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Published August 12, 2009, 08:49 AM

Osakis pulls together for family

Dairy herd lost, while barn and silos severely damaged
While a young Osakis dairy farmer and his wife brought their son into the world, a community of neighbors worked to save their farm.

By: Greta Petrich, The Osakis Review

OSAKIS — When he drove his wife to the hospital July 13, the last thing on James Maus’ mind was his cows.

Yet while the young Osakis dairy farmer and his wife brought their son into the world, a community of neighbors worked to save his farm.

Maus’ barn burned to the ground that night, killing 74 dairy cows.

No time to waste

They knew the baby was coming, so James worked until 10 p.m. baling and putting 2,000 bales of hay in the haymow above his dairy barn.

Within an hour, his wife, Jennifer, said it was time to go and they were off to the hospital, leaving their 5-year-old daughter, Lynnea home with her aunt Monica.

While Monica slept on the living room couch, a fire swept through the newly piled bales.

Meanwhile, some young neighbors, on their way home from Alexandria, noticed a strange glow coming from the farm.

Mindi Alverson Nash said at first they thought it was someone burning a ditch, but when they got closer, realized it was a fire. “I thought I should drive up and see what was going on and then my sister, Michelle, called me and said I should come,” she said.

Michelle Alverson was also driving home and saw the flames. They called their dad, Rich Alverson, to see if the farm was in use and then called 911.

After reporting the fire, Mindi asked the dispatcher if she should go in the house to see if anyone was there.

“I remember going up to the house, you could feel the heat,” Mindi said. “Then I heard the animals and couldn’t move. My sister grabbed me and said ‘Don’t listen, just run.’ ”

The girls ran into the house and woke a skeptical Monica who couldn’t believe there was a fire.

“I was right in front of an open window and I didn’t hear a thing,” she said. “The dogs didn’t even bark.”

In the meantime, Rich called James’ brother, Kenny, knowing he’d be able to reach his brother.

At midnight, in the heat of labor, James noticed his cell phone ringing, but didn’t answer. When the phone ran again just minutes later, with another call from Kenny, Jenn told him he better answer.

“I’m not the kind of person who gets calls at midnight,” James said. “And my brother isn’t one to just call to talk.”

James couldn’t believe the news either, actually asking his brother to call a neighbor to make sure it was his place. With all the excitement, Jenn’s labor, which was progressing rapidly, came to a halt. “Jenn told me to go home,” James said, “but there was nothing I could do there.”

James’ parents, Dennis and Rita, came as soon as they heard – before they’d left their driveway, three firetrucks had already arrived at the farm.

“The Osakis Fire Department arrived in minutes and they’re five miles from town,” Dennis said. “That was impressive.”

The fire crew had plenty to do, calling in Long Prairie for mutual aid. They battled the blaze that tore through the rafters while neighbor Punky Didier cleared the way by moving the damaged hay with his backhoe.

Baby Justin James joined the family at 2:17 a.m. and his proud father returned home at 3:30 a.m. to a big surprise. “I couldn’t believe all the people there to help,” James said about the yard full of neighbors that had shown up.

They had taken charge, making room for the water trucks, organizing help and putting together a lunch so the firefighters could take a break.

As the sun began to rise they surveyed of the damage – all that remained of his dairy operation was the tin walls of the addition.

The family was in shock.

A dream destroyed

James had only recently begun dairy farming on his own, joining in partnership with his parents, Dennis and Rita, on June 1. They had recently built a 28-stall addition onto the original tiestall dairy barn and purchased another 30 cows, increasing the herd size to 74 cows.

In addition to the dairy herd perishing in the fire, the intense heat damaged all four silos severely and destroyed a tractor and spreader.

“We lost everything,” James said. “I’ve got a six-page list of all the things I can think of that were in the barn.”

And it will be a long road ahead – each day he thinks of another thing that’s missing.

“We have baby calves to feed and the milk replacer was in the barn,” he said. “You don’t miss things until you need them.”

One highlight for the farmers is the young stock – about 45 cows – that weren’t in the main barn. At the same time, it reminds Dennis of another loss – genetics.

“It’s tough to think of all the years of genetics we’ve lost,” he said. “It’ll take 30 years to get back where we were.”

Family of neighbors

The outpouring of kindness and generosity from neighbors still overwhelms the Maus family.

In spite of the fire, James said he feels lucky for how well the clean-up has gone. Within a few hours of daylight July 14, their insurance agent, adjuster and the fire marshal arrived to survey the damage. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency showed up to give an OK for disposal of the cow carcasses – 43 were sent to the rendering service and the rest were composted.

“We were happy they came quick so we didn’t have long to deal with that smell,” Rita noted.

The fire marshal thinks the fire started in the hay barn, possibly from a questionable light and the old wiring.

News of the disaster spread throughout the community and an outpouring of support began to flow. People came to clean; neighbors offered to house the remaining cows; women brought and served food; local businesses came forward with food donations. Everywhere they looked, people were coming to help.

“You don’t realize how good your neighbors are until disaster strikes,” Dennis said.

A ray of hope

While the family looked across the farm at the place where their dairy operation once stood, Dennis found a ray of hope in his 3-week-old grandson.

“Things could have been so much worse,” he said. “What if something had happened at the hospital?”

“Or if James was home he would have been in the barn trying to get the cows out,” Rita added. “He could have been hurt.”

Just as quickly as his livelihood came to a stop, the future is alive on the farm. Already some of the dry cows have calved and more heifers are due this month.

James said he’s got a lot of work to do in the meantime combining, finding a new barn design and getting permits for a new site.

“You take for granted what you have and suddenly it’s gone,” he said. “I just want to start milking again.”

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