DFA family heeds the call for help following hurricane

May 1, 2007
Dairy Farmers of America

The fleeting beam of the flashlight accentuated the weariness on his face. It was 10:30 p.m. and as the engine came to a halt, the darkness rushed to fill the night as instantly as the silence filled the air. The dairy farmer’s tractor and generator where finally getting a break for the night. But just like for the dairy farmer himself, rest would not last long. In the early hours of the morning, employees would have to be picked up, generator re-started, the cows had to be milked, and another day of cutting out from the destruction of Hurricane Katrina would continue.

Though in the same situation as over 300 fellow Dairy Farmers of America members, Bill Pigott of Tylertown, Miss., would tell you he’s one of the lucky ones. His barn still stands, he has a generator in place to milk the cows, and most importantly, no one was hurt when Hurricane Katrina blew in August 29, 2005.

Four to six hours of nearly 150 mile-per-hour winds pummeled structures and wrecked havoc on trees. The downed timber wiped out the power grid everywhere in the hurricane’s path. With roads covered with once majestic 100-year-old oaks and solid pines, residents in the communities spent the first few days cutting their way out to ensure access to emergency services. Unfortunately the return of electricity to power homes, milkers and coolers may take weeks for many rural residents. Two full weeks following the hurricane, over 50 percent of DFA members in the region remain without power.

Hurricane Katrina carries a rural face that few are seeing in the news media, with more than 312 dairy farm families and 39 DFA employee families reside in the hardest hit areas of Mississippi and Louisiana, according to DFA.

Even before the hurricane made landfall, DFA launched a multi-dimensional effort to assist its members and employees who were victims of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi.

There are many heroes – employees who worked around the clock, other DFA members who arranged for cattle feed, or delivered generators and other needed supplies, or those who found and arranged for trucks and 18-wheelers to provide transportation for supplies to the affected areas.

Following the hurricane, the extended DFA family worked together to arrange and provide aid. In the first two weeks alone, DFA delivered to members and employees approximately 100 industrial generators capable of powering parlors, coolers and, in some cases, homes.

With the use of generators, fuel supplies in the region got desperately low after only a few days. To make matters worse for farmers, incoming fuel supplies where being funneled to relief efforts in the metropolitan areas. To keep power flowing, DFA’s Southeast Area staff, supported by others around the country coordinated, delivered and in some cases pumped up to six loads of fuel to get members through shortages.

DFA also arranged for the shipment of two semi-truck loads of bagged ice to be delivered for free pick up by members, employees and the community. With no power, ice became a valuable commodity to store food for even a day or two. Two truck loads of shelf stable dairy beverages where sent to Mississippi and Louisiana for distribution to members and employees. DFA’s VitalCal and SportShake drinks provided calories and nutrients, not to mention some good taste, to DFA families.

A number of DFA partners and business friends donated items to fill 460 care packages for families in the affected areas. Relief items such as shelf-stable dairy products, cheese, powdered chlorine, work gloves and family and personal need items where assembled by DFA and DeLaval employees in Kansas City for distribution by field service representatives and milk haulers.

As families recover from the hurricane, their needs will shift from survival mode to the need to rebuild. Herd health, feed and fencing supplies will be growing areas of need and concern.

Neighbor helping neighbor

As hard as DFA staff worked to get assistance to those in need, those employees and members “on the ground” in Louisiana and Mississippi were struggling around the clock and persevered to help each other out too. Rodney Ervin, a DFA Southeast Area field manager based out of the DFA field office in Franklinton, La., led a team of employees in contacting every affected employee and eventually every dairy farmer in the region to assess emergency needs and make sure families were not injured.

Already the center of the dairy community around Franklinton, La., DFA’s balancing plant became the crisis center for DFA’s rural members. DFA employees, dealing with their own loss, pressed on to assist those in the community by managing and loading relief supplies, dispersing shelf stable food items, ice, fuel and production supplies.

Bobby Shipley, DFA’s Southeast Area regional field manager based in Knoxville, Tenn., drove down to Franklinton, La. and slept in his car to help the local DFA staff any way he could. “The work these DFA employees have done to help area farmers is quite the story,” says Shipely. “Once we got generators, fuel, ice and food in here we needed a traffic cop to direct the flow of people coming into the plant.”

Not too far from the plant, Ron and Yulia Pope, DFA member dairy farmers located near Franklinton, La., sustained major damage to a machine shed and lost miles of fence, but their dairy parlor was spared.

“We just keep running around as fast as we can helping each other,” says Ron Pope. “We run in circles trying to help our neighbors, our employees as best we can.”

Pope's family road out the storm at the home of his mother located 10 minutes away from the dairy.

“It was rough. We thought the walls were going to fall in on us. The trees all around us were falling continuously. After it was over, it took an hour and a half to get back to the farm on my four-wheeler.”

Following the storm, Pope’s cows were milked via generator and he and employees started clearing the road into town with tractors and chain saws. “I bet the boys around here barely slept the first three days,” acknowledges Pope.

Pope feels fortunate that his home wasn’t badly damaged and they have a generator. With an intact barn, house and his cows, Pope says he is lucky. But like most folks in rural Louisiana and Mississippi the Popes haven’t been sitting back with a sigh of relief.

“We’ve been feeding any body that needs it, washing clothes for folks down here working, if someone needs a bath we can provide it,” says Pope who has been provided a place for several DFA employees to stay upon their arrival to the area to help out in the crisis.

One afternoon almost two weeks after the storm, Yulia and Ron made sure the utility crew working nearby got a good lunch – inviting them into their home for a hot meal and tall glasses of sweet ice tea. The crew, on call from Texarkana, Texas, who had been camped out and working sun-up to sundown for over a week to restore power, were certainly grateful for the hospitality.

Making members whole

“DFA’s Board has provided producers with a three tiered program that includes emergency cash assistance, a loan program for milk production losses and financing programs for reconstruction,” explains Jim Hahn, chief operating officer of the Southeast Area.

DFA also set up a DFACares tax-deductible organization so all DFA members and employees can contribute aid specifically to DFA dairy farm families and employees for their recovery efforts.

“This hurricane caused so much damage its unbelievable,” says Bill Pigott, later by the light of day. “But the outpouring of support and emergency assistance has been incredible. This is why we are in a cooperative, to help each other out in situations like this. The lengths that people in the DFA family have gone to help others is simply heartwarming.”

- Jason Gerke