The goal of the fundraiser was to raise $10,000 for wildfire relief. After four busy hours Friday night, the event in rural Virginia had pulled in more than $30,000 — 100 percent of which will go to those affected in Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Colorado.
“When you see someone in your community who is hurting, you want to help,” said Susan Epperly, one of the organizers of the chili dinner and auction at Springlake Stockyard in Moneta, Virginia. “And the best way for us to help at this point is financially. As much as we all want to send hay or product … farmers also need to keep the lights on and meet some basic money needs.”
The turnout was so amazing (close to 300 people showed up) that the event ran out of food — though no one seemed to mind. Despite being 1,200 miles away from the wildfires’ epicenter, distance doesn’t deter the unity of agriculture. As Epperly said, it’s a community, our community, and they were ready to help.
Another of the organizers, Beth Bays, spent a week last month in Kansas volunteering as part of the wildfire response. The Virginia resident and five friends drove a 30-foot trailer loaded with fencing supplies to the devastated region, where they encountered sprawling scorched land and miles of ruined fences. What she said she’ll never forget is the odor from the land — a strong, caustic scent that told the tale of the disaster as much as any photograph.
Despite it all, Bays was heartened by the optimism from the ranchers themselves, from the people who saw that their livelihoods has been consumered and vowed to soldier on.
When Bays and her crew returned, it was easy to connect with Epperly to get the fundraiser going.
“You see somebody in trouble, and you know you have to reach out,” Epperly said. “I hate to call them victims after talking to them because many don’t see themselves as victims. …
“We’re farmers ourselves, and things happen on a daily basis. We’re a resilient bunch, and we don’t ask for much,” she said.
The event was titled Hope for the Heartland, and the auction items included a hay spear, chainsaw, For-Most head catch, gift certificates, fencing materials, and homemade knifes fashioned out of horseshoes. One special item was a wreath made out of burnt barb wire that Bays collected from a Kansas ranch.
“The response was completely overwhelming,” Bays said. “I don’t even have the words to explain how moving it was for folks to come together to help people they’ve never met. It brought tears to my eyes, multiple times.”
One rancher, Mark Gardner, who lost his home, cattle, and pasture spoke on the phone during the fundraiser — his heartfelt words touching the core of those who attended.
“I am so proud of my community, but this is not just happening in Bedford County — this is happening across the United States in ag communities,” Epperly said. “It’s so wonderful to be a part of it. This is what America is; this is what a Christian is.”