When a combine harvester burns down in Henderson, Nebraska, who’s to blame? The machine’s hot, residue-covered engine compartment parked next to a dry cornfield, or Antifa? The Henderson community thinks it’s the latter, the New York Times reported on Sunday.
Jonathan Rempel’s combine harvester, which sported two “Trump 2020” flags in its past life, caught fire one morning in late October, along with a tractor and two trucks parked nearby. Located over 60 miles from Lincoln, the nearest metropolitan area, the community is now standing with Rempel and claiming the act was one of political vendetta. The Times wrote that the combine "apparently had been set on fire," suggesting that it was an act of arson.
"The charred remains of his farm vehicles sit in a field surrounded for miles by tilled prairie," the Times wrote. "A blackened Trump flag lies crumpled at the base of a scorched tractor. Mr. Rempel had been so certain they were safe, he left the keys in the ignition."
The article quickly became controversial, in part because, while the Times did not say that Antifa set Rempel's combine on fire, it did repeat claims of arson and vandalism from lawmakers and those in the community. Ahead of an unbelievably important election, the article, which was on the front page of the newspaper on Monday, is in a line of journalism that many national outlets became notorious for around the 2016 election, in which "forgotten" white rural voters are given big glossy features.
Rempel’s fire fiasco was brought into question Monday by crop scientist Dr. Sarah Taber on Twitter. In a thread, Taber wrote “This dude literally violated rule #1 in AgFax's handy 12-step guide in 'how to not light your combine on fire' but he just knows in his heart it was antifa […] sure thing, pal.”
Keeping a warm combine away from flammables is the rule Dr. Taber mentions. She points out the piece of machinery was not only parked next to dry cornstock stubble when it caught on fire, but directly on top of it as well, with news clips of the fire's aftermath to prove her point.
"Lots of reasons a piece of farm equipment would catch fire, especially as equipment gets older or if it’s used or repaired improperly," Sarah Mock, a rural and agricultural researcher mentioned in Dr. Taber’s thread, told Motherboard
Grain combine fires are common. Each year, they account for $20 million in property loss alone. In a study conducted by the University of Wisconsin, over 40 percent of the time these fires start when crop residue catches fire. Various agriculture programs at state universities explain that combine fires can happen for a variety of reasons, including leaking hoses, insulation melting, rodents chewing through wires, electrical shorts, etc.
Rempel did not see anybody light his combine on fire. Instead, he got a call from fire officials notifying him that his equipment was burning. Seemingly without evidence, or at least any evidence that the Times discusses, Rempel believes it was arson. Officials will only say they're investigating, the Times notes.
Rempel himself won't say that the alleged arson was politically motivated, but the Times references "the more than 1,700 people who commented on Mr. Rempel’s Facebook post about the blaze to declare the fire politically motivated."
Overall, the story is short on details or investigation into a supposed politically-motivated crime but long on how Rempel and others in town love Donald Trump. It's worth noting that the fear of out-of-towners who hate Trump invading small communities has become a bonafide folk hysteria in some parts of the country, sometimes with serious consequences.
“A small Nebraska town would know if there was a group of city people (from where? Omaha?) trolling their rural county road. They would need to provide evidence to make the accusation of knowing where these people or from or what their ideology is,” said Mock
Rempel has received bipartisan sympathy. A GoFundMe for his loss has raised more than $133,000 (under half the cost of a brand new combine, however, used machines are cheaper). Many donation comments say the Times article motivated their donation. “Both my parents grew up on farms," one donation note reads. "I read about this story in the NYT. I am a Democrat and am working hard here in Iowa to elect Joe Biden President. Yet there are things that transcend politics. This abhorrent crime is an attack not just on Mr. Rempel's farm & family, but our way of life as Americans.”
The Rempel family did not respond to a request for comment.