Earlier in March, we all watched as the southern Great Plains went up in flames after a very dry and warm winter.
We all wept as we heard of thousands of cattle lost, and thousands more needing to be euthanized after the embers cooled.
We all prayed for the winds to calm and the rains to come down in a fervent manner and wanting the fires to die.
And, when they did, those of us in unaffected places far away jumped into action, including a few of us from Wisconsin's great northwest. My friend Kurt Wohlk, who helps on his family's farm near Almena, Wis., threw an idea out on Facebook about sending one semi down to Ashland, Kan., stocked with donations from other farmers in Barron County such as hay and fencing.
Kurt, who had worked on a harvesting crew for two summers, left a little piece of his heart out on the prairie and that piece was broken in the wake of the fires.
For those who don't know where Ashland is, it's almost smack dab in the middle between Dodge City and the Oklahoma border in the southwestern part of the state. Clark County, where Ashland is located, had 80 percent of its total acreage torched by fires.
Many of us, myself included, jumped at the chance to help. I made sure press releases were sent to newspapers within the county and in neighboring counties so farmers living along county lines could help if they wished.
Our friends working at the co-op in Almena, Kaitlin Hanson and Mike Molls, helped us with fundraising and collecting monetary donations that were being dropped off at the co-op. In addition to gathering enough hay to justify sending a truck down, we also had a pretty hefty price tag to fill at approximately $1,800 per semi.
After the first round of press releases were sent, Kurt and I also made the rounds on radio stations where our efforts spread from Barron County to the Chippewa Valley and then across the state. It wasn't long before Kurt was fielding calls from TV stations wanting to talk to us about our project.
By March 25, the date we had chosen to load our lone trailer, we ended up loading three with hay, fencing supplies, wooden posts, calf supplies for the orphaned babies, and 31 pounds of cheese with nearly three dozen farmers bringing their time and donations to send down. Both TV stations from Eau Claire, WEAU and WQOW, came and interviewed Kurt and I while trailers were loaded and strapped down for the 900-mile journey ahead.
Kurt, local trucker Thyman Vandenbrink, and local farmer Don Keene - who had donated the use of his own semi and half the cost of fuel for the trip - each took a truck and made the two-day trip to Ashland, Kan. They departed Almena before daylight on March 27 to circumvent rush hour traffic in the Twin Cities before dropping down to Iowa. That morning, they were invited for breakfast by a farm family in Story City, Iowa, who had been following our story, before continuing into Missouri and crossing the border into Kansas that evening.
By the morning of March 28, our convoy made it to its destination in Ashland where another TV station from Wichita caught up with Kurt and company. Our crew didn't realize the scope of the devastation until reaching that part of the state, and it was much more heartbreaking to see in person. However, those in Ashland waiting for them when they got there were immensely cheered that their fellow farmers would drive over 900 miles to help complete strangers who would become friends.
As of press time, we have raised over $10,000 for wildfire relief in Kansas which more than covers the cost of our trip and, potentially a second trip from our corner of Wisconsin. Witnessing this industry coming together, despite the doom and gloom of virtually every market right now, may be exactly what we needed as farmers. This way of life is hard enough without tearing each other apart due to farm size or farm practices, and when a catastrophe like fire happens, it can knock a person to their knees.
When tragedy strikes, we put our own lives on pause and set our differences aside to focus on the big picture. We are just farmers doing what farmers do when our neighbors are in trouble, and we know if something like that happened here they would be on our doorstep to give the shirts off their backs to help us get back on our feet.