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WI farmers organize effort to help KS wildfire victims

Jan Shepel
A convoy of help left Sauk City this week with truckers donating the transportation for two loads of fencing and three loads of donated hay, bound for farmers and ranchers in Kansas who were devastated by wildfires. The effort exceeded its organizers expectations.

SAUK CITY -  When Sauk City farmer Joe Keller saw photos and heard stories about Great Plains farmers and ranchers who lost their cattle and in some cases their farm buildings, homes and even sadly, their lives, to freak wildfires, it stirred his sympathy. He located a helpful charity online and gave some money.

Then he thought there had to be more he could do.

He called on friends Tim Lins, Fritz Wittenbach and Greg Marklay and together they decided they would try to raise $25,000 to help farmers in Kansas who were devastated by the wind-driven wild fires. The community, with help from the FFA alumni chapter, raised over $31,000 and trucking companies donated transportation.

“This is a dream that exceeded expectations,” said Keller on Monday, April 24, as five truckloads of badly needed supplies headed west out of Sauk City.

During a brief sendoff service, Pastor Fred Rilling of St. John’s Lutheran Church noted that these are people 800 miles away, “but they are our neighbors. We don’t know any one of them, but they are our friends.”

Keller said “Fences Among Friends” brought together companies and individuals to help farmers and ranchers out West who really need the help. He’s hoping their efforts will draw attention to the plight of those folks and encourage more charitable giving. He suggested the Kansas Livestock Association, in Topeka, which has a foundation set up to accept donations – www. (Or call 785-273-5115.)

When he contacted them, Keller heard back immediately on a Sunday afternoon about what farmers and ranchers needed and what would help them most.

There’s was no mistaking where this donated load of hay came from on Monday morning in Sauk City. It was headed for farmers and ranchers in a burned out county in Kansas after a group of local farmers raised money, donated hay and solicited donations.

Bob Gil of McFarlane’s, a local business, said it “was impressive how it all came together.” He and Tom McFarlane helped with coordinating the collection of the fencing materials, which filled two semi loads on Monday.

“Joe came to us three weeks ago to ask about prices for fencing materials and help in coordinating this. We had no idea it would evolve into this,” said McFarlane as the trucks pulled away from his family’s store. The convoy paraded through town before hitting the highway for Kansas.

The business was able to get all of the fencing material at cost for the charitable effort. As monetary donations rose, the committee kept upping their order, said Gil. The order got so big a semi had to be sent to the supplier to carry it all back to Sauk City.

Two of the semis headed West on Monday were packed with fencing materials – including 2,800 steel t-posts. The other three were full of donated hay which came from local farmers.

Josh Ballweg, who operates a dairy farm in the area with his dad and brother, had some extra hay on hand from a big crop last year. When his girlfriend Kortney suggested he donate, he pitched in with a whole semi load.

High speed disaster

In early March 1.5 million acres of land in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas were scorched by fires that were driven by 50-70 mile-per-hour winds. Fires jumped as far as three-quarters of a mile and killed cattle that were grazing on dried winter pastures.

Keller said that some cattle were lucky if they were grazing on greened-up winter wheat pastures and they survived. Others were killed in cattle yards. Farmers and ranchers had the grim task of putting down injured cattle whose eyes and feet had been badly burned. It was such a massive task “that they ran out of bullets,” he said.

In Clark County, where the Sauk City donations were headed, 465,000 acres were burned along with thousands of head of cattle. “Most of what burned in Clark County burned in a day,” Keller said.

In the whole disaster zone, 31 homes were burned and thousands of miles of fencing were destroyed. Three ranchers lost their lives trying to save their cattle.

As he heard more about the disaster and saw online videos of convoys of help headed that way, he though “we could do that.” He called Ashland Feed and Seed in Clark County, Kansas, one of the worst-hit areas. He wanted to find out what people needed and if his group could help fill that need.

Fences priority

They told him that their highest priority was fencing and the labor to put it up, which can cost an estimated $8,000-$10,000 per mile for materials and labor.

The five truckloads headed to Kansas held value of $70,000, he said, as the fencing supplies came in at cost and the hay was donated. The shipment included barbed wire, hardware and wooden fence posts. He has heard that these western farmers and ranchers have 12,000 miles of fencing that needs to be repaired or replaced.

Sauk City farmer Joe Keller organized the “Fencing Among Friends” effort after hearing about how cattle producers in the Great Plains were devastated by wild fires. Community giving exceeded his expectations as he saw a convoy of help leave town this week.

As the Fences Among Friends convoy headed out, festooned with banners, Keller was all smiles. Trucking was donated by Eagle Valley Ag, Golden Grain Farms, Dahlberg Farms and Fuchs Trucking. It was all part of the charitable spirit that permeated the effort.

“People were giving us checks to buy fence posts for people none of us know. They have no idea who’s getting it. Two checks were for $2,000, from individuals. It was really something to be part of,” he said.

“It was just a dream and this one came true. It was very emotional for me and a lot of other people here today.”

Here's how to help

To help farmers and ranchers impacted by the fires contact Kansas Livestock Association at: or calling 785-273-5115.