Road to recovery

KansasFire4.jpgBy Sherry Bunting April 7, 2017

If there is one thing to come down the road of recovery from a tragedy in agriculture, it is the sense of community that agriculturalists make business-as-usual. It is the matter-of-fact way in which people are prompted to help each other, and the humility with which help is offered that allows proud and self-reliant fellow farmers and ranchers to accept.

All know that livelihoods and legacies are on the line, pending the external forces that cannot be controlled, and that, in an instant, a storm, fire, or other natural disaster could change everything.

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While driving through Ashland and Englewood, Kansas on Saturday heading back to Pennsylvania from other work in the Midwest, the post-wildfire realities stretched for miles.

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Intermittent wheat pasture is credited with saving hundreds of lives.

It was a rain-soaked day, just what the land needs to recover. New life was springing forth, adding lushness to the intermittent wheat pastures that had provided refuge – credited with saving hundreds of human and animal lives as they interrupted the fires that spread rapidly through the dry grasslands and provided a safe haven for evacuees when roads were blocked during the fire.

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Timely rains are softening the charred lands with emerging hints of green, red and gold, framing the wildfire zones as the Painter slowly re-fills this empty palette. Residents say that the rain has helped a lot, and the grasses will explode within the next two weeks in some areas. The hay being sent has been a godsend. And the move by the Trump administration to authorize emergency grazing on Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands located in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas – the three states which were most heavily impacted by ongoing wildfires – will help.

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But it is the Sandhills of southwest Kansas that catch your breath. The Starbuck fire — that claimed over 500,000 of the total 711,000 acres burned in Kansas the first week of March — had burned so hot, sinking down through the sandy soil like a sponge, that many wonder if the grasslands will come back more than spotty at best in areas where windswept sand dunes present a desert-like appearance. There are areas with nothing on top, leading to lingering concerns about feeding surviving cattle.

Firefighters noted this was unlike anything they had seen in their 20 to 30 years. They described driving 60 to 70 mph, and being outrun by the fast-moving fire, seeing it move right past them.

Only time will tell how some of the acres will respond to the timely rains.

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One thing is for certain, the help of fellow farmers and ranchers via donations of hay, fencing supplies, work crews, orphaned calf care, and fundraising — all of it represent blessings beyond measure.

As Ashland resident Rick Preisner put it: “Everyone here was shell-shocked at first. Everything changed in an instant. It was difficult to know where to start. Then the help came pouring in and it lifted this community up.”

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Ashland is ‘home’ for Roddy Strang with sister Rhonda at Gardiner Angus, where their father worked 26 years.

“No one here is saying no to the hay that’s been coming,” said Roddy Strang. “They know they will need feed for a while here.” Strang trains horses and lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania with his wife and children, but he grew up in Ashland around the Gardiner Angus Ranch, where his father worked for 26 years.

Not only did he fill his livestock trailer with 250 compact alfalfa bales and some fencing for the trip “home” to the annual Gardiner Angus production sale Saturday (April 1), he helped connect the dots for Lancaster County dairy farmer Aaron Hess of Hess Dairy in Mount Joy and his neighbor Arlyn Martin. Martin drove the 1500 miles last week with a load of 36 large square bales from Hess, along with 1800 fence posts and 91 rolls of barbed wire the men procured with funds they had raised and with many companies offering equipment and supplies free or with discounts.

They worked with Kevin Harrop, of Harrop Hay and Bale, Exton. Harrop grew up on a dairy farm and today runs a hay brokering and custom harvesting business in southeast Pennsylvania. Between Harrop and James Hicks of Meadow Springs Farm, they filled another truck with 42 large square bales. Harrop and Martin set out for Kansas early last week, delivered the hay and fencing to Ashland Cooperative Feed and Seed by Wednesday, and were home by Saturday.

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For Strang, the mission was personal. He stayed for the Gardiner Angus sale Saturday, where a few cows were purchased for the return trip to Virginia.

For those involved with the donations from southeast Pennsylvania — as for the numerous others organizing convoys over the past three weeks from Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, northwest Pennsylvania, and more — the mission to bring hay to fire-torn regions in four states was something they didn’t really think twice about. And it is something they don’t want recognition for.

The only fanfare being given to these hay donations is the sentiment of “God Bless America.” As Harrop explains it: “We saw it the Facebook posts, and we knew people out there, so we called to see what was going on and to figure out exactly what they would need,” he said in a phone call from the road last week.

Harrop put it best when he explained that people helping out do not want publicity or pats on the back for their own sakes, but they sure don’t mind if others share and publicize what they are doing for the sake of showing the world how farmers and ranchers network and move forward to get things done.

“In a small way, we just want to help keep this network going,” said Harrop. “The need is great in the wildfire zone. The mainstream media and the government are ignoring this. Farmers all over the country have responded.”

In fact, hundreds of trucks with hay and fencing and other needed supplies have poured into the affected areas of southwest Kansas, eastern Colorado and the Texas-Oklahoma Panhandle region. While some areas are saying they have enough hay, for now, southwest Kansas is particularly hard hit in this regard, and people are thankful for the trucks that continue to come – 200 of them, in fact, last Saturday, alone. The list of states represented is too numerous to be sure to acknowledge them all. Relief organizers say they have received calls from over 20 states. Plans are also underway for moving 1000 large bales that have been donated in Greene and Washington counties, Pennsylvania in the near future.
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“That is their lives out there. That’s what they do, and it’s not like they have a lot to fall back on,” said Aaron Hess after securing a load of large bale hay from his dairy onto Arlyn Martin’s truck. “I was just seeing the posts on Facebook, so I called up the Ashland co-op and they put me in touch with the guy in charge. I just felt like it was the right thing to do.”

Teams of volunteers have helped remove damaged fencing. Crews, tools and materials to re-fence perimeters are the priority now.

Strang notes that the recipients are amazed by the outpouring of people wanting to come out to the middle of nowhere and help. “It is emotional,” he admitted. “There are some good people in a bad way. They aren’t going to ask for the help, but we see the need and we know if it were us, they would help.”

Even in this time when agriculture is taking such a severe economic hit, people step up. That’s how agriculture rolls.

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(Above) “From the Ashes” artwork displayed Saturday by Joel Milford of Fowler, Kansas from a photo captured by Cole Gardiner as he found this cow and her newborn calf a day or two after the fire. Milford’s painting was auctioned Saturday during the Gardiner Angus production sale, raising $35,000 and prints are still being sold for $200 each to benefit the wildfire relief efforts of the Ashland Community Foundation. Nearly 100 prints have been sold thus far. To purchase a print for wildfire relief, contact Jan Endicott, at the Stockgrowers Bank in Ashland, Kansas at jan@stockgrowersbank.com or 620-635-4032. Prints are $200 plus $15 shipping and 6.5% Kansas state sales tax. 

How you can help

Wildfire relief organizers are indicating that the best way for distant donors to help is to provide monetary donations for transporting nearby hay and resources to the areas affected by the wildfires.

Supplies and funding for the volunteer care of orphaned calves is also requested. Follow the progress of 4-Hers and other volunteers caring for these calves at Orphaned Calf Relief of SW Kansas.

In addition, auctions are being organized to benefit wildfire funds. For example, a heifer donated by Oklahoma West Livestock Market was auctioned 105 times on March 8 to garner $115,449 with proceeds going to the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Foundation Fire Relief Fund. Similar ideas are creating a ripple response throughout the agriculture community and can be replicated anywhere. Visit Livestock Marketing Association  for these auction notes and efforts.

Trent Loos at Rural Route Radio is helping to organize this idea to fund the recovery and rebuilding efforts in the fire-ravaged areas of the High Plains through means of raising cash. For information about how to participate in this and to find a list of upcoming auctions, as well as how to set one up, contact Trent Loos at (515) 418-8185.

To give supplies and trucking or to donate funds to foundations for direct wildfire relief, contact the state-by-state resources below.

Kansas

Monetary donations: Ashland Community Foundation/Wildfire Relief Fund at www.ashlandcf.com or P.O. Box 276, Ashland, KS 67831. The Kansas Livestock Association/Wildfire Relief Fund at 6031 SW 37th St., Topeka, KS 66614.

Hay, trucking and fencing donations: Call Ashland Feed and Seed at (620) 635-2856. (Ashland Feed and Seed is also taking credit card orders over the phone for feed and milk replacer or other supplies for ranchers in the area.)

Texas

Monetary donations: Texas Department of Agriculture STAR Fund.

Hay, trucking and fencing donations: Ample hay has been received for two to three weeks, so call to see if and when more is needed. Fencing supplies are needed, which can go to the Agrilife supply points. Contacts are J.R. Sprague at (806) 202-5288 for Lipscomb, Mike Jeffcoat at (580) 467-0753 for Pampa, and Andy Holloway at (806) 823-9114 for Canadian.

For questions about donations or relief efforts, contact Texas A&M Extension at (806) 677-5628.

Colorado

Monetary donations: Colorado Farm Bureau Foundation Disaster Fund at 9177 E. Mineral Circle, Centennial, CO 80112 and visit http://coloradofarmbureau.com/disasterfund/

Hay, trucking and fencing: Contact Kent Kokes (970) 580-8108, John Michal (970) 522-2330, or Justin Price (970) 580-6315.

Oklahoma

Monetary donations: Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Foundation Fire Relief at P.O. Box 82395, Oklahoma City, OK 73148 or www.okcattlemen.org.

Hay, trucking and fencing donations: Contact Harper County Extension at (580) 735-2252 or Buffalo Feeders at (580) 727-5530.

Other states organizing deliveries

Several states outside of the wildfire area are organizing assistance and deliveries. Find those resources at http://www.beefusa.org/firereliefresources.aspx

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

High plains fires take lives, spark spirit

Convoys of trucks bringing hay to the areas affected by March wildfires have come from central Texas, southwest Oklahoma, central Kansas and from Nebraska, South Dakota, Michigan, Ohio and now funds for fuel are being raised to bring 1000 round bales from western Pennsylvania to southwest Kansas… as farmers and ranchers across the country pull together in amazing ways to help their peers with forage for cattle after wildfires decimated grasslands and stored hay in the High Plains. Derrick Carlisle of Claysville, Pennsylvania reports that nearly 1000 round bales of hay have been donated from farms in Greene and Washington counties, and a trucking company has agreed to transport the hay to Ashland, Kansas “at fuel cost.” Now, funds are being raised quickly to buy fuel to transport the hay. Individuals and businesses wanting to help provide funds for fuel, should contact Washington County Cattlemen’s Association president Brian Hrutkay at 724-323-5815.

To help with the ongoing relief efforts for ranchers affected by the wildfires, visit http://www.beefusa.org/firereliefresources.aspx to see various contacts for ways to help listed by the states affected as well as coordinated efforts in other states like Kentucky and Minnesota that are planning deliveries.

 Trent Loos at Rural Route Radio is helping to organize a rebuilding effort through means of raising cash. Various auctions are already set and the idea can be replicated. For information about how to participate in this, contact Trent Loos at 515.418.8185 or check out his Rural Route radio
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“There is so much appreciation in this community for the outpouring of love and compassion.”

Recap reprinted from Farmshine, March 17, 2017

ASHLAND, Kan. — High Plains ranchers are always on guard for the combination of March winds and wildfires. When the two conspire together, the result can rapidly turn devastating and deadly. That was the situation last week in southwest Kansas, the Texas-Oklahoma Panhandle and eastern Colorado.

All told, the wildfires on March 6 consumed around 1.7 million acres of grassland, 33 homes, over 200 farm structures, an estimated 7,000 to 9,000 adult cows along with untold numbers of calves, horses and wildlife. In Texas and Oklahoma, over 5000 hogs perished in separate facilities.

Tragically, some of the affected ranching families in the Panhandle suffered the ultimate loss of loved ones. Seven people lost their lives, at least five while trying to herd cattle to safety before becoming trapped in the rapidly moving fire when the high winds changed direction.

The livestock losses are particularly heavy in southwest Kansas, where a local veterinarian estimates 3000 to 6000 beef cattle have perished; however, an accurate assessment is still weeks away. In the Panhandle, Texas A&M Agrilife extension reports preliminary loss estimates of 2500 adult cows, plus additional calves.

Two consecutive years of above average moisture provided the good grass growth that ended up fueling multiple fires in early March. The previous 60 days had turned it tinder-dry, together with the high winds of up to 60-70 mph, creating the perfect storm. The rapidly moving ‘Starbuck’ fire in northeast Oklahoma and southwest Kansas will go down as the largest and most devastating single fire in Kansas state history. In the Panhandle, the March 6 fire is being called the third worst in Texas history.

While there are some dairies in these areas, extension agents and veterinarians report that no dairy cattle were impacted. But dairy producers and calf ranch operators are among the ag community throughout the region, and beyond, responding to the immediate needs of the region’s ranchers.

Occurring at a vulnerable time, the fires have orphaned many newborn calves. In fact, one purebred Angus operation in Ashland, Kansas described the confluence of emotion – simultaneously dealing with the grisly task of locating and putting-down hundreds of adult cows while gathering to the corrals over 100 survivors for further monitoring and evaluation – 30 of them having their calves in the days immediately following the fire.

Many of the ranchers have lost much of their stored hay supply, and the region’s unburned grasslands are a good 60 days away from greenup — provided they get rain. Surviving cattle are being pulled onto wheat pasture and into corrals — making the immediate priority that of acquiring the hay necessary to feed a good 15,000 surviving livestock in southwest Kansas and over 10,000 in the Panhandle.

With fences to build and repair, feed to secure, cows still calving and long term plans and decisions to make, there’s no time to bottle and bucket feed calves two and three times a day, particularly those ranchers who have also lost their homes.

OrphanCalves01(K-State)County 4-H clubs put the word out early, that youth members would take-in bucket calves to help the ranchers who have so many other things to do in the recovery. (Follow them on Facebook at Orphaned Calf Relief of SW Kansas)

Veterinarians are reaching out to colleagues in the hard-hit areas. Dr. Randy Spare at Ashland Veterinary Center has been organizing some of the needs. He received a call late last week from Dr. Tera Barnhardt.

The 2014 K-State graduate operates a solo bovine practice for dairies and feedlots two hours north of Ashland. While doing preg checks at Deerfield Calf Feeders — where dairy replacement heifers are raised near Johnson, Kansas – Dr. Barnhardt and the general manager Cary Wimmer came up with the idea of offering temporary homes and care in the calf ranch hutches for orphaned calves from Ashland.

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Many ag companies have donated milk replacer, feed, pharmaceuticals and other animal care products — and along with hay donations from other ranches — have come personal items for the families who have lost their homes and belongings.

“Our hearts go out to the ranchers,” said Dr. Barnhardt. “I’m just glad we could help connect some dots and take something off their plate.”

Some of the orphaned Angus calves now at Deerfield are from the Giles Ranch, Ashland, where three family members lost their homes and where they had significant cow losses. At Deerfield, as with the 4-Hers who have volunteered calf care, these baby calves will get the individual care and supervision they need while their owners deal with the recovery process.

“All aspects of this industry are coming together,” said Barnhardt. “It has been impressive. Even the workers at the calf ranch are inspired and proud to take care of these babies.”

As the immediate hustle to triage cattle and secure feed and care for survivors shifts to a longer term plan for coordinating the ongoing relief efforts, those close to the situation are encouraging people who want to help to consider monetary donations needed to cover trucking costs to get donated hay and materials to the affected ranches.

“We don’t want to turn down hay because some of our ranchers are just coming to grips with what their losses are and what their needs will be,” said Dr. Spare. The biggest issue with hay donations right now is the trucking bottleneck. In the short term, the tangibles have been necessary because it takes time for the various foundations to pool monetary donations and get resources to the ranchers.

“Farmers have called from as far away as Vermont and Wisconsin wanting to donate hay, and right now we have 800 bales available nearby in Waco, Texas if we could find the trucking,” said Spare.

Convoys of trucks — semiloads and pickups hauling flatbed trailers — brought an estimated 3000 round bales to the fire-affected regions over the weekend. With more hay available in central Texas and nearby Nebraska, the biggest need at the moment is more trucks or funds to help pay the fuel costs to transport the donated hay.

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(above) Convoys of trucks with hay headed to the wildfire-affected areas over the weekend. This one was organized by Mike and Conner Franetovich of southwest Oklahoma carrying 260 round bales to the ranchers in northwest Oklahoma. Photo by LaQuita Massee/Images By LQ

“When the hay trucks rolled in, it was like the cavalry arrived,” said Greg Gardiner of Gardiner Angus, Ashland. The well-known Angus breeder lost over 500 adult cows, mainly donor cows and spring calvers. They have over 1500 survivors but lost all of their hay — over 5000 round bales and their horse hay as well.

Greg’s brother Mark and his wife Eva lost their home, three of their horses and their dogs to the fire, despite their efforts to free them as the fire changed direction. He was behind them with the horse trailer when the black smoke descended making it impossible to see. He spent a half hour not knowing if they made it out.

“This thing is of biblical proportions, but it all seems small to me. My brother is alive,” said Gardiner. He described the landscape that burned from one end of the ranch to the other as an “apocalyptic wasteland” that will eventually come back stronger with enough rain.

“We’re praying for rain,” said Spare, describing dirty skies as the wind lifts the gray sand over charred soils.

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While prayers are most coveted, those who want to help are urged to contact organizers in the various affected states (see below) to see what the needs are as community leaders develop an ongoing relief plan.

“We are still contacting ranchers,” said Spare. “Some are saying they don’t need hay and feel embarrassed to take it, but the grass is all gone, and we are 60 days from good grass (in unburned areas) if it rains, so we are trying to help people understand as they make their plans, that they will need to have something to feed.”

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Make no mistake, this will be a long recovery for ranchers who have lost 50 to 90% of their herds and multiple years of income, as well as their stockpiled forage and grasslands.

“I told CNN that we as ranchers are stewards of the grasslands, and that the only way we have something to sell for an income is to sell grass through the cows that are eating it. We are working to take care of that and start all over again,” said Dr. Spare, who had significant losses among his own cow herd and was relieved when his son showed up in the driveway Tuesday morning, taking time away from vet school before spring exams to take care of the home front while he worked with other ranchers and their cattle.

As the reality sinks in…

“There is so much appreciation in this community for the outpouring of love and compassion, from the people who come alongside with prayers and help,” said Spare. “Many don’t know how they’ll get through this, but we know we will get through it.”

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Fire extinguished. Help, hope ignited.

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2013 Photo: Chuck and Vanessa Worden

By Sherry Bunting, Reprinted from Farmshine, Jan. 20, 2017

CASSVILLE, N.Y. — On Saturday evening, January 14, the entire Worden family was together at the dining room table celebrating Chuck and Vanessa’s birthdays, including daughter Lindsey who was home visiting from Vermont.

By daybreak Sunday, the family was facing an uncertain future, but was lifted forward by friends and neighbors showing up when news spread quickly of the fire at Wormont Dairy, Cassville, New York.

“I had just walked through the cows and done a little clipping that night, so proud of how the whole herd looked and how well they were responding to the changes we had been making in the ration and fresh cow protocols,” Lindsey Worden reflected. “Less than four hours later, I was calling 911.”

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Photo from Kate Worden

Wayne and Mark Worden, who live off the farm but nearby, were throwing on clothes to come down and join their father Chuck and brother Eric in rescuing calves and heifers penned in the box stall barn adjoining their parlor/holding area and office, which was totally engulfed in flames.

Their mother Vanessa had gotten up in the middle of the night and saw the flames from the window.

“Just as Eric was carrying out the last calf, the fire trucks arrived and the barn was totally filled with smoke and starting to catch fire as well,” Lindsey reported. “Volunteer firefighters, friends and neighbors were pouring in. We managed to wrangle all the baby calves and young heifers into a bay of our machine shed, and got the older show heifers into our heifer freestall, while dad and the boys were helping the firefighters.”

Amazingly, the wind was blowing in the opposite direction of its usual course – sparing the main freestall barn and Wormont Dairy’s 270 milking cows from damage.

By 4:00 a.m. Sunday morning, “It was quiet,” Lindsey shares. “At daybreak we met to try and figure out a game plan for how to get 275 cows milked on a farm with no milking equipment.”

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Photo provided by Lindsey Worden

Not one person or animal was harmed, and the family was so thankful, but reality was sinking in. Now what?

“It was amazing,” said Vanessa. “There are no words for the way people just showed up and lifted us up.”

Chuck said a neighbor started the ball rolling to place the cows, and people came with trucks and trailers lining the farm lane. “I didn’t make one call, people just came,” he said.

As Wayne and Mark noted, “It was humbling.”

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Photo provided by Lindsey Worden

Before long, with the help of some awesome neighbors, the Wordens had figured out two farms that could take the majority of their milking cows (heifers and dry cows are staying), and a short while later, cattle trailers started showing up, as did more friends and neighbors to help get them loaded.

“At one point, we had at least 10 cattle trailers lined up out the driveway, and we got animals relocated more efficiently than I would have ever imagined possible,” Lindsey reflects. “We are so thankful to the friends and first responders who showed up at 1:00 a.m. on Sunday morning to help get our immediate emergency under control.”

Friends and neighbors came from near and far – bringing trailers, helping to get cattle loaded and moved, helping to get scared cows milked off site.

“People brought enough food to feed an army for a week,” said Vanessa.

“At 7 a.m., my first thought is that we were probably just have to sell everything, but then as neighbors showed up, and connections were made, and trucks started moving cows, you start to feel how hope can change the whole outlook,” said Vanessa. “By 3:00 p.m., our friends and neighbors had given us hope that we can do this. I was actually happy yesterday. There is no way I could be sad after all that everyone has done, after all the hope they have given us.”

Each member of the family has so much gratitude for the dairies that opened their barns and took in cows. The 270 cows were moved to three locations by 3 p.m. Sunday.

“What an incredibly humbling day,” Wayne shared Sunday evening. “There are no words to describe the support we received and are still receiving with the cows. Thank you is not enough to say about what we were all able to accomplish today. What an incredible community the dairy industry is.”

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2013 photo Wayne, Mark, Eric and Chuck Worden

Electricians worked all day Sunday to restore power – light, heat and water. “And companies worked with us quickly to help us with things like restoring our DairyComp records on a new computer, getting basic medical and breeding supplies and all those little things that we need to keep the wheels on the bus this week,” Lindsey observes. “It is a really strange feeling to literally have none of those everyday supplies like calf bottles, navel dip, ear tags, IV kits, etc.

Everyone who reached out with suggestions for help or just kind words, prayers and encouragement, by call, text message, email, and facebook, or dropping by in person. We are so very grateful.”

Eric shared how “truly overwhelmed” he was by the amount of support received from farmers across the state following the fire. “Thank you for making the day go easier,” he said. “This is a tough blow for my family, but we will come back stronger than ever.”

Adds Lindsey, “By some miracle, not a single animal was lost, not even our lone barn cat!”

While there is no question, “we’ve got a tough road to hoe to get back on our feet over the next several months,” said Lindsey, “with some luck and the attitude everyone in the family has maintained over the last two days, I have no question we will come out on the other side.”

“Words cannot express how thankful we are,” Vanessa said. “The way people reached out to us in those early hours gave us hope. Hope is an important thing. It’s what we give each other, and it is amazing.”

As the family meets with insurance adjusters, lenders, builders, equipment specialists and others to chart a course for moving forward, the ready support of others in the darkest hour serves as a continual reminder of what the dairy community is made of – people who keep putting one foot in front of the other and helping their fellow producers get through times like this.

Even more importantly, the family notes that this dairy community is quick to give each other hope — that they’re not alone when confronted with a life-changing event — that when it seems everything is coming to a halt, it is the hope brought by others that carries everyone forward.

Crews from six fire departments responded to the fire at Wormont in the wee hours of Sunday morning, January 15, with others on standby.

Cleanup continues as the family pulls together to make decisions for the future – a future that they say reinforces how special the dairy industry is and how humbled they are to be part of it.

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Aug. 2016 Eric, Lindsey and Chuck at county fair

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2013 photo Wormont Dairy

‘I’ve got to get home to my cows’

With courage and grace, Reese comes home after 22 months

By Sherry Bunting, reprinted from FARMSHINE March 25, 2016
Reese03Author’s Note: It has been almost a month since Reese’s homecoming and she is getting back to the precious rhythms of life on the farm: Greeting her little sister off the bus on sunny afternoons, feeding her prize cow’s new calf, riding the gator with her grandfather, having tea parties with sister and cousins on Sunday afternoons, getting together with school friends, still attending school virtually via “Double,” her robot, even going to the dentist! Her journey continues to inspire. I am grateful for the opportunity to interview Reese and her mother and grandmother on the quiet first Monday after her arrival home Friday, March 18, 2016. Get ready to be inspired by this young lady, and by her family and the local farming community and worldwide dairy community who continue to think of her. Thank you to Jean Kummer, Laura Jackson and Jennifer DiDio for providing some of the photos here.

 

MERCERSBURG, Pa. — Nina Burdette tells the story of granddaughter Reese teaching her cow Pantene to lead when she was a calf five years ago. Reese was four at the time, and Nina told her “Don’t let go.”

“That calf pulled her around, and at one point she was flat on her back holding on, until that calf wrapped itself around a post,” Nina recalls she had rope burns on her hands.

Reese never let go.

So it was two years later, on May 26, 2014, when Reese arrived at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, where she would spend the next 662 days in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) recovering from burns over 35 percent of her body and smoke damage to her heart and lungs after a fire at the home of her grandmother Patricia Stiles, who also recovered from significant trauma carrying her from the burning room.

Reese never let go.

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Today, she is back home at Windy-Knoll View farm in rural Franklin County, Pa., with her sister Brinkley and their parents Justin and Claire Burdette, and of course her cow Pantene and her three heifers Pretzel, Panzee and Pardi Gras.

Over and over, Reese told her doctors: “I’ve got to get home to my cows.”

Words spoken from the heart of a true dairy farmer. “Oh she has her mind set on that, just like her mom and dad,” says Nina. “We call her the junior manager.”

Driving through Mercersburg to the Burdette home on Monday, purple still proclaimed Reese’s homecoming parade from the preceding Friday. Purple and white cows stood in yards and driveways, purple balloons, welcoming TeamReese banners, home-made signs of love and support, purple bows tied to trees, poles and fence posts all along the route of young Reese Burdette’s drive home from Baltimore to Mercersburg — the 200-mile trek her family has traversed between the home farm and their second home at Johns Hopkins for nearly two years.

Reese had set a goal to be home for her 9th birthday, which she celebrated with family and friends — at home — on Sunday, March 20.

“Friday was surreal,” said Mom, Claire, during Monday’s Farmshine interview as Reese sat in the next room attending school via her robot, screen and headphones. Brinkley, 5, had also gone off to school that morning, and Reese was eager to be on the porch in a couple hours to see her little sister get off the bus — something she had envisioned for months.

A return to the ordinary rhythms of life on the farm is just what this child has longed for as she recovered from that fateful day.

Friday had dawned brisk and sunny as Claire and Justin and Brinkley waited with Reese for morning rounds. “When the doctor said ‘you’re free to go,’ it felt so good to hear those words we had waited and prayed to hear for so long,” Claire recalls.

A sendoff party was attended by hundreds the night before at Johns Hopkins where Reese has become quite the celebrity in what everyone referred to as “the sunshine room” where there was no room for worry. She shared her games, was known for her aim in shooting foam darts at a deer on the doorway, and had a machine for making snowballs and popcorn for sale with lines out the door to her room some days. Her PICU room had been transformed into a rehab that looked as much like home as possible for the past year. Toward the end of her stay, Reese surprised her family with a video of her journey.

“She’s not afraid to talk about the fire,” said Claire, noting that the hospital has learned from Reese as they tried processes for the first time with her burns. Jim tells of the time she consoled a grandmother whose granddaughter was getting a tracheotomy, explaining to her there is nothing to fear. She had become quite the advocate for her own care, face-timing Dr. Kristen Nelson about medicines and earning the name “Dr. Reese” among the residents in training (RTs).

In fact, Dr. Kristen, as she is known, is quick to point out that, “Reese has surprised me in so many ways about perseverance and strength and hope and grace and bravery, and I am forever a part of her life.”

On Friday morning, an entourage of 25 doctors, nurses, RTs, and custodians, escorted her to the white SUV sporting the large purple bow.

And so, they began their journey back home to a new normal.

Claire said the sight was “amazing. There are no words to describe riding up and seeing people after people after people.”

A sea of purple lined the streets. “There was so much joy… and tears. People were waving and hugging each other,” she said.

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The local fire company brought every piece of equipment for the homecoming escort. They drove through the high school, where the band played, and then through the middle school and through two elementary schools where children and adults lined the streets and filled the parking lots and rooftops with banners and balloons and smiles and waves.

In town, the First National Bank closed for 15 minutes as every employee, donning purple, came out to cheer Reese homeward as the Burdette family drove by. The John Deere dealership, car dealerships, and other businesses decorated profusely in purple to welcome their hometown hero.

“I thought she was going to jump out of the car, she was so excited. Of course, we had to stop at the barn first,” Claire said with a smile. “She wanted to see her cow Pantene, and the new heifer calf she had on Tuesday.”

Reese had already named the calf Pardi-Gras because she was born during Mardi-Gras, and last week was a ‘Pardi-Gras,’ of sorts, for the two dairy families of Waverly Farms and Windy-Knoll-View… Reese was finally coming home.

“Only Reese would get another heifer calf,” her mother noted. That’s three heifers in a row for Pantene. Reese smiled at the thought. “Ha! My dad’s been getting bulls!”

Her Momo and Papap — Jim and Nina Burdette — had spent much of the past two years at the hospital. Jim says he had envisioned Reese’s homecoming a thousand times.

“It is such a great relief to have her home. We went up to the parade in town, and then beat it back home quick,” Jim said. “I wanted to be here on that porch looking down and seeing her pull in.” After which, he says, “I promptly beat it down the stairs to see her.”

He had spent some time getting Pantene all cleaned up. “We knew that’s who she’d want to see first,” Jim said. “It was too cold to take Reese into the barn, so Justin brought Pantene out to the car.”

It was a poignant moment for Justin as a father to see his young daughter greet her special cow — the cow she had shared with hundreds of Johns Hopkins staff through a photo book Nina made and through a visit by Pantene, along with coolers full of chocolate milk, at the hospital last year during June Dairy Month.

Having seen Pantene and her calf, it was time to get home. Within minutes, she was sitting proudly in her purple chair, reading with her sister, talking of everything she wanted to do.

“She fell right back into life here, as though she never left,” Claire observes.

Having ‘face-timed’ from the hospital during milking, Reese knows her cows and fought to come home to them.

“I spoiled Pantene,” a smiling Reese admits. “She leads good for me, but not so good for anybody else. You know, once a cow gets to know you, she really likes you.”

The purple sign proclaiming “Keep calm and love cows,” that hung in her hospital room, now hangs at home, next to the words from a song the medical staff would hum before every surgery: “Every little thing gonna be alright.”

The dairy community, local community, faith community and the medical staff that have become like family, have all rallied to support Reese not just because her injuries were so severe, but to celebrate the inspiration of the toughness and grace with which she has persevered, and the way God has worked in her life and through her to help others.

“It feels really good that maybe we have given something that people want to give back,” Jim says with emotion. “So many people have done so many things to help this family. We knew Justin and Claire needed to be with Reese and we would do whatever was necessary to keep the farm going for Reese to come home to.”

Their part-time employee went full-time, they hired another helper, and Nina got back into milking again, sore knees and all, but they would never have made it these past two years, says Jim, without the help of others.

“We are part of a good and kind dairy industry and the best small-town America you can find,” Nina adds. “People taking care of people.”

Claire tells of the thousands of letters and messages her daughter Reese has received. Letters that told stories of how Reese’s battle back from the fire inspired others to face their own battles. She tells of three women in the tri-state region who each sent a card to Reese faithfully every week for nearly 100 weeks. In fact, Reese asked the nurse to check her mail before departing Friday. Claire said every piece of mail has been saved, and as Reese faces new goals and challenges, the letters will be read and re-read.

And the way people rallied to help with medical bills through selling and re-selling cattle, and the various groups and clubs and fund drives too numerous to list here.

The challenges will continue. “We’ve closed one chapter and opened another,” says Claire of her daughter’s journey which continues now at home.

Getting her completely off the ventilator will be the next challenge. But she is home and off to a good start. By her second day home, she was already pestering her Papap to get her back out on the Kubota to pick up her driving lessons right where she left off two years ago. She wanted to ride through the fields and tell him every weed she saw. She wanted to walk through the cattle, and tell her Dad and Papap what they should do with this one or that one.

Her next goal? “I want to be walking good enough to lead Pardi-Gras in the All-American at Harrisburg in September,” she said with a radiant smile.

Asked what she would want to say to readers more than anything, she replied: “Thank you so much for thinking of me.”

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All smiles, Justin and Claire Burdette bring their daughter Reese to the front door of home after 662 days of surgeries and recoveries at Johns Hopkins. Photo by Jean Kummer

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First stop before stepping over the home threshold, was the barn to see Pantene. It was a bit cold Friday, so Justin brought his daughter’s cow right to the car window. Photo by Jean Kummer

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Getting back to the rhythms of daily life at home, Reese takes a break from the screen that transports her to school via robot every day for a picture with her mother Claire Burdette. Photo by Sherry Bunting

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The families of Windy-Knoll View, Mercersburg, Pa. and Waverly Farms, Clear Brook, Va., join the crowds of hometown folk lining the streets of Mercersburg for Reese’s homecoming parade. Photo by Laura Jackson

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Jim Burdette envisioned this day thousands of times over the past 22 months. He knew he wanted to be on the second story porch watching his granddaughter come home. But then he beat it down the stairs for a hug. Photo by Laura Jackson

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Reese’s cow Pantene had a sign of her own for Reese’s homecoming. Photo by Laura Jackson

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Pantene’s third heifer calf Pardi-Gras was born just three days before Reese came home. Photo by Jean Kummer

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At the one end of Reese Way (left), put in between the two home farms when she was born, is Reese’s home. At the other end of the lane (right) is the entrance to Windy-Knoll View. When the Fast Signs company that made all the TeamReese signs came to put this one up, Jim Burdette told them, “Don’t cover the farm sign, Reese will love seeing Pledge, Pala, and Promise here to greet her.” Photo by Sherry Bunting

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The land is awakening. Cattle are out grazing. A special cow has a new heifer calf. And a special young lady — ReeseBurdette — has returned home to the joy of her farm and everyday life after 22 months of recovery at Johns Hopkins. Photo by Sherry Bunting

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Reese and Brinkley share a special moment at the hospital on the morning of Reese’s homecoming. Photo by Jean Kummer

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Justin and Claire Burdette with daughters Reese and Brinkley before Reese’s most recent surgery before Christmas. Photo courtesy Jennifer DiDio Photography