Kansas farm family loses everything but their will to come back
March 13, 2017
Erin Kaltenbach Boggs grew up in Clark County, Kan., the daughter of two ranchers and never considered raising her four children elsewhere. On a bright and sunny March 9, the fires had been extinguished and the outrageously difficult work had begun on the ranch of her youth.
Boggs, who is the face behind the blog and Facebook page Rural Wife Life, spent time chronicling life after the fires that ripped through her parents' ranch north of Ashland, Kan. In no way, she said, should people confuse their situation with devastation.
"We're not devastated," she said. "Devastation is something you can't come back from. Everybody here is going to come back."
Boggs spent the day working on the grim task of dragging dead cattle, some mother cows and others calves, to a pile where they will be photographed, confirmed dead by a veterinarian, and the losses will be tallied. From there, aid will be distributed as it becomes available. Others, injured or badly burned, had to be destroyed, quickly and humanely. Boggs' parents, Mark and Mary Kaltenbach, estimate calf losses at 90 percent and cow losses at 70 to 80 percent and still counting.
There is not an acre, owned or rented by her family, Boggs said, that hasn't been touched. The family has pasture on all four sides of their home, some up to 20 miles away, that has burned. The field of green wheat was the one bastion that remained when the smoke cleared.
Boggs' children were at school or daycare when the fire began and, in the style so typical of small communities, a family friend gathered them and cared for them for two nights while Boggs and her family fought to protect their ranch.
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"My brother and husband worked non-stop not only to save our place but other people's," she said.
Boggs' grandmother's home is on the ranch and crews were able to save her barn by mere feet. Though her parents lost all their pasture, both barns, and the overwhelming percentage of cattle, they were able to save their home.
"When we got to (my parents') house, we tried to load the horses but couldn't because the trailer was on fire," she said. "We turned them out on alfalfa and went to see about the house."
At that point, the fire was crawling up her mom's flowerbeds toward the house. A neighbor to the north who had lost everything only minutes before, arrived and helped with the water truck from his ranch.
"When we came home and saw the kids we were very candid with them," she said. "We told them there had been a terrible fire. We showed them photos and videos and our son begged to skip school to come help."
For ranch kids like the Boggs' children, life and death is a part of life on the ranch. Being real about motherhood and its challenges has always been a priority for Boggs and never has it been so real than in the face of a life-altering event like this fire, the Starbuck Fire. To that end, Boggs and her husband, Austin, have been frank with their children about the losses at their grandparent's ranch. Their oldest son, Degnan, who is 9, accompanied her to the ranch as they set about the task of gathering carcasses.
"My son asked me if I thought God did this and why He would do this," she said. "I said, I don't know but I do know this world has needed something to bring us together. There are people who have been ugly to one another who are working together toward one goal and I think that's pretty amazing."
In contrast to this task, Boggs and other local families have begun taking in orphaned calves to bottle feed for area ranchers.
Area children, many who are 4-H members, and their families will bottle feed the calves — a time consuming task — until the ranchers are prepared to have the calves returned to the ranch. It is a vitally important task and the young people feeding the calves are learning valuable lessons and making a tangible contribution, she said.
"I've been running around trying to help and I found myself looking at the burned mamas and the calves wandering around bawling for them," she said. "Somebody has to feed them, that's still money on the ground. That's something these kids and families can do to help."
Boggs has been periodically sharing live feeds on Facebook and she said she draws a vital differentiation between posting valuable information and items posted for shock value. She has received a number of questions about her posts and she's grateful for the opportunity to answer questions in a way that validates people who are trying to learn about the cattle business and encourages them to ask another question. This has started an important conversation between the people who produce food and their consumers.
"This doesn't stop when the fires stop," she said. "That's when our work really begins. Losing these cattle is extremely personal to me and to my parents but it's important that people know what is happening and that we protect our reputations."
And so, with her family, fences will be built, donated and newly trucked-in hay will be stacked, bottle calves will be fed and her children will learn, in unforgettable and personal ways, what it means to be a caretaker.
"We've lost bucket calves and cats," she said. "We always care but know it's a part of this lifestyle. God has entrusted us with these animals and we have to do the best we can, even in the worst of circumstances." ❖