Recently, a generous person made an anonymous donation to the Conservation Cropping Systems Initiative in memory of Travis Wenning.
How do you honor the memory of a 6-year-old who had a huge impact on thousands of people? Whose love of farming – especially the way his family practices – reached far beyond his local community? Whose ups and downs as he battled an aggressive form of cancer had people from far-flung countries and all walks of life praying for him and his family?
According to an old proverb, the candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long. That can be said of Travis. Diagnosed in December of 2017 with Burkitt's lymphoma, a rare and fast-growing type of cancer, he passed away in September of 2018. We can choose to dwell on the apparent cruelty of a so short a life. We can also choose to reflect on the brightness that somehow surrounded Travis and his family during those 10 months.
Very few people have positively impacted so many in such a short period of time. That speaks volumes to Travis, his family, and the communities of which they are part.
Travis’s love of farming ran ever so deep. He took every opportunity he could to teach people about farming. At Riley Hospital for Children, he told all his nurses and doctors about no-till farming. The impressions made by a little boy with cancer and his family were profound - three years after his death, doctors and nurses still trek to the farm to ride in a buddy seat for a few rounds.
One has to chuckle a bit about Travis’ take on the family’s no-till operation. His Grandpa Roger was disking the garden area in preparation for planting. Travis was aghast, “Grandpa! WHY are you disking?! WE NO-TILL!” (Note – I had a bit of the same reaction as Travis when the story was relayed to me.)
A logo featuring Big Bud, the world's largest farm tractor, and "Pulling for Travis" became an emblem of his battle. Aided by a family friend with a private plane, the Wennings were hosted by the Williams family at the Heartland Museum in Clarion, Iowa to visit the tractor.
As Travis’s disease progressed, more and more people arrived with support - sometimes in ways that made you do a double-take. A favorite was the day that a Stuart Seed agronomist arrived at the farm shop to load his truck with Pioneer seed corn to take to the Becks dealer who was running the planter that day for the Wennings. That is just one of many stories about the ways the farming community quietly stepped in to help the family.
Others in the community continued to step up to support Travis. On a day he wanted to go look for toy tractors, Travis took money he had saved up and visited a couple of local dealerships. He didn’t spend much money on his toy equipment – but because of the generosity of others, he took home a small fleet of tractors. In another display of generosity, one dealership, Koenig Equipment, “hired” the 6-year-old for a day.
In addition to farming, Travis had a love of camping. Recognizing that love, a group of “angels” from the Indiana Farm Bureau descended upon his room at Riley Hospital to transform it into a campsite. When the Make-a-Wish foundation granted Travis a wish of a camper, members of the fire department where his mother, Julie, worked equipped it with games, supplies and importantly – a fire ring. It’s a bit of a mystery whether hospital administration looked the other way or looked towards the fire trucks that accompanied the camper to Riley – In any case, use was made of the fire ring as marshmallows were roasted for the campers.
There is a host of stories of hope and the ways the communities surrounding Travis and his family pulled together throughout his illness. Fundraisers like tractor pulls, biker-led poker runs, yard sales, auctions, T-shirt sales and more helped pay for treatments that insurance would not cover.
When final expenses were paid, there were still funds left – and Travis’s Trail was born. Located on the campus of St. Mary’s Elementary School, Travis’s Trail is about a ¾-mile long walking path and outdoor classroom, part of which is in the shape of a cancer ribbon. It provides students and visitors a means to enjoy the gifts of nature as Travis did.
Travis Wenning's presence is still felt throughout the communities he impacted. As pointed out by his father, Nick, in this touching Indiana Prairie Farmer piece “The Cardinal on the Combine”, his presence will always be felt on the farm.
Yes, it’s a sad story because of a very short life. But it’s also a story of hope and love – and how a little boy opened a lot of hearts and brought communities together. And taught a lot of people about farming.
I spoke with the donor. This person is deeply spiritual – and has a very strong passion for protecting the soil that has been placed in our care. They were in the process of making the donation and got to the question: Would you like to donate in honor of someone (In memorial, or another person or organization)? The answer was automatic: Travis Wenning.
You see, Travis and the Wenning family touched that person’s heart – and they continue to do so.
We are honored and grateful for monetary gift, but especially the gift of friendship from Travis Wenning's family.
Lisa Holscher Director, CCSI