Community spirit prevails following farm fire

Colleen Kottke
A volunteer firefighter hauls a fire hose in the foreground of the fire consuming the Peterson's historic barn on Nov. 1.

GRANTSBURG - Pickup trucks towing cattle trailers began pulling into the yard of Four Cubs Farm soon after word of a devastating fire at a Grantsburg dairy farm began spreading through the rural neighborhood and on social media on Nov. 1.

Even days after the fire that left the Peterson family without a facility to milk their 850 head of cattle, they still cannot get over the display of kindness and generosity shown to them in their time of need — especially from strangers.

"The outpouring of help was so humbling and appreciated. When you have people driving in with trucks and trailers who don't even know you, and have no idea of how far they will be hauling those cows, it's just amazing," said Nicki Peterson, whose husband Ben owns the fifth generation farm with his parents, Gary and Cris Peterson along the rural backroads of Burnett County — just miles from the Minnesota/Wisconsin border.

Peterson said the fire was discovered by Gary and Cris around 11:30 a.m. as they were pulling into the driveway.

"They saw flames were shooting out of the parlor and ran into the barn to make sure no one or any animals were inside," Peterson said. "Luckily we were in between milking shifts and no one was hurt."

What was destroyed, however, was the double-16 milking parlor and the 130-year-old barn that was built by Gary's great grandfather B.J. Peterson with lumber cut from the surrounding land. The farm was homesteaded by his great grandmother in 1877.

The original barn built in the late 1800s by Gary Peterson's great grandfather on the Four Cubs farmstead was destroyed in a fire on Nov. 2, 2017.

"This is a century farm and cows have been milked on this farm every day since 1877. It was an historic old barn with dry lumber so it didn't long for it to go up in flames," Peterson said. "Most of the employees were out doing fieldwork, so by the time they arrived the parlor and barn were pretty much engulfed."

Fire departments from Grantsburg, Siren, Webster, Frederic, Cushing and Pine City responded to the blaze at 23250 S. Williams Road. Peterson said fire investigators believe the fire was started by a power washer in the parlor that was built in 2011.

A fire destroys the Peterson family's milking parlor on Nov. 1.

Soon after the blaze was extinguished, the family got to work trying to find temporary homes to house their cattle — and soon.

"Because we milk them three times a day, they had been already milked once in the morning and milking time was coming soon," Peterson said. "We found six farms - all within 1 1/2 hours from here - that were willing to take our cows on a temporary basis."

The logistics of transporting those cows to those farms seemed daunting, but not for long.

"It was amazing to see all of these trailers pulling in one right after the other," Peterson said. "Some of the farms were even willing to take on some of our employees to help milk the extra cows now in their herd."

While the family has permission to begin moving the debris from the fire, it will be months before a new parlor is up and running. In the meantime, the welfare of their loyal employees concerns them.

By 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 2, the last of the Peterson's milking herd was loaded aboard a cattle trailer and headed off to their temporary home until the family is able to rebuild their milking parlor.

"We've put a lot of time and effort into training our employees. Right now we have an amazing team and we want them to come back once we're up and running," said Peterson, adding that of the farm's 18 employees, 10 are dedicated just to milking the herd. "We'll try to keep as many employed as we can helping with the heifers, calves and dry cows."

A solution in helping their employees — a mixture of local and Hispanic workers — during this transition time came from the farm's Facebook page.

"Someone suggested starting a GoFundMe page. At a time like this we don't want people feeling sorry for us and feel like we're asking for money. We're mostly looking out for our employees," Peterson said. "I've had so many people saying 'I don't know how to help you but I want to'. It's humbling to see the response."

Just two days after the fire, $3511 of the $10000 goal has been met through generous donations made by people from near and far. In addition to sending money, they are sending the family words of hope and encouragement.

"It is wonderful that you are doing this for your employees. Praying for you and family, for the employees, and for the cows," wrote Kathy and Stuart Wenell-Nesbit.

Peg and Bruce Getty wrote, "Sending prayers and hope."

Peterson said the response from the local community has left her speechless and near tears.

All that is left are the charred remains of the Peterson family's milking parlor and 130-year-old  barn.

"People have been dropping off meals and supplies left and right. Many local businesses have been wonderful too. The other day someone stopped in to get a flashlight and the owners said to just take it," she said. "It's an amazingly supportive community. That's one of the benefits of living in a small, rural community."

As every dairy farmer knows, the farm lives and dies by the milk check. And without the cows producing 55.000 pounds a milk per day to help cash flow the operation, it will be tough financially until those cows walk back on the parlor at Four Cubs Farm.

"Insurance covers a little bit but not enough to go for more than a few months," Peterson said. "We've been looking at all options including bringing in a mobile parlor. We found one down in Texas but it doesn't provide any shelter and we're moving into another Wisconsin winter."

To visit Four Cubs Farm GoFundMe page visit 

Gary and Cris Peterson along with their son, Ben, are the fourth and fifth generation owners of Four Cubs Farm in Grantsburg, WI.