Six months after the smoke cleared: Gardiner Angus Ranch, Ashland, Kansas
Gardiner Angus Ranch has been in the cattle industry long enough to know it's a business based on relationships. The three brothers, Greg, Mark and Garth Gardiner and their families are the fourth generation to face the fires, droughts and blizzards in their Ashland, Kansas community.
In the ash of a fire that burned 42,000 acres, 200 miles of fence, 7,000 round bales and killed 570 cows on their ranch alone, they're reminded again that staying in this business wouldn't be possible without a network of support.
In all, the fire that burned through the Clark County area in early March of 2017 consumed more than 600,000 acres and 12 homes, including Mark Gardiner's. Two people died, one in a vehicle accident and one who became disoriented in the smoke and died of smoke inhalation after leaving his vehicle.
But six months later, the focus is on recovering and helping those who are now dealing with the same situation.
"We've been very blessed that we've had a tremendous amount of rainfall since March 6," said Garth Gardiner. "Since the fire we've had 15 inches of rain. The grass is recovering nicely. Efforts to get fences put back up and things repaired are making progress. We've started calving and we're back in our normal routine. We're kind of back to life as we know it."
While the moisture has allowed the range to recover quickly, Garth said they're being cautious and letting the grass get established again before they graze it. Not having all the fences up helps resist the temptation to graze the burned ground too soon. "Some of the weeds got a head start, but the grass will eventually come back. Mother Nature will take care of it," he said.
The Gardiner family has been ranching in Kansas for more than 130 years and has built a reputation as a premier seedstock Angus producer.
These gentlemen brought a load of supplies from Louisiana and fixed dinner for everyone one night.
They lost some of their registered cattle, but a lot of them were commercial cattle carrying embryos that would have been registered calves. Some of the cows that lost calves were from their spring-calving herd, a combination of commercial and registered cows, with the larger number of them being registered.
Garth said they lost some cows because their udders were too badly burned to recover, so they had a handful of bucket calves to help through the summer. "That, of course, is fun for about two days, then it becomes a real nightmare," Garth said.
Mennonite Disaster Services sent a large group of volunteers.
When they were evaluating the cattle immediately after the fire, he said some obviously couldn't be saved, but after that, triage became more difficult. "Some didn't look good, but they still had eyes and teats, but were severely burned. We have a few that made it, but are going to have some scars. Our opinion is that if they made it through the fire they deserve to stay around."
As for doctoring, he said there wasn't much they could do. "It was more up to Mother Nature. Doctoring wasn't necessarily going to help them survive. It was just a matter of how they healed from their burns." They kept the cattle in pens and monitored them daily, but didn't interfere much with the natural healing process.
An FFA chapter from eastern Kansas volunteered to help out.
When it came time to start pondering rebuilding, they knew they wanted the same genetics they'd been developing for generations.
Luckily, they had been working with a new herd of recipients for their embryos when the fire started, so they pursued that relationship and put in more embryos than usual.
Gardiners received letters of encouragement from all over the United States.
Donated hay, money and supplies have allowed them to feed the herd that remained after the death toll was tallied, and some providential events have given them the opportunity to rebuild quickly with their own genetics.
One of the customers who had built a herd with Gardiner genetics was looking to disperse that cowherd when the fire happened. That allowed the Gardiners to add 320 cows back to their herd that already had the genetics they had developed.
The Gardiner family was given an American flag that flew on the back of a load of donated hay from Michigan to Kansas.
When it comes to rebuilding a herd with losses in the hundreds, while also putting up 200 miles of fence and keeping the remaining cattle fed, the Gardiners were reminded of the value of their relationship with their local bank.
"It's a bank we've worked with our entire lives," Garth said. "They understand our business more than a metropolitan bank would. They understand we have to have a product that we can market and sell. By allowing us to go out and purchase these cattle, they're allowing us to rebuild quicker."
As much as they depend on the relationships they've built over generations in the industry, it was the kindness of strangers that made the most difference, at least from a morale standpoint.
"The most overwhelming, unexpected thing was probably the response we got from all over the country," Garth said. "People just showed up from out of nowhere to help and volunteer and it was just a truly humbling event to go through from the standpoint that you saw so much good in mankind during that time. It just surprised me. I knew people were good, but I didn't know they were that good."
The Gardiners told their story to many mainstream media outlets, from The New York Times to National Public Broadcasting. The story resonated with many people from all over the country—vegetarians, liberals (Garth mentioned being a Trump supporter in one interview), urban residents, people retired from agriculture and those who have never been off the pavement. They responded to the severity of the disaster and depth of emotion of the story and sent donations and letters of encouragement.
"You see an awful lot in mainstream media today about what's wrong with our country, and a lot of things that make you think our country's got a lot of problems, and we do have a lot of problems," Garth said. "But there's an awful lot of good and going through this experience has shown a tremendous amount of good in the country and mankind."
Being on the receiving end of kindness and donations is difficult for most ranchers. Garth said they met with their U.S. senator and one person told him, "We don't want your money, but we need it," of the federal assistance.
"We're prideful people and you don't want to accept things, but the intent with which it was given, from all different directions, is just unbelievable," Garth said.
Several organizations started relief funds. The Ashland Community Foundation took in nearly $2 million in monetary donations and the Kansas Livestock Association received $3 million. All those funds went directly to the aid of people affected by the fires.
"For people to not even think twice about writing a check to help other people out was just an unbelievably heartwarming gesture from not only people we consider neighbors, but people from all over the U.S. and the world," Garth said.
That Gardiners took those gestures to heart. After their summer of rain and recovery, they were ready to respond when the fire season heated up in Montana and drought hit the Dakotas.
"It's very important to reach out and help those in need in Montana and the Dakotas," Gardiner said. "We've experienced both sides of it. I don't know if we would have reached out prior to the fire, but now we realize how important that is. It's been a real eye-opener for our family. I think that was a sign from God that that's what you're supposed to do."
Garth said the fire and the outpouring of support reminded them of what's truly important in this business and directed them back to the foundations built by their parents, Henry and Nan Gardiner. Henry passed away in 2015, and Nan died in June of this year.
"I think it's our duty as stewards of the land and people in agriculture to continue to operate, and teach future generations that this is how you operate," Garth said of their "pay it forward" approach. "That's what my dad would have done. I'm not sure I would have done that prior to this, but I hope my children understand that now. And I hope someday they'll do the same thing when that opportunity is presented to them.
"The ag and ranching industry is salt of the earth people and I couldn't be more proud to be part of that."
Words of Encouragement
Garth Gardiner shared a small sample of the letters that accompanied donations following the fires that burned much of their ranch last spring.
Dear Mr. Gardiner,
I read in the NY Times of your tragedy and wanted to send something to help, though I know it is little, as I am retired. I felt so terrible reading about the animals and all your losses. I hope you won't take it amiss.
-New York City, New York
Heard your story on NPR the other day and was really moved by your loss and the effect the fires have had on the community of Ashland. A few years ago the Jersey coast got hit real bad from a hurricane named "Sandy." It was one of those 100 year storms that kicked our butts. Hundreds of homes were lost to flooding and the wind damage. The recovery was long and a lot of hard work. But what effected me the most was all the folks from other states that showed up to help or sent supplies to rebuild. I'll never forget the outpouring of love and kindness. I'm sure this money is just a drop in the bucket, but it's sent with love and our prayers.
"We in Jersey heard your voice."
Your brother in Christ…
Dear Garth Gardiner:
Yesterday I wept listening to your interview on Public Radio. I am a resident of Manhattan in New York City who did not vote for Donald Trump. I am also a rural-urban hybrid who has lived and worked on farms. It is with horror I think of the fear and suffering experienced by your five hundred lost beasts. And it is with grief for you and your family that I try to imagine what you are facing.
I know that the enclosed will pay for only a small part of a new calf or cow. But I hope that you will accept it as a token of this Easterner's respect and admiration for those who work in the challenging arena of agriculture and who serve as stewards of the land.
Let us hope that the new administration will come to realize that the federal government's role is not only to provide the military and intelligence part of our national security. It can also be to provide protection and support to citizens who face economic and natural disaster challenges that are too large for any single person or family or region to meet without the assistance of the larger national community.
With warmest sympathy to you and your family as you work to recover from this painful catastrophe.
-Manhattan, New York
Your tragic loss of livestock and property damage from the fire was aired on our local WHHY NPR station in Phila, PA.
After reading Timothy Egan's book, "The Worst Hard Time," I appreciate the never ending work, determination and courage it take to farm in this area of our country. Enclosed is a small check to help in any way to keep your farm going. You need to realize we appreciate your efforts and encourage to continue.
To Whom it May Concern,
This load of hay being hauled by Jeff Long of Oaks North Dakota is being donated to the hay relief effort in Kansas. It is going to Ashland, Kansas to the Gardiner family.
Our hope is that it will bring hope to our friends in Kansas that we have not met…
Our prayer is that this effort will comfort them (and their cows). And know that we feel deeply for the loss of life, livestock and property.
In His Love,
-Yale, South Dakota
I wish I could offer more than the enclosed, but I'm unemployed and even this seems extravagant with all of my bills, BUT…
I heard your interview on NPR and my heart broke at the thought of your loss. I am a "liberal Democrat" from California, different in so many way, but we are all humans on this earth and we all need to take care of each other.
Mr. Garth Gardiner
(from a vegetarian woman from the bottom of my heart)
Dear Mr. Garth,
I heard your talk today on NPR (West Virginia). I really wanted to do something to help. I cannot see people or animals suffer. Please accept from my little business small help. God bless you all!
I was fortunate enough to by chance hear your interview on NPR today, and was inspired enough, that I wanted to take the time to write you a note of appreciation, and encouragement. I am sorry for the loss of your cattle, your grassland, your fencing and all else that was lost by you and your family during the recent and horrible wild fires that you described in your interview. That was certainly a great tragedy but the sense of grounding that you expressed is certainly a guidepost of encouragement for others of us who have suffered our own personal tragedies in our lives.
In searching for a way to write to you, I came across your family website and the tributes to your father who sounds like a very remarkable man, whose legacy will live on for generations. It sounds like your family has had ups and downs a generation or two ago and yet has always emerged stronger and more successful, so hopefully that will also be that case after these fires. Certainly the common sense inspiration that you presented during your interview will help continue the greatness of your family, and to a large extent, that of this country.
You mentioned being a Trump supporter. I am not, but nonetheless appreciate the way your words helped encourage a spirit of unity that we all need to strive towards. Where I live, Ft. Collins, CO, home of Colorado State University, which is a big Ag College, in fact log ago we were known as the Colorado Aggies, is a fairly diverse and progressive community, but nonetheless with strong ties to its agricultural roots. AS long as we in this country remember that are similarities are greater than our differences, we will remain strong, and that is one of the inspirations I also took away from your interview, so thank you for taking the time, especially at such a difficult time, to share your words of courage and inspiration with the listeners of NPR. I feel fortunate to happen to be listening when your interview was aired. You are no doubt a hero to many of those who know you personally, but now also to some of us who have only heard your voice and words on the radio.
-Fort Collins, Colorado
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I do apologize this letter is not hand written but my handwriting is no longer what it was, and I did not want to have you suffer through it.
I heard your story on public radio today and was moved by it. So I took a brisk walk to the library (it is about 12 degrees and very windy) so I could use the computer.
I hope this small donation can help you and your family on their farm. I have little else to offer but my prayers of support.
When our family came to America, they had difficult times and we suffered with the great textile strike of 1912. Others, across American, helped up. Keep up your spirits.
I have never been to Kansas, and to be honest, up until today the only thing that came to mind when one said Kansas, was Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz. But this afternoon I heard your interview on NPR and Kansas became a real place to me. I am not sure at what point my eyes filled with tears, but I know when you said your daddy had passed away two years ago and what a strong man he was, I was pretty much sobbing. I too, lost the strongest man in my life two years ago, and like your dad, he was the anchor in our family and the one, who no matter how dire the situation, could always make us believe there was a way out.
I cam home and googled your name and found the news clip about the fires and your dad's celebration of life, both touched me deeply.
After my husband's death, we set up a scholarship fund in his name, with the hope of trying to make our world a little better, with one small act of kindness at a time. He loved survivors and no doubt would have loved you and your family as well.
"We can do this! So let's get to doing!"
I listened to your interview on WNYC yesterday on my way home from work. I was struck by your depth of emotion and ease with which you painted a picture of the losses you and other ranchers have sustained from the wildfires. You have a way of putting a human face on this tragedy that came across crystal clear through the FM. I hope that those who are able, will hear your plea and bring aid to our country's ranchers.
I don't know much about your world. I know that your family, your neighbors and employees have lost much. That is something I do understand.
Please accept this small token… even if it's just to get those cokes at the mart down the road with your neighbors.
I hope that relief comes quickly and in abundance.
With warm regards,
New York City, New York
Dear Mr. Gardiner,
I just heard your story on Public Radio station from a Boston reporter.
My great-grandfather was a rancher somewhere near Topeka which I know is not near you but I was moved by the compassion you shared during the interview. I've never been to Kansas and will most likely never get there. This is a small token of support for all you have suffered.
God bless you and your family.