Pay It Forward

Healing comes when you give from the heart.

Raymond Winkler attaches an American flag to his hay load to help identify him as an Ashes to Ashes convoy driver, Image by Joel Reichenberger

Rural America has always had a big heart. When tragedy strikes, help and hope arrive.

Most recently, we’ve seen it in action as convoys carrying donated hay, fencing and other necessities have rolled in to help farmers and ranchers heal wounds inflicted from flooding.

Progressive Farmer followed one group called Ashes to Ashes as it drove supplies to Verdigre, Nebraska, in late April. For the volunteer drivers from Kansas and Oklahoma, these deliveries represent a way to pay back for the help they received after fires swept across their farms and ranches in 2017.

Their efforts are just one example of the many who have pitched in during a year that has, to date, brought nearly every conceivable natural disaster to our doorsteps. These convoys have become a very visual and almost iconic image of how rural Americans step up in times of need.

However, this story is about more than hay. It’s about being neighborly, citizenship, volunteerism and the need to look beyond flooded fields, prevented planting and commodity prices to discover--or rediscover--a devotion to the rural ideal and the importance of community. It’s about finding good news and celebrating the fact that every person has something to give and a way to make a difference.

It’s about the need to find a renewed sense of kindness.

In that spirit, Progressive Farmer is launching an initiative called “Homegrown Hope” (see “Homegrown Hope,” below, for more details).

Bernie Smith, a Gate, Oklahoma, rancher and one of the Ashes to Ashes organizers, will tell you that no effort is too small when it comes to helping a neighbor. Smith, who is also the volunteer fire chief at Englewood, Kansas, gathers inspiration from gestures of those who keep volunteers fed and the unnamed many who press a hard-earned dollar into a driver’s hand to help pay for fuel.

“It takes a lot of individuals behind the scenes to make these big things happen,” Smith says. Picking up a single bale of donated hay may not always be practical, he admits. “Someone once told me to follow my heart, the rest doesn’t matter,” he says.

When one Ashes to Ashes convoy crossed the Nebraska line and rolled into the small town of Franklin this spring, the drivers found the streets lined with cheering people.

“All we knew ahead of time was that the town wanted to give us some sack lunches to keep us rolling,” he marvels. Like many volunteers, Smith prefers the spotlight focus on those struggling to overcome the disaster. “However, we have come to realize how important it is for people to feel they’ve helped, too,” he says.


It was the 2017 Texas Panhandle wildfires that first inspired Matt Schaller and a group of Michigan farmers and truck drivers to organize a hay delivery. Chattering by radio all the way back to Michigan after the drop, they dared to dream about what is today known as Ag Community Relief
(, a go-to spot for farmers seeking disaster assistance and those wishing to volunteer time or resources.

“There were national efforts such as Red Cross doing great relief work, but no group specializing in agriculture,” Schaller says. Run completely by unpaid volunteers, Ag Community Relief addresses local and national disasters, provides scholarships and involves rural youth organizations.

Meade County, Kansas, agriculture Extension adviser Elly Sneath notes it isn’t always easy for ordinarily independent ranchers to accept help. More than a few tears flowed when Ag Community Relief delivered hay to her county in 2017. “The feed was important, but perhaps more importantly, it was a sign that others cared, and there would be a tomorrow,” she says.


Americans are volunteering in increasing numbers, according to a federal study released by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), the federal agency that oversees AmeriCorps and Senior Corps. The 2018 “Volunteering in America” report found that 77.34 million adults (30.3%) volunteered through an organization last year. The same report suggests millions more are supporting friends and family (43.1%) and doing favors for their neighbors (51.4%), suggesting many are engaged in acts of “informal volunteering.”

Statistics specific to rural areas are limited, but there’s no question volunteerism is an important and increasingly relevant topic for these communities, says Matt Sanderson, a Kansas State University sociology professor. Will future generations want to volunteer in the same ways?

Rural youth organizations are a good training ground, believes Missouri farmer Nick Allen. He’s found a unique way to donate and teach responsibility to his local FFA Chapter through a sweet corn patch.

Many of the Kansas 4-H’ers who cared for orphan calves during the 2017 fires learned a lesson about paying forward, Sneath adds. “Some of those calves were gifted back to the young caregivers,” she reports. “The ranchers were so grateful to have the worry of caring for them lifted, and it gave them a way to pay back.”

The act of volunteerism is contagious, notes Andra Ebert, a Taylorville, Illinois, farmer who ministers to young and old with a small string of mini therapy horses. Her Heartland Mini Hoofs horses have become experienced travelers during the last five years--making 729 visits and traveling approximately 58,000 miles to nursing homes and schools.

“I believe there is a growing need for more personal interaction as society becomes more isolated with technology. Seniors are particularly vulnerable, especially when they are living in a nursing home. The majority of their interactions are related to care, whereas we can use our therapy animals for a totally different interaction, one of pure happiness and laughter,” Ebert says.

“I was blessed with parents who believed in giving back to your community, so those values became part of my fabric,” she continues. “If we all contributed kindness every day, imagine what a world we would live in. I love being able to bring smiles, even for a little while, to people who need it the most.”

Homegrown Hope:

Those who say the fabric of our communities is fraying haven’t witnessed the threads that hold it together. We grow hope when we help one another.

While most are good at responding when disaster strikes, there are situations around us every day where a hand could help. It is in that spirit Progressive Farmer has decided to launch a project called “Homegrown Hope.”

Think of this as a call to action. Send your ideas and stories of ordinary people making extraordinary differences to Help us relay the good stories about the many ways people are making a difference in your world.


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