The first convoy to leave Michigan with supplies departed March 17. Photo via Michigan Farm Bureau

In early March, an area roughly 100 times the size of Manhattan burned in wildfires in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Colorado. Local television, online and print media in affected areas ran interviews with ranchers and pictures of charred areas and of the volunteers who were on the scene trying to help.

The national media outlets were slow to respond and quiet when they did. But farmers shared the news quickly through social media. (One Facebook page of farmers asked: “If 1.5 million acres burned in New York, would urban media devote coverage to the impact of the fires?”)

Simultaneously, farmers in other parts of the country started organizing relief efforts. With little national notice, farmers around the country have been sending thousands of truckloads of hay and supplies to burned-out ranchers.

Loading hay onto a truck in the Yooper Relief Convoy group. A Yooper slang for someone from Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Photo via the Yooper Relief Convoy's Facebook page.
Loading hay onto a truck in the Yooper Relief Convoy group. A Yooper slang for someone from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Photo via the Yooper Relief Convoy’s Facebook page.

Social media has been the key to this volunteer effort of relief. Reports of the wildfires flew through Facebook pages, shared nationally among those in more rural and farm-oriented communities. Through friends of friends of friends, informal information networks spread some of grief at the loss of young ranchers who died trying to save their livestock. Social media also raised the visibility of local press that turned out to cover the fires’ impact in their communities and states. A piece in the Amarillo Globe, for example, told of a young couple who perished with a friend trying to save their cows. That local story went national for people following through social media.

In the ensuing weeks, social media users shared the personal stories of ranchers who told of dead livestock and cows burned beyond saving. We read the blogs of ranchers who lost their homes, buildings, and hundreds of cattle that couldn’t outrun fires that tore through the grasslands at 50 miles an hour. Ranchers told of crouching in green wheat fields to save their lives. They shared how they tried to outrun the fires in pickup trucks pulling trailers of family horses. Our farmer hearts were broken by stories of ranchers mercifully shooting cows harmed beyond saving. Burned out eyes, nostrils seared shut, dead calves at their sides. A piece in High Plains Journal, “Seeing Your Dad Cry Leaves a Mark,” told of a rancher weeping as he shot his beloved ranch horse and cattle herd, burned beyond hope.

Local press was on the story. But the national response was muted, considering the disaster affected such a large swath of the country and involved four states. As a farmer-activist, I contacted urban food-movement leaders to suggest that a kind word would be long remembered. I got silence or worse. One Huffington Post blogger said there was a good side to the disaster – less red meat in America’s diet and less greenhouse gas emissions. The blogger went on to suggest that technology titans like Bill Gates should swoop into the Midwest to help establish a “fake meat” industry for displaced ranchers. She noted that the ranchers had probably voted for Donald Trump, as did one urban “foodie” I reached out to.

But social media also contained the other side of the story, as well. Networks crackled across dozens of states to begin and coordinate relief efforts for the burned out ranches. Panhandle Relief 2017 and Wildfire Relief Facebook pages appeared, quickly garnering thousands of members. Out of unlikely places, people began to organize convoys of practical aid. A Michigan Convoy Facebook page grew to several thousand members as Michigan residents began to organize semi loads of hay to haul the 800 miles to Kansas. Volunteers in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Montana, Illinois, Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Missouri joined in to fill the immediate need of feeding hungry cows who food supply had been incinerated. A video showing one of the first fodder aid convoys is at 9.1 million views.

Expressions of volunteerism, concern for fellow citizens in agriculture, patriotism, and a belief in God seemed to result in big trucks on the road carrying help and hope to the burn zones. Business people, veterinarians, 4H groups, churches, farmers donating hay they could spare to fill convoys of semis sprang to action. Truckers hit the road for long drives to the wildfire zones. One early organizer, William Carey of Panhandle Relief 2017, estimated that some 800 to 1,000 truck loads of fodder and supplies have been driven by volunteers into the fire zones. Carey described some of the practical implications of coordinating volunteers and rancher needs on an interview by Katy Keiffer on Heritage Radio Network.

One of the most touching volunteer efforts is the Orphan Calf Relief program. With mama cows burned to death or unable to nurse, hundreds of calves are “orphaned.” In Kansas, 4H members and farmers have stepped up and committed to taking in burned and orphan calves that need to be hand-fed and healed. Calves are the next generation, the carefully developed bloodlines of the future. Determined volunteers carefully feed calves whose throats and faces are too burned to nurse on their own, bathe their wounds and tend to each calf with great love for the sake of fellow ranchers who are busy rebuilding fence lines and buildings.

YouTube video

People – mostly rural — are sending what they have to the fire zones.   From Wisconsin, powdered milk to feed calves, from Michigan sawmills, dry shavings for fresh bedding for burned animals, from Montana, loads of straight poles to rebuild electrical and fence lines. Veterinarians and pharmaceutical companies are donating their time, antibiotics and healing eyewashes for cows. Horse groups have sent new tack, donated good horses, and hosted fund-raisers. Other Facebook pages are organizing volunteers to head into the wildfire zones to pull up and rebuild miles of burned fences. Busloads of 4H students and volunteers will be fanning out to help ranchers with youthful enthusiasm. Cooks have rallied to feed several hundred volunteers who arrive from out of state.

Patriotism and prayer are common themes of the volunteers. Most convoys proudly display American flags that they give to the ranchers who receive aid. Truckers’ Facebook pages tell of ranchers who had prayed for some solution to feeding hundreds of cattle left with no grazing and no stored hay, only to shed tears as trucks driven by strangers from far away states arrive with help.

In this case, volunteers used social media both to make the news and report it.

Lorraine Lewandrowski is a dairy farmer and lawyer in Herkimer County, New York. Follow her at @NYFarmer.

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