Northern Minnesota family 'humbled' by community-led sugar beet harvest following farmer's death

Paul Olsonawski passed away suddenly in July of this year, leaving his family and farm behind. His community rallied together to harvest his sugar beet crop early in an effort to support the

American Crystal Sugar opened its piling site exclusively for the harvesting of the Olsonawski family's acres on Sept. 27, 2021. With a vast number of volunteers, there was a steady line of trucks at the piling site, carrying only the sugarbeets of Paul Olsonawski, who died in July 2021. Photo taken near Humboldt, Minnesota. Emily Beal / Agweek
We are part of The Trust Project.

HUMBOLDT, Minn. — It normally takes the Olsonawski family 10 days to complete their annual sugar beet harvest.

This year, it took less than 24 hours.

The volunteer crew at the Olsonawski farm was able to harvest more than 500 acres of sugarbeets in under 24 hours of work on Sept. 27, 2021, near Humboldt, Minnesota. Emily Beal / Agweek

Tractors, trucks and machinery of every color, shape and size filled the Olsonawskis' acres on Monday, Sept. 27, with a steady stream of sugar beets falling into carts. Though sugar beet harvest will not officially commence in the Red River Valley until Friday, Oct. 1, neighbors, friends and fellow farmers gathered with one common goal: to help a farming family in need.

Paul Olsonawski died suddenly at age 55 in July, leaving his wife and four children behind. His wife, Dawn, has had a lot on her plate. Getting this year’s sugar beet crop out of her late husband’s fields will not be one of them.


Dawn Olsonawski says it's been a relief to not have to worry about getting the fields harvested after her husband's death, and she has been humbled by the outpouring support that included a massive harvest effort by the sugarbeet industry. Photo taken Sept. 27, 2021, near Humboldt, Minnesota. Emily Beal / Agweek

“It is such a relief. One of the first feelings I had when he passed was just this gripping fear that I have never felt in my life. For this to happen, it helped ease that fear a lot. I didn’t know what I was going to do after losing him,” Dawn Olsonawski said.

Gathering a game plan

Duck Younggren was a key part in the planning and success of the community led sugarbeet harvest for the Olsonawski family. Photo taken September 27, 2021, near Humboldt, Minnesota.

Garnering 60 trucks, 10 diggers, 10 defoliators and more equipment is no small task. But for Dan Younggren, known as Duck to friends and those in the sugar beet industry, it was a labor of love.

“We decided to get together and have a harvest and take his sugar beets off,” Younggren said.

Younggren was a close friend of Paul Olsonawski and a fellow sugar beet grower. Younggren is president of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association.

Using his contacts, Younggren sent out a stream of text messages and phone calls to community members who also raise sugar beets. He was happily surprised by the amount of support he received in his harvesting endeavor.

“We started at 7 o’clock this morning and it's like letting 60 cats go. They’re going in all different directions. So it's really fun to see and really good to get done for Paul’s wife,” Younggren said. “Everywhere you look you see trucks coming and going.”


American Crystal graciously opened the piling site in Humboldt exclusively for the Olsonawski harvest, which took place right down the road.

Close friends and family are thankful for Younggren’s consistency and perseverance while planning the large scale event.

“Duck Younggren, he’s a neighbor up here,” said Lester Wallenberg, a friend and farm hand of Paul Olsonawski. “He’s the one that kind of organized it all.”

A community coming together

Lester Wallenberg was close friends with Paul Olsonawski and became one of his hired hands 11 years ago when Olsonawski decided to expand his sugarbeet operation. Photo taken Sept. 27, 2021, near Humboldt, Minnesota. Emily Beal / Agweek

Wallenberg and Paul Olsonawski had known each other since childhood but became close friends in 1986. They went on many skiing and fishing adventures together. Wallenberg started working for the Olsonawskis 11 years ago, after Paul Olsonawski decided to grow his sugar beet operation. Wallenberg has been working in the sugar beet industry since 1979 and became a wealth of knowledge for the Olsonawskis during their expansion.

“He was great to work for,” Wallenberg said. "He was just a jolly guy."

Orchestrating the simultaneous harvest of four different sugarbeet fields belonging to the Olsonawski family was an intricate task and took careful planning when telling trucks where to go. Photo taken Sept. 27, 2021, near Humboldt, Minnesota. Emily Beal / Agweek

In addition to sugar beets, Paul Olsonawski also farmed soybeans and wheat. Both of those harvests had volunteers to help get the crops out of the field as well. But for Dawn Olsonawski, this sugar beet harvest was different from both the wheat and soybean harvests.


Dawn Olsonawski hadn’t cried on Sept. 27 until she made her way to the sugar beet fields. As she stood and watched the carousel of machinery and volunteers, she was overcome with gratitude and emotion.

“We’re just absolutely grateful for all of it. For the first time in two months I am feeling blessed. And blessed by the outpouring of neighbors and the community that we’re in. It’s wonderful, it's a wonderful feeling,” Dawn Olsonawski said. “It fills your heart. It absolutely fills your heart.”

Sugarbeet growers from all over the Red River Valley jumped at the opportunity to help a fellow farm family in need. Photo taken Sept. 27, 2021, near Humboldt, Minnesota. Emily Beal / Agweek

She knows witnessing the team work taking place in his acres would have had an impact on her husband.

“Paul would be extremely proud of what is going on,” Dawn Olsonawski said. “There would be some tears streaming down his face with gratitude.”

Sugar beet growers from all over the northern Valley made their way to the four fields that needed to be harvested. One-hundred acres was harvested during pre-pile, leaving 540 acres left to be harvested by the volunteer crew.

Tony Olsonawski, nephew of Paul and Dawn Olsonawski, grew up farming with his Uncle Paul and father. He has found memories growing up in the sugar beet fields and is touched by the outpouring support of the community. He grew up with Many of the volunteers.

“Couldn’t ask for a better childhood. I think it’s the way everybody should grow up” he said.

Smiling down

"This farming family we have here is wonderful. This is what America should look like right here."

- Dawn Olsonawski

The energy in the sugar beet fields was an equal mixture of bitter and sweet. Those who were close to Paul Olsonawski teared up while talking about his charisma and character, but knew he was smiling down on all of them.

“I told his brother ‘I think Paul has got his finger on the weather today because it is absolutely ideal,’” Younggren said.

There were 60 truck driver volunteers at the community-led sugarbeet harvest at the Olsonawski farm, making a steady stream of trucks go in and out of the fields. Photo taken Sept. 27, 2021, near Humboldt, Minnesota. Emily Beal / Agweek

The sugar beet fields were reaping the same energy Paul Olsonawski gave to those in need while he was alive, tenfold.

“Paul wore everything on his sleeve, but I always said Paul would be the first person to give the shirt on his back,” Younggren said.

Tony Olsonawski said his family is grateful for the constant stream of support since Paul’s passing, especially for his aunt’s peace of mind.

“Harvest is always a stressful time. It’s just one less thing she needs to worry about. It’s great seeing everyone out here making sure she’s going to be taken care of from now on,” Tony Olsonawski said.

As for Dawn Olsonawski, she is forever humbled by the acts of kindness her community has shown her and her late husband.

“This farming family we have here is wonderful. This is what America should look like right here,” Dawn Olsonawski said.

Dawn Olsonawski watches as community members complete sugarbeet harvest in her late husband's fields. Photo taken Sept. 27, 2021, near Humboldt, Minnesota. Emily Beal / Agweek

Emily grew up on a small grains and goat farm in southern Ohio. After graduating from The Ohio State University, she moved to Fargo, North Dakota to pursue a career in ag journalism with Agweek. She enjoys reporting on livestock and local agricultural businesses.
What to read next
The program provides financial and technical support to irrigators looking to adopt and integrate proven precision irrigation technology and nitrogen management practices to help optimize irrigation
Hard winters, drought, inflation and lack of tree growth have caused a nationwide shortage in Christmas tree sales across the country. Despite the shortcomings, some sellers in Minnesota and North
Cathy Scheibe, at 82, of LaMoure, North Dakota, continues with Toy Farmer Magazine, more than 22 years after her husband and co-founder, Claire, died. She talks about how the company is changing and