"We are learning to graciously receive," said Kendal Kay, mayor of Ashland, Kan., president of Stockgrowers State Bank and president of the Ashland Community Foundation.
Ranchers in the states of Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas—who are more accustomed to being on the giving end than on the receiving end—suffered extreme losses during wildfires that stormed through the areas March 6-8.
For many, the losses run deep. Winter feed in the form of stockpiled pastures and hay; cattle and years of genetics; trusted ranch horses; equipment and buildings; ranch fences and infrastructure; homes; and for a few, the loss of a life as a family member, friend, employee or firefighter, struggled to save life and property.
Adding insult to injury, many ranchers spent days following the fires putting down livestock suffering beyond hope of recovery. A month later, some cattle and calves that survived the initial onslaught still must be euthanized as smoke damaged lungs are too battered to recover.
"Nothing can really prepare you for the devastation and loss," said Chad Terry, semi-driver who volunteered his time and truck to deliver supplies to Kansas from Van Buren County two weeks ago. As a volunteer firefighter, Terry has observed some of the grief that ensues after loss experienced from a fire.
According to Kay, Federal Emergency Management Assistance (FEMA) will not be riding in to save the day.
"For FEMA to kick in, there has to be a certain percentage of public property damage," he said. "Yes, we've lost some utility poles and lines but not enough to qualify for federal help."
EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentive Program) funds through NRCS are available. However, emergency conservation fencing funds are limited to $200,000 per ranch and standards are set much higher than the need in most cases, which ultimately adds to the cost.
"And you may have to wait a year or more to receive the funds when the need to replace fencing is right now," Kay added. "Cattle are free roaming because perimeter fences are gone."
Farm Bill Livestock Indemnity funds are capped at $125,000 per ranch, and will only begin to replace lost cows in most cases.
CRP ground has been opened to grazing. However, fires didn't discriminate, burning it along with active pastures.
Wheat fields are being grazed, a short-term feed solution in some cases, but will nick yields by as much as 50 percent.
Nature continues with a series of weather related curve balls. Winds have eroded lands already void of vegetation, filling ditches and sometimes roadways. Unusually high precipitation—while needed to rejuvenate the pastures—has caused even more erosion in some areas.
Thus, the farming and ranching communities continue holding up and caring for their colleagues across state lines.
Such was the case with the Van Buren County relief supply convoy which brought most of the contents of their seven trucks to the Stoughton Ranch in Russell, Kan. Brothers Nathan, Billy and Levi Stoughton moved from Paw Paw, Michigan with their parents, Jill and the late Doug Stoughton seventeen years ago. Today, each brother separately runs several hundred cow calf pairs. Drivers for the group included Jeff Longcore, Jamie and Jim Spitnzer, Shawn Brink, Ernie Brown, Jared Dykstra, Andy Heinz, Dain Webster, Dan Hostetler, Chad Terry, Nick and Drew Pursley.
Russell sustained less damage than some areas, but still lost thousands of pasture acres and hay supplies.
"They were just in awe of the five semi loads of hay, two box trailers full of grain and square bales that we brought," said Dain Webster, convoy organizer. "When we brought some to the storage area, that farm had just enough hay for one more day. The timing was perfect."
The Stoughtons shared the gift with their neighbors. By stretching the feed along, the convoy train supplied enough hay for the Stoughtons and others to manage until pastures recover and feed can be made again in late June or July.
"They are making sure to take care of each other; nobody is being selfish," Webster added.
In addition, the community collected $4,000 in cash for the Stoughton family. The gift purchased 400 fence posts and 36 rolls of barbed wire.
"Jill was very emotional, very choked up when we showed up with the supplies," Terry said. "They couldn't believe we dropped what we were doing to bring them supplies."
After unloading supplies, a hot meal in the local café gave part of the group a chance to listen as ranchers shared their stories of survival, plowing firebreaks around buildings and livestock, working side by side with firefighters to save life and property.
"They were able to save their homes and cattle, and in that sense, it was a victory," Webster said.
Others in the party moved additional supplies two hours south to Ashland where orphan calves are being cared for by youth volunteers. A hot meal awaited them at a camp where volunteer workers are staying.
"People came out of the woodwork to help unload the square bales and calf feed," Terry said.
On Sunday morning, the Stoughtons drove Webster and his brother, Dan Hostetler, through parts of the burned range land.
"It takes your breath away," Webster said. "You pull up on a hill, and it is black in every direction for as far as the eye can see. I've never seen anything like it."
What should have been a 15-hour trip turned into 26 long hours.
"We had a couple of blown tires, lost a couple of leveling valves and had trouble with a headlight," said convoy driver, Nick Pursley. But the convoy received as much hospitality along the road as they did upon arrival. Parked on an off ramp to sleep and wait for a tire shop to open in eastern Kansas on Friday night, the drivers were treated to coffee and donuts by complete strangers at dawn. At the repair shop, a local resident, known only as Crazy Larry, paid for a replacement tire. He was gone before he could be thanked.
While the plight of these ranch families seems to go unnoticed by major media outlets, the government and urbanites, working America has taken notice.
"I run the roads on a daily basis," said Terry, a full-time truck driver. "It was really cool to get a group of guys together like we had. The camaraderie was awesome even when we had issues. We all stuck together and tackled every task as quickly as we could."
Both Terry and Pursley were moved by the show of support through cb radio communication from other truck drivers on the road who recognized what they, and hundreds of trucks from states in the Midwest, are doing by moving supplies west.
"The country is just so focused on the bad of politics and dividing the country that they don't see the good," Terry said. "We are still strong as a country and the farming community is extremely strong. We're not doing this because we are getting paid or that we'll be on the news. We're doing it because it's right. I'm just a little spoke inside a machine. I didn't do anything extraordinary. I just drove my truck out there."
"Farming is getting harder and harder," said Drew Pursley, who rode with his brother Nick on the trip. "Commodity prices are killing us. Everywhere you turn something is beating us down and nobody seems to care. It felt good to care and be doing our part to do something good, helping our fellow farmers."
Need for supplies will continue into the summer. Some rural communities are collecting funds that will be sent to buy local supplies when Michigan farmers head to the fields within the next month. More supply convoys are planned and volunteers will work into the summer. Contributions can be made through www.gofundme.com/plains-wildfire-jamie-clover-adams or at any Chemical Bank with the note, Michigan Ag Community Wildfire Relief Fund.
At every turn, ranchers and communitys in the west speak hope in the wake of tragedy. Recovery will take years in some cases. But as each new day passes, grass is already starting to grow and push through charred remains.