Bear Creek Catholic leads effort to feed farmers affected by snowstorm

Kellie Zahn organizes distribution of meals to 31 farm families

ALLOUEZ — The weekend snowstorm that hit northeast Wisconsin April 14 and 15 did more than break snowfall records. It collapsed the barn roofs on dozens of farms around the Diocese of Green Bay, killing cows hit by falling debris and putting the livelihood of many farmers in jeopardy.

Kellie Zahn, who, along with husband Ryan and her parents, Doug and Mary Behnke, operates Douglas Behnke Farms, a 300-cow dairy farm in Clintonville, followed the reports of damage from home. “We happened to be stranded at the farm all weekend,” she told The Compass in an email. “It was a long and draining weekend. Fortunately, our farm only sustained minor damage from the storm.”

Volunteers prepare meals for 31 farm families, whose farms were damaged by the April 14 and 15 snowstorm in northeast Wisconsin. About 25 volunteers, led by Kellie Zahn, began preparing meals at St. Mary Church in Bear Creek. (Submitted Photo | Courtesy of Kellie Zahn)

Many of her neighbors weren’t as fortunate.

In the days that followed the snowstorm, which dumped more than two feet of snow, Zahn said she began reading stories and seeing photos on Facebook posted by neighbors about collapsed or damaged barns. “I just felt the urge to do something,” she said.

“I really felt like it was coming from the Holy Spirit,” said Zahn, a member of St. Mary Parish in Bear Creek. “Whenever I tried to put it aside and say, ‘There’s nothing I can do,’ it would just keep coming back.”

Zahn called her mother and they came up with a way to support area farmers.

“We discussed that farms have insurance that should help cover most of the damages, but that it might be helpful to bring meals out to some of these farmers as they are busy trying to clean up from the damages — on top of taking care of their regular farm chores,” Zahn said. She called the project #FarmStrong.

Zahn recruited fellow St. Mary parishioner, Kris Stilen and they began making plans to prepare home-cooked meals for farmers in the area.

“I knew of about five farms that had been damaged by the storm and she had a list of another two farms,” said Zahn. The two women, along with Zahn’s mother, made arrangements to prepare meals April 20 in the kitchen at St. Mary Church. Their plans grew during the week, as more volunteers were recruited and news came of more farms needing assistance.

“The word of this project spread like fire and we knew that we were going to be making meals for more than the six to 10 farms,” said Zahn. “By the end of the day on Wednesday we had about 25 area farms on our list and decided that we would make meals for up to 30 farms.”

Kellie Zahn, center, presents food items to Connie Viergutz, left, and her daughter Erin on April 20. The Viergutz family, owners of Triple D Dairy located north of Clintonville, was one of 31 receiving food prepared by volunteers led by Zahn, a member of St. Mary Parish in Bear Creek. (Submitted Photo | Courtesy of Kellie Zahn)

Zahn used her family farm’s Facebook page, Douglas Behnke Farms, to announce the project. “We started using #FarmStrong and encouraged others to use it, too, as a way to bring awareness to what we were trying to do,” she said.

Not only did she learn that more than 60 farms in Marinette, Oconto, Outagamie, Shawano and Waupaca counties had been damaged, two other groups contacted her to say they would start similar efforts. The groups included UW Extension of Outagamie County, led by Kevin Jarek, and Seed Concepts in Pulaski, led by Bobbi Holl and Carolyn Alsteen. They prepared their meals at St. Anne Church in Lena.

A group of about 25 volunteers began preparing meals at St. Mary Church at 6 a.m. April 20. “We had a number of people stopping in throughout the day, dropping off desserts and wishing us words of encouragement or just stopping in to see what was happening,” Zahn said.

What began as a simple meal for a few farmers turned into a full meal for 31 farm families consisting of a pan of lasagna, a pan of ham and scalloped potatoes, fresh buns, vegetable plate, cheese plate, case of water, gallon of chocolate milk, and two pans of desserts per family.

“We had enough food left over to deliver to two area fire departments, which had been assisting with removing snow from area farms, and we were also able to donate some unopened items to the food pantry,” said Zahn, adding that many of the food items were donated by area businesses and individuals.

Zahn said the highlight of the day was delivering the food to farmers.

“My sister, Christa, and I delivered meals to three of the 31 farms,” she said. “At each farm, we took a couple of minutes to visit with these farmers and hear their stories about the storm. … Many of the farms were just grateful that someone was thinking about them.”

One farmer called Zahn to thank her.

“We had a 15-minute conversation about the food someone had brought out to him, how his family was handling the storm, and what he was going to do next,” she said. “He kept saying that he was shocked that someone thought of him. I kept telling him that we were just trying to be God’s hands in the world through all of this and that God doesn’t forget you. God was the one who put this plan in action, I was just grateful to be surrounded by a community of people who said ‘yes’ to his call.”