Scorched earth and loss. That’s how Today’s Farmer Photojournalist Kerri Lotven described the smell of Ashland, Kan., a rural community devastated by unprecedented wildfires in early March.
Kerri and MFA Social Media Specialist Chelsea Robinson joined a convoy of trucks and trailers driven by volunteers from mid-Missouri who hauled much-needed hay, fencing materials, milk replacer and other supplies to provide relief for farmers and ranchers in the Southern Plains states hit so hard by these unfathomable fires.
It took that convoy more than 13 hours to reach their donation drop point in Kansas. One load was too tall to clear bridges. Tires blew out on trailers normally reserved for short hauls, not 500-mile runs with 20 tons of hay on board. They arrived after midnight, but the drivers and passengers still had smiles on their faces, knowing that they were helping neighbors in need. Several of them even stayed the weekend, working alongside strangers turned friends, providing whatever assistance they could offer as these farm families began putting their lives back together.
Here at Today’s Farmer, we knew we had to do our part, too, by covering this important story, which is featured on our cover and in an article starting on page 15. The emotional impact is immeasurable. The financial loss is staggering. Yet there’s been little mention in mainstream media and delayed response from Washington. I first saw images and stories about the fires from farm friends and ag industry colleagues on Facebook, and I’ve had countless others say they never saw it covered in the news. These folks deserve someone to pay attention and say, “Hey! This matters.”
No, these farmers are not MFA members and customers. But state lines and trade territories have no meaning when farmers are hurting. They’re just part of the family. Anyone who’s grown up on a farm or worked in agriculture knows that when one of us needs help, the rest of us rush to provide aid. I’ve seen it happen during droughts, floods, tornadoes and other disasters, too.
As soon as folks in MFA country learned about the wildfires, they began asking, “What can we do?” And then they took action, loading up donations, calling their neighbors, contacting news outlets, putting out requests over social media and heading west to lend a hand. I was proud to see MFA Incorporated earmark funds for disaster relief and many of our employees, members and locations donate to the cause. See, those of us in agriculture understand the loss these farmers and ranchers experienced. We know that more than money went up in smoke.
Ranchers died trying to save their cattle from the fast-moving, unforgiving flames. Homes, barns, buildings, fencing, equipment, vehicles and personal belongings burned. Thousands of animals succumbed to the fire and smoke. Weeks later, farmers were still putting down cattle too severely burned to survive and burying them in mass graves.
For those who were lucky enough not to lose loved ones, the loss of livestock may be the biggest heartbreak. No farmer wants to watch animals die horrific deaths, and many of the ranchers have expressed guilt and anguish over not being able to save them. Livestock are more than just livelihood. Producers care about their animals, pouring backbreaking work, endless hours and hard-earned dollars into feeding them, vaccinating them, making sure they have grass to graze and water to drink.
Cattle herds can’t be rebuilt like a barn or replaced like a tractor. As the fires swept through, they wiped out generations of genetics for many of these operations. That can’t be easily or quickly restored.
Yes, recovery will take years, not months, and tens of millions of dollars. Government assistance is providing some relief, but it’ll never be enough. In the ongoing aftermath of the fires, the true impact will be revealed. Long after the sensational pictures of burned animals and massive flames go away, the farmers and ranchers affected by these wildfires will still need our help and support. No amount of aid can replace the losses, but human kindness can help heal the pain.
We also have to believe that—somehow—these producers will recover and keep on ranching. After all, farming is synonymous with resiliency and renewal. From the charred earth, grass will grow. With each new calf, herds will be rebuilt. With hard work and calloused hands, fences will be replaced.
From the ashes, hope will rise.