(Publisher’s note: I covered the aftermath of both the tornado and the Welshans family fire, and when I heard about the formation of this new emergency assistance team, I volunteered.)
This spring, the Washtenaw County Farm Bureau formed an Emergency Assistance Team, or “EAT,” to assist farmers and other members of rural Washtenaw County communities when disaster strikes.
John Ochs, a Freedom Township farmer, decided it was time to form EAT after he volunteered in the aftermath of both the March 15 tornado that hit Dexter Township and the Village of Dexter, and the horrible fire that killed hundreds of animals and destroyed a 100-year old barn on the Welshans family farm in Lima Township.
“The EAT team is a rapid response effort that will activate when farmers and rural families are struck by fires, tornadoes or other natural disasters,” Ochs said, adding, “There’s a unique need for a team of this type to fill a void that first responders or other emergency response agencies don’t handle.”
“Our people are doing this anyway,” he said of local farmers who immediately offer help when there’s a farm fire or accident.
So why not put together a formal team of people who are willing to volunteer for all the things that are needed to get families back to normal as quickly as possible?
“When John first approached me about the disaster assistance team formation, I immediately thought it was an outstanding idea,” said Ken Siler, president of the Farm Bureau.
He said the idea was presented to the board and not only approved but also funded.
“Our organization has always been there for help, but now we are well organized to be much more efficient and timely,” he said.
“Firemen put out the fire, but they don’t know how to contain livestock or keep the livestock safe,” Ochs said. “Farmers have the animal husbandry expertise.”
Among the types of assistance this new team plans to provide is farm-type assistance like checking fence lines and other livestock areas to ensure that the animals are safe and contained.
Farmers, he said, can provide heavy equipment like tractors to scenes, because they already own them. They have hay and feed for animals, knowledge and experience when it comes to rounding up horses or sheep or cattle that might have gotten out of barns or pastures during the disaster.
“We hope to be able to immediately help farmers, and rural people,” he said.
The team is also looking for tradesmen such as carpenters willing to volunteer to help rebuild barns and fences.
“We’re looking for hands and hammers,” he said, “People who have carpentry and electrical skills who can quickly build a new chicken coop or a corral or a rabbit hutch or sheep pen.”
Ochs said the day after the tornado hit the Dexter area he drove to the village before daybreak to volunteer. What he found was more than a 100 power company vehicles and tree cutting trucks lined up along the road waiting to be dispatched to the disaster scene.
“Many had driven all night from adjoining states, and the crews were desperate for coffee, a sandwich, a donut or anything edible, before they started work assisting the victims,” he said.
The problem was, he said, they couldn’t leave their vehicles to readily get any nourishment or caffeine in their systems; it needed to be provided to them.
“Utility crews and other responders on standby couldn’t drive their rigs around Dexter looking for a disaster-relief food station or water, coffee or food,” he said, “But no one thought of that.”
Following the Welshans family fire, he said farm bureau members and neighbors immediately delivered hay for the surviving cattle and provided tools and equipment to replace those lost by the family in the fire.
He said local farmers graded the driveway, walked fence lines to ensure the safety of the cattle, and assisted in the clean-up effort.
“As farmers,” he said, “We have access to tractors and other equipment that other people don’t.”
“Plus,” he said, “We have the knowledge of animal husbandry.”
While not minimizing the generosity of people who offer assistance, “organizing the WCFB EAT will allow us to respond more quickly, coordinate our efforts and pool our resources,” he said.
Kathy Siler was one of the first people to volunteer. Although she handles press relations for the Farm Bureau and is the president’s wife, Siler said she felt a need to be involved in the effort.
“I raised my hand as a volunteer to work with John even before he presented his idea formally to the WCFB board of directors,” she said.
“During the aftermath of the Dexter tornado and recent barn fire, John was on the scene volunteering countless hours of his time doing whatever he could to help; without fanfare and expecting no recognition. I admire that kind of spirit of giving,” she said.
Kathy Siler said, “Ochs leads by example and I have no doubt he will spearhead this effort to successfully form and implement the WCFB Emergency Action Team. I hope many others in both the farming and non-farming community will join us.”
When the proposal to form a rapid response team was presented to the WCFB board of directors, they immediately approved the idea, allocated initial funding, and several board members volunteered to serve.
Farmers, non-farming members of our rural communities as well as our city neighbors are welcome to join the WCFB EAT, Ochs said.
“Neighbors helping neighbors in a time of need has long been a tradition in farm country,” Ochs said, adding, “We will never ask you for money. We need your hands, your skills and an hour or two of your time when tragedy strikes,” he said.
What may be needed are donations of hay, straw, or a few bags of animal feed, tools, or other items that might be needed by a farmer or a family to start the rebuilding process.
The team is looking for people willing to volunteer an hour or two at the disaster scene, to do jobs such as make coffee, serve sandwiches, clear debris, run a chainsaw, or perform other skilled tasks that might be necessary.
“If you’re willing to deliver supplies directly to the individuals in need let us know that, too,” he said.
Interested volunteers or donors are asked to e-mail Ochs at [email protected] and provide their name, contact information and possible donations. There’s a resource list and volunteers will be contacted when the need arises.