmy hopes he will fully recover so he can return the favor someday.

“He doesn’t need to repay us,” Mitch said. “We’re family.”

The sentiment is mutual for all family members.

“We have a family motto,” Art said. “Nobody in this family fights alone.”