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Clean Slate - Fire forces Olsons to grow faster than expected

PD Editor Karen Lee Published on 09 August 2013

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Event: Barn fire
Total property damage: Not released
Injury or losses to cattle: 0
Insured: Yes
Total covered losses: Not released

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At 4 a.m. on Jan. 21, 2007, a neighbor driving to work saw smoke coming from the barn at Breezy Hill Dairy in Dallas, Wisconsin.

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He alerted the owners, Alex and Mary Olson, and Alex was able to close the barn gate to prevent any animals from entering the building.

The structure, which included a 90-stall tiestall barn that had been converted to a flat-barn parlor, holding area and some heifer stalls, ended up being a total loss.

After the fire, the Olsons built a new milking facility and added on a second portion to both of their existing freestall buildings for milking and dry cows.

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While hosting Wisconsin Farm Technology Days in Barron County, the couple sat down with Progressive Dairyman Editor Karen Lee to reflect on the disaster that instantly changed the way they farm.

What did the disaster take away that you will never be able to replace?
Before the fire, everything was on cruise control. The fire took that away.

We were forced to grow a little bit faster than what we probably would have. Ever since, we’ve been in constant growth mode.

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Name at least three improvements you have been able to make by having to rebuild.

• Double-eight herringbone parlor, which is safer and cleaner than the flat-barn parlor.

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• Installed all wiring, both in the ground and throughout the buildings, in conduit to protect against damage.

• Improved our direct-load system. Before we used a bulk tank to cool the milk before transfer to a tanker. Now, we have an in-line chiller.

Name one thing the disaster took away, but now that it has been replaced or restored, you’re not sorry it was lost or damaged in the first place.
Some people say it’s a blessing, but we don’t see it that way. We’d take the old buildings back. We were very comfortable with how the farm was set up and how the cows were producing.

What did you learn about insurance through working with your insurance company to recover your losses?
(Mary’s) father is a retired insurance agent. When I was younger, there was a fire in my home that also destroyed a family business. That has stuck with me through life and impacted my insurance habits.

We were covered well for the age of the facility, but when you build new it costs more to incorporate the newer technologies available. Make sure you hire a good agent, one who you can trust – both their skills and what they say.

It seemed the insurance company was not well informed on how their own policies worked. In the end, everything worked the way they said it would.

The lack of communication between the agent, adjusters and underwriters was difficult to deal with at times. It’s a process to go through, and there are steps to take. You’re not going to get a check written that day.

How would you insure yourself differently now having gone through this experience?
The insurance agency changes its products and policies often. We review our policies yearly and whenever we purchase new equipment. We were doing that before the fire and continue to do it now.

Is there anything you have done already or will do in the future to protect against this happening to you again?
We do safety training, including fire extinguisher use, with our employees yearly, and there are fire extinguishers in place throughout the farm.

Any electrical project involving more than minor wiring is done by a licensed electrician.

Any advice you might have for producers who may be at risk for a similar situation?
Fire just happens. It made us more aware of any tragedy that can happen on a farm. We were fortunate that no lives were lost.

The life of a human or creature is not an acceptable loss to us. All safety issues are now a big thing for us and are something we are continually working on.

What outside support did you receive that helped you through this difficult time?
On the day of the fire, neighbors came to move cows and brought food for the firefighters and us. One of the reasons we decided to host Farm Technology Days was because four of the people on the host county’s executive committee were on our farm that day.

Audrey Kusilek and her husband took 100 of our cows. Bob Lentz lined up farms, cattle trucks and multiple things that day. Karl Varnes, a manager of Lakeland Cooperative, had fuel trucks brought in. Bob and Karyn Schauf supplied trucks to haul cattle.

We would have never known where to take the cows and how to get them there. The herd went to three different farms, each one taking approximately 100 cows.

We had 120 days to get the cows back home and milking because that’s how long our insurance policy covered our loss of income.

We had to make a lot of long-term decisions in a two-week period, and our industry partners played a big part in that and throughout the building process.

We partnered with a lot of those businesses before and have worked with them since. We have no regrets. They are good companies and businesses to have as industry partners.

The Department of Natural Resources worked with us to provide a high-capacity well permit in less time than it usually takes.

Mary wrote a personal letter to the head of the DNR explaining our situation and asking them to expedite the permit. Afterwards, she sent another letter thanking them for their diligence in the matter. PD

PHOTOS
TOP RIGHT: Mary and Alex Olson hosted Wisconsin’s Farm Technology Days to give back to their local community that helped them when they needed it most.

MIDDLE RIGHT: A double-eight herringbone parlor, holding area and equipment room were built in place of the existing flat-barn parlor destroyed by a fire in 2007. Photos by Karen Lee.

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Karen Lee
Editor
Progressive Dairyman

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