In mid-March, after a historic bomb cyclone and mass flooding engulfed much of Nebraska and parts of Iowa, Travis and Brittany Hamlin felt the need to help —again. They were the couple behind the 55-truck convoy that hauled hay and other supplies to Kansas and Oklahoma after the 2017 Great Plains fires. But re-creating something similar wasn’t the original plan.
“We planned on taking our truck and loading our trailer with as many supplies as we could,” Brittany says.
But in three weeks’ time, what started out as a one-rig run ballooned to a caravan of 52 trucks and trailers of all sizes from four states, carrying hay, fencing, milk replacer, bagged feed, veterinary supplies and more. Over 100 drivers and riders set out on the 2,000-mile round trip April 5, and most were back by April 9.
Several hay loads were draped with U.S. flags. All along the way, people were honking their horns and waving, Brittany recounts. “This was truly a brotherhood of farmers helping farmers and supporting those less fortunate than ourselves,” she says. “And even though not all of us were farmers, we were affiliated somehow, some way. It was about making a difference for those hurting out West. It wasn’t just the physical things that we brought, we were bringing hope and encouragement.”
The explosion of donations and volunteer drivers started with just a single Facebook post announcing the Hamlins’ plan. “It was amazing the amount of people who reached out to help,” says Travis, who farms 200 acres and raises beef with his family in Mantua, Ohio. “We had people not in agriculture who don’t know much about our industry fill up and drop off plastic totes full of supplies.”
U.S. Safety Gear made a large donation of gloves, boots and jackets, he adds.
Drivers paid for their own fuel, which cost about $600. “That comes out of their own hearts and own pockets, although there were some cash donations,” says Travis, noting that two Tractor Supply stores donated $100 each for him to pick up supplies. And truck magnets identifying the group were donated by Leroy Frazier of Show Box Designs.
'Devastation just blew my mind’
Nebraska farmers barely had time to prepare for the flooding, which also included ice blocks — some as big as a truck — that bulldozed homes, barns and livestock.
“The devastation just blew my mind,” Travis says. “When you see a normal river rushing, you might see a few wood pieces 3 or 4 feet long floating downstream. Out there, trees were everywhere — in fields, up against houses and alongside the road. When the water receded, they were left in fields. Corn leaves were everywhere. We saw them in branches 10 feet above the road and raked up like leaves in people’s front yards.”
It’s not just the debris. Massive livestock losses, including calves and pregnant cows, represent a multiyear setback. Crop losses, both harvested and not yet planted, will take a toll on growers.
“The kind of devastation they are dealing with is just overwhelming,” says Chrissy Yoder, who made the trip with husband Josh. They raise crops in Champaign and Logan counties in Ohio. “Looking out the window, it was white all over. I thought it was snow, but it was sand. I was looking for the ocean. It’s going to take years for that to come back into production.”
The agricultural industry has taken a massive blow. Early estimates are losses of $400 million to $450 million in the livestock sector, and $400 million to $500 million each to grain production and in infrastructure. Across the Midwest, damage is estimated in the billions to grain and livestock operations, transportation infrastructure, and river movement.
Support has been coming from across the nation. A Michigan group, which founded Ag Community Relief, has made four trips and included a truck with the Ohio trip. Ohio Relief Haulers partnered with ACR to accept donations. Also joining the convoy were five trucks from Pennsylvania and four from Indiana. ACR has been called the “Red Cross for farmers.”
“Somebody’s got to do it,” says Matt Schaller, president of ACR, which began after 2017’s fires. “Ag does not have a good backup source for any type of relief after a disaster. When hurricanes hit on the coast, large nonprofits fill warehouses of supplies, but there is no such support for ag.”
The Yoders got involved after Josh, a seed delivery driver in the off season, came across a few trucks loaded with supplies headed west. He recorded it on his cellphone and showed it to Chrissy.
“We talked about it,” she says. “It hit our hearts; it was almost like a calling. We have absolutely no regrets.”
Ohio Relief Haulers broke into groups — eight went to Nebraska and one to Iowa. Most went to distribution centers, but some went to farms, including a father-and-son operation that managed to save most of the cattle but lost 900 hogs.
“The son [Eric Alberts of Fremont, Neb.] told us his father was frantically trying to save his animals when [the son] grabbed him by the coattails, in water waist deep, telling him, ‘It’s time to go, I’m not losing you, too,’ ” Travis recounts.
Even with so much loss, Travis says attitudes are still good. “This farmer lost all these animals and is now having to pay to have them hauled out, but he’s got a plan on getting his hog farm back up and running. That’s a true American farmer.”
Future trips may be in the works. “These people are going to need help for months to come,” Travis says.
Visit the Ohio Relief Haulers Facebook page or go to agcommunityrelief.com for a list of needed items or to make a donation.
A trip of this nature needs organization. The Hamlins, who have two small children, spent hours making calls. Brittany, who cataloged cargo on a spreadsheet, says she slept only three hours a night for three weeks.
“What made this trip was so many people coming together,” Travis says, while remembering good times along the way, including the citizens-band chatter.
One driver gave a shout across the CB to let the Hamlins know their trailer tire was shredding. “Travis pulled over so we could do a tire swap real quick and catch back up with the group. But the convoy had a different plan,” Brittany says.
Brakes sounded, tires squealed, and fellow Ohio Relief Haulers parked on the road and ran to the Hamlins’ truck with tools, jacks and a spare tire. “Not only did they all stop, but we set a NASCAR record of a five-minute tire swap,” she says.
The group looked after each other, especially one driver — 82-year-old Fred Hauff. “He’s been a truck driver for 60 years, but he didn’t have any technology — no GPS, no cellphone,” Travis says.
Hauff’s nickname started out as “Fast Freddy” and then “Grandpa.” “By the end of the trip, we might have persuaded him to consider a cellphone,” Travis says.
Brittany calls the trip inspiring. “I wish that feeling for everyone to have in their lifetime.”