Jerry and Julie

There’s a particular day in 1988 that Jerry and Julie Nelson will never forget, even though Jerry’s unable to recall most of it. This is because July 10th, he says, was the day that he was supposed to die.

On that day, 30-year old Nelson entered the manure pit at his family’s dairy farm near Volga, South Dakota to unclog a slug of hay that plugged the manure pump.

He recounts his story at the 30-year anniversary of his unlikely survival.

A scorching Sunday morning. Rushing through chores on our dairy farm. Glancing into the pit and discovering that the manure pump had plugged. Crap!

But I know how to fix this. Just climb down and unplug the pump with a spud bar. I’ve done it dozens of times.

Bending over with the spud bar in my hand, the manure inches from my face. Suddenly feeling really weird. It’s the gas! Get out, NOW!

Beginning the climb up and out. I can see the sky, hear the tractor idling. Then everything abruptly fading to black. I cannot recall much of the next three weeks.

Dad finding me unconscious, floating face-up in the manure. He and Mom placing the 911 call no parent wants to make.

First Responders hauling me out of the pit. No respiration, can’t find a pulse. Ambulance whisking me to a local hospital.

My wife, who was in town for groceries, a car suddenly pulling up alongside hers. Its driver, a First Responder, shouting, “Get to the hospital! He’s still breathing!”

At the ER, the attending physician telling my family that I’ve inhaled hydrogen sulfide. Zero chance for survival.

Julie absorbing that at age 29 she’s about to become a widow with two young sons. Keeping her wits about her and asking the doctor if I’m still alive. Yes. Barely.

Then call the chopper. Get him to Sioux Falls. Doctor replying, you don’t understand. There’s no hope. My wife saying, I don’t care. Call. The. Chopper.

Nelson’s diagnosis at Sioux Falls included a collapsed right lung, diffuse pulmonary infiltrates, manure aspiration, and anoxic encephalopathy. His odds of survival, family was told, were perhaps 50/50 – if he made it through the first week.

ARDS – acute respiratory distress syndrome – becoming part of my family’s lexicon. My wife, who never leaves my side, giving me a sponge bath and being assailed by the stench of rotten eggs. Hydrogen sulfide is sweating its way out.

On the seventh day, me indicating to Julie that I can’t breathe despite being intubated and on a respirator. Doctors being summoned. Diagnosis: my swelling lungs are suffocating themselves. Nothing more can be done. Call the family. This is it.

My wife again refusing to give up, asking the doctor to consult with Mayo Clinic. He does and is advised to inspect my lungs with a bronchoscope. Discovering that blood clots are blocking major airways. The plugs are removed and I can breathe again.

From my point of view: the first three weeks following the accident are a blur of fantastic hallucinations and painful realities. I don’t know which is which.

Gradually being weaned off the narcotics as my pulmonary function improves. Clear thinking returning slowly.

I’m in a hospital bed. I am catheterized and am breathing through a tube protruding from the base of my throat. A forest of IV poles sitting at my bedside and my right ribcage aching. Inspection reveals stitches where chest tubes had been.

I don’t belong here! I have farming to do, cows to milk. Trying to exit the bed and the respirator emitting earsplitting whoops. A nurse sprinting into the room, reattaching the respirator to my tracheotomy tube. The nurse admonishing, “You be good! You want me to tie you down again?”

Then, slow but steady improvement. It’s a big deal being hoisted from the bed and placed in a recliner. Sitting upright for the first time in a month leaves me feeling woozy.

The urinary catheter and pulmonary artery catheter being removed. Relearning how to walk in Physical Therapy. My wife ordering in a Godfather’s Classic Combo pizza. I can only manage one slice, but it’s the best meal I’ve ever had.

Coming home to a huge Welcome Home banner, family, cake and hugs. Just like a birthday party. Which, in a way, it was.

Nelson credits his long-shot survival to many:

His parents had the presence of mind to open a second hatch to the pit and use a window fan to blow in fresh air until emergency responders arrived; had they entered, they, too would likely have been victims. Rescuers wearing air-supplying respirators retrieved him. A diverse team of Sioux Falls specialists managed his care and recovery over a five-week hospital stay.

And Julie, who, he says, refused to give up on him.

During Jerry’s 25 days in ICU, she brought their sons to see him, not knowing which might be the last time. Six-year-old Paul busied himself by trying to explain the functions of all the machinery hooked up to his dad. Chris, age 4, stood at the bedside and patted his hand.

Julie taped photos of the boys to the ceiling above his bed – so they’d be the first thing Jerry saw when he came to – and dozens of get well cards to the wall, many from people they didn’t know.

She remembers how strangers who share ICU waiting rooms become like a second family:

“You share your stories, pray for one another, and cry together when the news isn’t good.”

After he returned home that fall, neighbors and friends convened – in the old tradition of close rural communities – to help the Nelsons with harvest.

He remembers encountering the pit upon being able to resume work and the major operational change they made to ensure safety.

I recall pushing manure into the pit for the first time afterward and getting the feeling you get when you peer over the edge while standing atop of a tall skyscraper. But work needed to be done, so I set it aside and carried on.

[After the accident] when the pump plugged, we’d go through the rigmarole of pulling it out with our loader tractor to unplug it. We began to grind our hay and our bedding, which pretty much eliminated the plugging issue.

Shortly after, I could look down into the pit with total dispassion – and a sense of wonder that I had survived.

Twenty-nine years later, the Nelsons were waiting at the bar of a restaurant to meet a friend when they bumped into a memory. Julie glanced across the restaurant. “Oh my gosh! There’s somebody we know!”

It had been 29 years since I’d seen Dr. Hoffman. Which, I suppose, is a good thing. At the Sioux Falls hospital, most in that team of doctors assembled to manage my care had “ist” attached to their titles, such as ‘pulmonologist.’ It’s easier to simply say that I had a lung guy, a gut guy, a brain guy, and numerous other specialists. Dr. Hoffman was my infectious disease guy.

Shortly after I’d arrived at the hospital, Dr. Hoffman had wanted to know what sort of microbes were present in our manure pit. He cultured a manure sample and found that the answer was “about everything imaginable.” He had visited me daily in the ICU. He was kind, concerned, and always asked, “How are you feeling, Mr. Nelson?”

“You should go say hi to him,” urged my wife.

I walked over to the good doctor and introduced myself. I asked if he remembered me and he replied, “Of course! Hydrogen sulfide exposure in a manure pit. What year was that? 1988?”

Once again, he smiled kindly and asked, “How are you feeling, Mr. Nelson?”

I apologized for letting nearly three decades elapse without giving him an update, and I thanked him again for everything he had done.

As I was taking my leave, Dr. Hoffman asked, “Would you mind if I pulled your chart and reviewed it? I have an infectious disease conference coming up and I think your story would be a fascinating one to be presented.

“Yours was a very difficult and interesting case,” he said. “It was certainly memorable. I’m glad that you turned out so well.”

Hindsight and wisdom often come as partners after a close call, with an urgency that doesn’t diminish over time. Nelson brings all three to the message he shares with others:

If I can get someone out there to just think twice before they rush to do “this thing” – whatever it may be – those few seconds of hesitation and thought might save you from something like I suffered.

Thirty years on, I’m grateful for every day above ground.

More information

The Nelsons, 30 years later
Video courtesy of SDPB’s On Call with the Prairie Doc®
Video courtesy of SDPB’s Dakota Life

An abbreviated version of this story was published in Iowa Farmer Today.

Story | Stephanie Leonard with Jerry Nelson

Photos & videos | courtesy of Jerry Nelson & South Dakota Public Broadcasting’s On Call with the Prairie Doc® & Dakota Life

Nelson has written about this and other farm experiences in Dear County Agent Guy, available at bookstores and



Mike Biadasz, a passionate young farmer from Amherst, WI, died on August 15, 2016 when he was overcome by hydrogen sulfide gas. Mike had been agitating manure in the open lagoon at his family’s cattle feeding operation. The gas also killed sixteen cattle near the lagoon.

Taking a stand for farm safety

 It was at the funeral home, preparing to bury their only son, that the Biadasz family became farm safety advocates. In lieu of flowers they decided to invite donations to a farm safety fund.

Call it coping, call it heroic – they were determined to prevent another family from enduring such pain.

The Biadasz family continues to inspire and mobilize those who love farming and who share grief over the death of Mike Biadasz – son and brother, friend to so many. Through their safety workshops, fundraising events and media outreach, this family from Amherst, Wis., is living proof of the power of a story.

On July 28, 2017, just short of the one-year anniversary of his passing, the Mike Biadasz Farm Safety and Education Memorial Fund presented a $40,000 check to the National Farm Medicine Center and Marshfield Clinic Center for Community Outreach.

The money is being used to establish a rebate program for farmers who rent portable gas monitors.

August 15, 2016

Mike, a 29-year old beef farmer, had gone out in the pre-dawn to agitate an open manure pit in preparation for pumping later that morning. Mike approached the task with his usual enthusiasm, taking a picture and posting it to Snapchat, referencing the “liquid gold” he was about to stir up. When the crust atop the pit broke open, hydrogen sulfide gas was released. Normally the toxic gas would quickly dissipate. But the air was completely still that morning, and a heavy layer of fog blanketed the farm. The sudden release of heavier-than-air hydrogen sulfide overcame Mike immediately. He fell back onto the concrete apron of the pit, where friend and farm employee Steve Burclaw found him two hours later. Thirteen cattle lay dead nearby, also overcome by the gas.

Bob Biadasz, Mike’s dad, was inside the house drinking coffee when he received the call from Burclaw, telling him that his son, business partner and fourth-generation legacy was dead.

Bob recalled arriving at Mike’s side.

“I felt like I was holding the end of the world in my hands.”

The Biadasz’ knew that hydrogen sulfide was deadly in confined spaces, but they had never heard it could kill in the open air. Such cases are exceedingly rare, which is why the incident made national news. It is possible that the temperature inversion and zero wind velocity suppressed air mixing, leading to an accumulation of lethal concentrations of hydrogen sulfide at ground level as agitation occurred, according to reports published in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report and the Journal of Agromedicine.

Mike had a saying, recalled Bob Biadasz: Live today like you are going to die tomorrow. But farm today like you are going to farm forever.

“I never knew how much those words could mean.”

Loved farming

If Mike Biadasz wasn’t farming he was thinking about farming. “Since he was little that’s all he wanted to do,” said Bob. “Morning to night, he loved what he did.”

Bob and Diane Biadasz offer a visitor a soft drink and pull out Mike’s high school senior portrait. He’s posed on a rug, surrounded by Case IH model tractors and implements.

Another picture, then another: Mike at his sister Megan’s wedding; playing with his sister Lisa’s kids. The stories flow.

“Mikey had such a passion for farming,” said Bob. “We remember when he said to us, ‘I may not have a wife and kids, but I sure love trying to feed the ones who do!’”

Mike took some classes at community colleges, but he already knew how he wanted to farm. He worked hard, had fun, innovated, and freely shared results with other farmers.

“I didn’t realize he had as many friends as he did,” said Diane, reflecting on the support her family received. In the months after Mike’s death, visitors stopped by with food or called to offer condolences. Others who’d heard the story approached them in public, asking how they could donate to the safety fund.

As the 30th anniversary of Mike’s birth approached, sister Lisa decided to throw an all-day “30th Birthday Bash” and fundraiser March 18 at the Rosholt Fairgrounds. And what a party it was.

The next chapter

Mike’s story has raised tens of thousands of dollars as well as the safety consciousness of an industry. Gas monitor manufacturers, manure haulers, academics, industrial hygienists, Extension safety professionals, news media, politicians and farmers have rallied around the Biadasz Family’s farm safety efforts. On a beautiful day in April, when farmers want to be working in the fields, 80 attendees packed a restaurant dining room in Plover, Wis., to attend a manure gas safety seminar.

“Mike’s family has taken the tragic inertia of his death so that others may live,” said Casper Bendixsen, Ph.D., a research scientist with the National Farm Medicine Center and Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center.

“Their gift to start the Wisconsin gas monitor rebate program is fantastic, but it is more than dollars. It is about telling Mike’s story, and farmers looking out for other farmers.”

The family wishes it could turn back the clock. They wish they had known that this could happen in an open air pit. Although the weather conditions played a key role in the tragedy, as did the amount of sulfur in the distiller’s syrup used in the cattle feed, Lisa cautions against calling it a fluke accident.

“Even without that atmospheric cap, it could happen again to someone else,” she said. “Hydrogen sulfide is so highly toxic.”

A wooden cross engraved with Mike’s name stands at the edge of the manure pit, just steps from where he fell. On August 15, declared “Mike Biadasz Day” in Wisconsin, Lisa organized a short prayer ceremony and balloon release on this spot, with friends and family.

“We miss Mike so very much,” Lisa said. “Words can’t describe how hard this year has been.”

Bob is 64 and in good health, but the future of the fourth-generation Biadasz Farm weighs heavy. He has become a tireless safety advocate, never hesitating to step in front of a microphone or attend a meeting if he thinks he can help another family avoid what his family lives with every day. But it’s tough.

“I actually look forward to the harvest,” he said, “when we’re going 110 miles an hour and there is no time to think.”

More Information

The gas monitor rebate program is currently being piloted in Wisconsin, and all Wisconsin farmers are eligible.  If successful, the family hopes to expand the program into other states.

To learn more or apply for this rebate, visit or contact

To support the Mike Biadasz Farm Safety and Education Memorial Fund, gifts can be made to the Community Foundation of Central Wisconsin. Gifts are tax deductible and can be made online at or mailed to 1501 Clark Street, Stevens Point, WI 54481.

Story | Scott Heiberger

Photos | Mike Biadasz Farm Safety and Education Fund, Lisa Grezenski, National Farm Medicine Center, Stephanie Leonard

Video | Marshfield Clinic Health System, National Farm Medicine Center


Jason and Roxanne

Roxanne’s doctor told her that her husband’s experience was used as a learning opportunity for their medical community, because it is so rare.

“You don’t hear about this happening,” she explains. “If you do, it’s because somebody died, not because somebody lived. And that is with me every single day.”

I met Jason Fevold, Roxanne’s husband, last year at the Iowa Pork Congress. He and a coworker, both from Webster City, stopped by the trade show where I was working at a booth displaying farm safety information and gas monitors.

Tractor date

Were they aware of dangerous gases from pits or other confined spaces? Interested in personal gas monitors?

Fevold, a tall, soft-spoken young man, and his friend answered yes.

That Fevold is alive to explain why is extraordinary. He nearly died from exposure to deadly hydrogen sulfide gas.

Jason and Roxanne were on a tractor date in late October 2010. Jason had been working long hours, pumping and spreading liquid manure from a swine nursery building’s deep pit onto a nearby field at the farm where he worked.

To carve out a few hours for the recently married couple to spend together, Roxy brought supper out to the field and rode several rounds in the tractor. It was a beautiful fall evening. They made Halloween plans.

At one of the trips back to refill the tank, Jason went in the confinement building’s office to use the restroom. “Be right back,” he said, before he started the pump to fill the tank.

Some minutes later, Roxanne saw manure slurry splashing out of the top of tank. Something was wrong.

“I took off at a dead sprint towards the building,” she recalls. When she looked in through the doorway into the office area, she saw only Jason’s feet.

She went in. Her lungs burned and the smell was awful. She found Jason lying on the floor, unconscious, with foam at his mouth.

Despite her phone’s low battery, she managed to call 911 and not panic. She credits her composure to training she received for her profession.

Fevold’s older coworker, who was also applying manure with his own rig, was just returning for another tank load. “You have to shut off the tank! We have to get Jason out!” she cried.

The two went in to retrieve Fevold, but they couldn’t pull him out through the doorway he had entered – it was next to the pit opening where the pump was immersed. Instead, they dragged him through the large building to an alternate exit. “It was a 60- or 70-year-old guy and me, dragging 200 pounds of dead weight,” she said.

They had Jason outside by the time fire and ambulance crews arrived from Webster City. Fevold’s coworker was woozy and may have been treated, she thinks. Fevold was vomiting.

Jason’s recollection of the incident is spotty. He remembers washing his hands inside and feeling something was really wrong, he needed to get out; his head was spinning, there was a god-awful loud noise in his ears. That magnified pump noise was the last thing he remembered.

At the emergency room in Webster City, Fevold was in and out of consciousness. His arterial blood gases were being monitored to determine if he could be safely transported to Mercy Hospital in Des Moines.

Late that evening, he was taken to Mercy’s Emergency Department and placed in its cardiac intensive care unit for continuous monitoring of his blood gases and condition. His hospital stay over the next several days involved neurological testing of cognitive function, electrocardiograms, echocardiograms and other diagnostic tests.

Once home, Roxanne said, he was wiped out. And, in typical farmer fashion, asked “when can I go back to work?”

“I was so mad at him,” she remembers, “because that was the last thing I wanted him to do.”

Fevold remained on a work restriction for two weeks and was eventually cleared to return to work by the specialists who cared for him. At the time, he complained he wasn’t being productive, that he should be back helping his boss, who was a man short.

She reminded him, “But we need you here, too.”

Saving grace

The gravity of his incident doesn’t escape Fevold.

“It would have been a lot different if she hadn’t been there,” he reflects. Ordinarily, he and his coworker took turns filling loads, cycling trips to the nursery. That would have meant at least a ten-minute lapse before he might have been found, had Roxy not been there.

“I always have that in the back of my mind. She was the saving grace that day.”

The incident and experience traumatized Roxy too, and seeking help from her doctor was when she discovered how the local medical community learned from Jason’s remarkable survival and recovery. Every memory of that day and the days that followed are crystal clear to her. Including the fact that she, too, had been at risk.

“It is with me every single day: that he could have died, he could not be here. It doesn’t affect him as much, because he doesn’t remember as much. I remember everything.”

Aside from losing his ability to taste for several months – which was later determined the result of trauma to his tongue and taste buds during his seizure while unconscious – Fevold fully recovered.

Looking back, he explains some factors that contributed to the ‘perfect storm.’ The previous day, they had lost a few pigs in one area of the building, even though ventilation was running and curtains were open; this was an indicator of insufficient ventilation. When he had entered the building that evening, manure levels in the pit were low enough that a pump nozzle was exposed above the manure surface, increasing the dispersion of pit gases into the air while the pump operated.

After this incident, the farm made changes to increase safety. They now pump only when the building is empty, so personnel never have to enter to check pig welfare. Doors are locked to prevent entry during pumping. Instead of running tanks, they use a drag line to apply manure to cropland. One person minds the pump and booster pump, both done from outside the building.

Last fall, they contracted out their pumping, due to the late harvest.

So Jason didn’t have to use the hydrogen sulfide monitor he picked up at the trade show. But it’s available if he would need it. Because Roxy and their daughter Lillian need him to use it, too.

Hydrogen sulfide is a deadly gas with no warning properties at dangerous concentrations. It can reach unsafe levels within seconds when manure is agitated. There is no way to reliably predict safe conditions without using gas monitors.

More Information

An edited version of Jason and Roxy’s story appeared in Iowa Farmer Today.

Story & photos | Stephanie Leonard