Michigan farmers go the distance to help with wildfire relief

Convoys travel to Great Plains where millions of acres were destroyed in March.

By Nicole Heslip

More than 1,200 miles separated Michigan farmers from those devastated by wildfires throughout the Great Plains in March, but that distance didn’t stop one idea from escalating into a statewide effort for rural communities to help their fellow farmers.

What started as a simple idea of taking a load of hay to Texas has turned into thousands of volunteers rallying in support for farmers and ranchers they may never meet.

Matt Schaller has been driving trucks for Hunt Farms in Davison for 15 years. He was inspired after reading Facebook stories about a young Texas couple that died trying to save their cattle from the wildfires that raged across the Texas Panhandle in early March.

“A good friend of mine offered to donate his truck to get some hay down there, but didn’t have any hay contacts,” he recalls. After a few phone calls, Schaller’s call to help was met with 10 semis filled with hay and other supplies.

With plans in the works to make the haul, a shop fire had wiped out the Hunt Farms’ shop, which was filled with corn planters, semis and other equipment, with an estimated $3 million in damages. “The community came out to support us, and it really put everything in perspective as to how important it was that we follow through on what we were planning once we committed to helping people down South,” Schaller reflects.

A GoFundMe page, “Trucking for Texas,” was set up to raise $7,500 to pay for the fuel cost of the trip. Funds were met and spilled over into other convoy efforts headed south. Schaller says, “There’s no idea too small to be left out on the table, because you just don’t know what’s going to stick.”

Schaller’s original plan was to load two semis with hay. Others within Michigan’s ag community were having similar conversations over coffee, in the shop and with friends, which led to a statewide relief effort coordinated under the “Michigan Convoy” Facebook page. Schaller says, “The whole state has gotten behind this, and I wouldn’t be surprised that when it’s all said and done to see a couple hundred trucks leave the state of Michigan and surrounding states.”

Schaller’s haul left Durand on March 17 — 10 days after the blaze swept across the Great Plains. Ten semis were bound for Oklahoma and Kansas after being directed to supply drop-off locations by Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.

“We had so many donations come in, we decided to stop in Oklahoma on the way and bought $4,600 worth of a little bit of everything they needed,” he says. The extra supplies included barbed wire, calf starter, milk replacer, feed pans, buckets and sweet feed. They stocked every nook and cranny possible on the road.

“We just filled between the bales, in the trucks, in the toolboxes; we just filled every place to top them off,” he says.

Some of the trucks made drop-offs at collection points, while others were bound directly for ranchers affected by the fires. “The Bar B Ranch was the largest of the ranches that we delivered to in Oklahoma and where I unloaded my trailer,” Schaller recalls. “On the 45,000 acres that they ranch on, about 70% of it was burnt. I think they’re relying pretty heavy on the donations coming in with hay.”

Michigan rural communities unite
After the first haul, Schaller planned another trip March 30. He says the domino effect of support grew beyond anything he could have imagined. “It started with local farms that were bringing out maybe surplus that they had on hand and that evolved into seed companies, fuel companies and businesses like Countryside Transportation all getting involved and donating to the cause,” he says.

On March 26, 12 trucks loaded with supplies from the Thumb region left Zwerk and Sons Farms in Vassar and teamed up with a group of drivers led by Andy Jahn from Crosswell. On their way south, more than 25 other trucks in the Perry area became the second convoy to Kansas and Oklahoma.

Northern Michigan farmers from the Clare region sent trucks loaded with livestock feed and supplies. By the time the group reached the Marshall region, it had grown to a 60-truck caravan, escorted in part by the Michigan State Police. Onlookers from Michigan through Kansas got quite a message from that trip. “It’s just something that you want to do for your neighbor,” explains Schaller. “When you have the ability to help somebody, I’ve always been taught that you want to do that because you never know when you’re going to be the one in need of help.”

From the Upper Peninsula to the Ohio boarder, another convoy left March 31. Departing the Western UP, the Yooper Relief Convoy, started by Marty DeHann of Mass City and Jan Strieter of Lake Linden, took seven trucks hauling bales of hay and other supplies to Oklahoma.

Jock Kartes, a crop farmer from West Branch, is leading the Ogemaw Wildfire Convoy leaving for Kansas the same day after being inspired by Schaller’s first convoy. “In the farming industry when a fellow farmer needs help, if we’re able to help, we’re going to help,” he says.

Volunteers loaded at least 17 trucks from the West Branch region. Southwestern Michigan Feed in Lawrence started a campaign for people to donate 50-pound bags of livestock feed for farmers affected by wildfires in all Great Plains states. At least 700 bags were loaded for the March 31 trip after local 4-H and FFA students helped raise more than $8,500 with more expected to leave the following weekend.

Not every farmer needs a convoy. Tera Baker and her husband, Shawn, dairy farmers from Three Oaks, felt the call to help in relief efforts after visiting with volunteers from Ogemaw. “We pooled our resources, put out one Facebook post and a couple phone calls, and immediately had donations pouring in and support offered from our local agriculture community and neighbor farmers,” she says. Baker was amazed by how quick they were able to load their own semi as part of National Agriculture Week to help with relief efforts. “This is a real testament to care-giver attitude and get-it-done mentality that American agriculture was built on,” she says.

On April 6, a 15-truck convoy will leave from the Wayland Stockyards forming the West Michigan Convoy for Wildfire Relief. Volunteers from Hillsdale, Branch and Lenawee counties in Michigan; Steuben County, Ind.; and Williams County, Ohio, formed the Fire Family Helpers group, which set up collection points throughout southern Michigan to fill a convoy leaving April 21.

At a time when farmers are trying to stretch their dollars, they somehow found a way to stretch them well beyond their own farm gate and inspired local communities to do the same. Farm incomes have continued to decline in recent years, and 2017 isn’t expected to be any better. According to Schaller, that hasn’t mattered. “Throughout all of this, I haven’t really heard too many guys talk about how bad they’ve had it,” he says. “I think to see the devastation that’s occurred down South, they’re feeling pretty fortunate that they’re in a position to help right now.”

Four of the semis in Schaller’s convoy unloaded at supply check points and three others headed directly to ranches in need of feed. “Each one of those trucks had a different story about the ranch they came from; some of them were pretty heart-breaking,” he says. One ranch they delivered to grazed cattle on 3,000 acres of pastureland, which had turned to ash. “There isn’t anything left out there, so they’re feeding strictly what’s coming in on the trailers, and last I heard using a semiload of hay a week,” Schaller explains.

The ranchers were very grateful for the help, which lifted some spirits and also inspired those giving to do even more. “The devastation was worse than what they tried to tell us over the phone, and you knew they just lost everything that they had,” he says.

Schaller estimates more than 200 trucks will make the journey from Michigan to affected regions, “The idea to buy over the phone and get them what they want would be great, but the shelves are picked over,” he says. He believes more than $200,000 in supplies and fuel has already donated, and that number is growing. According to Schaller it’s not really feasible for effected farmers to start buying from the local feed store. “Hay’s not something you can just go to Tractor Supply and buy semis and semis of round bales,” he says. After this experience, Schaller believes there’s a need to form some type of grassroots ag relief effort. “We’d like to roll this into a network of people we can contact if there’s another disaster like this and continue to help others,” he says.

The Michigan Agriculture Community Wildfire Relief Fund has been set up for those who wish to donate for long-term help. Donations can be dropped off at any Chemical Bank branch in Michigan, Indiana and Ohio, or any Tri-County Bank.

Michigan youth lend hands for helping
Sanilac County 4-H Program Coordinator Colleen Wallace says after 4-H members helped load Schaller’s first convoy, they came to her wanting to do more. She says, “I had kids call me and say, ‘We need to do more. Can we go?’”

Now coordinating a trip to Kansas April 7-10, Wallace plans to fill a charter bus with 60 volunteers, “We just truly wanted to lend a hand, we can only go for two days, but we’re going to do our damnedest to do everything we can to help them while we’re there.” She says while the pictures of the devastation are bad, it’s worse.

Similar 4-H trips are being organized in the state as others plan to volunteer their time.

Lapeer County 4-H leader Teresa Schumitsch experienced a farm fire about six years ago and knows how much support is needed during a disaster. She challenged her Young Pioneers group to contribute to the relief efforts, which has led to 4-H members helping with the convoys and donating profits from their annual pancake breakfast. Schumitsch’s encouraging other 4-H groups in the county to do the same and plans to take donations and volunteers on a work mission to the Orphan Calf Relief of SW Kansas 4-H group, which is caring for animals affected by the fire. “I wanted our donations to support 4-H kids, because it’s 4-H kids helping 4-H kids,” she explains.

Members of both 4-H and FFA from across the state have raised funds for relief efforts and volunteered countless hours gathering supplies as Michigan communities continue to coordinate ways to help those impacted by the fires.

Heslip works as the Michigan reporter for Brownfield Ag News.

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