As the sun rose on December 11th, following a massive EF4 tornado, it revealed the extent of the destruction left behind in and around Mayfield, Kentucky.
Debris is still scattered in the fence rows. Pieces of metal remain jammed into trees. The damage is carved into the countryside along the tornado’s 220-mile path.
“Just seeing who was hurt and what had to happen immediately,” remembers Davie Stephens a farmer in western Kentucky.
The night of the storm, he pulled his neighbors, who are also his landlords, from their house and took them to the hospital for help. The days following the tornado were surreal.
“By the time we got our head wrapped around it, it was a week later,” says Stephens. “So at that point, we started having to pick up in the fields.”
He says a quarter of his farmland was covered in debris. It took until April to clean it up.
“Thank goodness there were some farms we could put off and allow planting schedules to go around,” says Stephens. “We just had to say we’re not done with it because there’s too much debris.”
Pieces of poultry houses were scattered across fields. Crews were forced to go from one end to the other, picking and cleaning so planting could resume. The local USDA office says the price tag for farmland cleanup topped $2 million.
“There were so many days we took two dozers and a backhoe to work on farms,” says Stephens. “My mother-in-law’s farm took nine or 10 days to clean up. We saw everything from debris, to brush and even tree lines were destroyed.”
While Stephens was able to plant, he had to travel miles to find an available elevator come harvest. Mayfield Grain is still damaged and in disrepair.
“Losing Mayfield grain was devastating to the local farm economy,” says Penny Wade Smith, an accountant for farmers in western Kentucky.
To date, the elevator remains closed.
“I talked to a client this week who told me that it was costing him about 50 cents a bushel to haul his product into Tennessee,” says Wade Smith.
“Most of our farmers didn’t have on-farm storage,” says Kyle Yancey, President of River Valley Ag Credit. “The Kentucky Department of Agriculture has put some grant funding up for that purpose but, right now, the biggest impact we have is that farmers have nowhere to take their grain.”
Fencing was also a major loss for many producers. While some ag businesses struggle to rebuild, others have been more fortunate.
“There are millions of dollars worth of poultry barns in West Kentucky and for the most part, they made it through the tornado pretty well,” says Yancey. “There were a few of them with significant damage but outside of the hatchery, the industry survived very well.”
For him, the greatest assets remain the farmers who answered the call for help.
“It was really humbling to see that first thing Saturday morning farmers were pulling in with their excavators and their dump trucks ready to dig rubble,” says Yancey.
“We provided meals in our parking lot here at Wade Farm Financial Services up until May, three times a week,” recounts Wade Smith.
The office also planted a community garden to aid neighborhoods wiped out by the storm.
“In true farmer fashion we help each other out,” says Wade Smith. “When there’s a disaster we all jump in and help our neighbors and this was in that same spirit.”
They gave away free vegetables every Friday and there’s even a winter garden growing right now.
“We’re still giving out fresh vegetables to the neighborhood,” says Wade Smith.
It’s a helping hand, as farmers and the agricultural industry work to piece, not only itself but an entire community back together.
“I still tear up when I drive around in town,” says Wade Smith. “It’s really hard to get or head around it all. I grew up in this community. I’ve lived here almost my entire life. You don’t know where you are. All of the landmarks are gone. The street signs are gone. The churches are gone. The buildings are gone. You don’t even know where you are a lot of the time and it’s still really devastating.”
Yet, bit by bit, piece by piece, Mayfield is reclaiming its future and forging a bond stronger than any tornado can tear apart.