With tie strap in hand, Zach Cook jumps and tosses it over the final hay bale. He has 11 bales stacked on a 35-foot trailer. "They just need our help," he says, placing the strap through the ratchet. Pushing the lever down, he continues, "They are not asking for a handout. They just need a hand up."
The 20-year-old from Mount Vernon is taking his second load of hay and supplies to farmers and ranchers in the Oklahoma Panhandle who suffered losses in the March wildfires that burned roughly 390,000 acres in that state alone. According to the USDA, Oklahoma lost 3,000 head of cattle, $2 million worth of buildings and $22 million in fencing.
Those statistics include farmers like Guy Payne.
It takes seven hours to travel the 500 miles from Cook's home to Payne's ranch near Beaver, Okla. The cattle ranch has been a part of the family for more than 120 years. When the wildfires swept through that part of the state, producers there lost 100-year-old barns and homes, cows and calves, and as much as 6,000 acres of grass.
Payne recalls watching his fields go up in flames. "To this day, I can still see those big old fire tornadoes dance across the prairie, setting more fires as they go," he says. "There is not anybody around here who will forget this fire."
The fires broke out March 6 and burned for days across Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Kansas. In all, more than 1.4 million acres were destroyed.
Call to action
Cook watched as pictures on his Facebook feed displayed scorched earth and burned cattle. But as a news video of an older farmer discussing the wildfire came on, he was moved to act. "When he talked about all he had lost, he was so emotional," the young cattle producer says. "All I could think about was how awful this was for him, and what if this would happen to us here in southwest Missouri."
There was tug at his heart and a thought in his head. "It was like God was telling me, 'You have to do something and help them out.'" So, he scrolled through his Facebook feed looking for ways to help.
Pastor Bub Miller of Harvest Community Church in Avilla was putting together a load of hay and needed someone to transport it. Cook volunteered. The first convoy consisted of three trucks loaded with hay donated by area farmers, 1,700 T-posts donated by Superior Steel and 2,000 pounds of hedge posts.
It was a difficult trip. "We blew six tires along that drive," Cook says. Still, the group would not be deterred and made it to their destination in the Oklahoma Panhandle.
"It is hard to put into words what we saw along the way," he says. "It was so bad. It was black as far as the eye could see. There was fence wire lying around, but no fence posts. It was just awful."
Cook new it would take more than one trip. So, the young man put together a second convoy with a group of friends. This time, with three trailer loads consisting of 35 hay bales, 15 bags of milk replacer and 10 bundles of T-posts, the convoy returned to the 12,000-acre ranch owned by Payne.
Family in need
"At the point we are now," Payne says, "we have just half of the ranch left. It will take years to get our land healed back up."
But it wasn't just the grass that burned. The Payne family lost some of their 300 head of cow-calf pairs — both mama cow and calf — to the fires. "It is something no one should ever have to go through," he says.
Fences that stretched for miles were all gone. On his own ranch, Payne will look to replace 25 miles of fencing. "At $10,000 per mile," he says, "that is pricey. We will never get back all of the fence we built before."
However, the lifelong rancher from Beaver County found hope when Cook and his friends showed up at his ranch. "They are just good boys," he says. "To go through what they went through to get here, and then turn around and head home to go to school the next day, it restores your faith in people."
He says farmers all through Oklahoma experienced the generosity of what he calls "the good people of Missouri, California, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Mississippi and Louisiana — and the list goes on." Payne says individuals and organizations not only donated hay and fencing, but also the little things like toothpaste and honey. "It is truly unbelievable, the outpouring of support we have felt."
For Cook, it is all about helping your neighbor. "We may not live in the same state," he says, "but we are all farmers. And that is what farmers do — help each other out."