By CJ Woodring Photography by Josh Marshall
A Blessing In Disguise An unexpected fire helps a local organic cooperative thrive
NGRY FLAMES SHOT into the air, licking the northeast Indiana night sky and rousing sleepy residents. Later, some townsfolk in the Amish community would say they’d heard explosions during the fire. Ultimately, nine area fire departments — about 80 firefighters — converged on the small town of Wolcottville the night of April 30, 2013, hoping to contain the inferno that engulfed the century-old mill at Wolcottville Organic Livestock Feed (WOLF) Cooperative. Efforts to save the iconic landmark were in vain. Within an hour, the structure was mere cinders, along with products stored inside and a feed truck parked nearby. The mill was built in the late 1800s on a site adjacent to a railroad, mak-
42 // FARM INDIANA // DECEMBER 2014
ing it easy to ship grain throughout the region. Former mill owner and co-op general manager Lamar Bontrager says lost contents included a cob crusher, flour mill and two big wooden grain cleaners, “things you don’t find at feed mills anymore.” The cause of the blaze, never verified, was suspected to be electrical in origin.
WHERE TO FROM HERE?
May 1 was business as usual for Bontrager and his employees — admittedly still in shock — who sent feed to customers as if it were just another day. “I looked out over the rubble and wondered to myself how we were going to make grain that day because, for me, it’s just what we’ve gotta do, is take care of our customers,” Bontrager recalls. Serendipitously, perhaps, a tractor and portable grinder belonging to Dave Miller, now general manager of Topekabased Honeyville Feed & Farm Supply, were there and quickly put to use. “His stuff was just sitting there, plus, the main ingredients had been stored in another place,” Bontrager says. “So we got them, and by 10 a.m., were setting up. We took care of all of our customers and, as far as I’m aware, didn’t miss a lick. It was far from efficient, but we made feed from May 1 to about the first of August, when we got the mixer installed and put it on a scale.”
ABOVE | Lamar Bontrager stands atop the newly built Wolcottville Organic Livestock Feed (WOLF) Cooperative. LEFT | The original feed mill (submitted). INSET | The feed mill on fire on April 30, 2013 (submitted).
Experiencing a fire is always devastating. In addition to destroying property, the disaster also had the potential of threatening operations of the cooperative, which had been formed just two months earlier. When board members met at 9 a.m. May 1, the co-op’s future was uncertain. Did they want to stay and rebuild in Wolcottville? Did they want to
rebuild elsewhere? Did they want to just walk away? “I’d gotten a feeling from the community, during the fire, that they wanted us to stay,” Bontrager says. “Many people asked me that night whether we were planning to rebuild, so that was what we decided to do. We also decided to visit other mills to get an idea of the type of mill we wanted.”