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Christian farm group aids ranches hit by hurricanes
By TIM ALEXANDER
Illinois Correspondent

LEXINGTON, Ill. — Wanted: Farmers, ranchers, roofers, plumbers, and other skilled tradespersons willing to work hard to make a difference in the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast region of Louisiana. Payment: from above.

If the Fellowship of Christian Farmers, International (FCFI), were to place a newspaper advertisement seeking more volunteers for their Building Fences in the Bayou…’til the Cows Come Home campaign, it may look something like this.

Instead, the organization, based in Lexington, Ill. is counting largely on word of mouth to help fill the need for more volunteers for their massive, ongoing relief campaign benefiting Louisiana’s cattlemen and rice farmers still devastated in the wake of last year’s hurricanes.

“It’s impossible to get ahead, and impossible to have too many volunteers,” said Melvin Bell, a retired farmer and FCFI member from Mahomet, Ill. who recently returned from Vermillion and Cameron Parishes in south Louisiana and is gearing up for another trip. “We don’t know how long we’re going to be there; the project has grown some pretty big legs. We could send volunteers for the next five years and still have plenty of jobs to do.”

While in Louisiana, Bell and a large group of volunteers he led coordinated their relief efforts through the Vermillion County Farm Bureau and the state’s cattleman’s associations.

The volunteers, largely comprised of FCFI members from Illinois and other Midwestern states, bunked at “mobile offices” in Abbeville, La. during their most recent mission to restore fencing and livestock buildings in the area. Only about a dozen volunteers are at the site presently and are awaiting another influx of volunteers in late March.

“We have a bus to sleep in that holds about 15 or 20 people, and we have a church that can accommodate around 85. We can handle a pretty good-sized relief effort,” said Bell.

This is the FCFI’s first extended “rapid response” relief effort in its history and the organization needs more volunteers to keep the project flowing.

“We had 60 or 65 volunteers down there last time, and we hope to go back with more than 100,” said Bell, who retired from farming two years ago and has volunteered for some 13 missions with the FCFI to all corners of the globe.

“People with trade skills are in great need, but we have housewives, computer experts, and people with many different skills involved in this effort. We make the transportation and housing arrangements. We received a grant to help with the expenses and we use some of our own donations. Farmers are volunteering to donate or sell hay for the effort, and trucking and other businesses are coming through with much-needed goods and services. Everyone is helping out, but we need more.”

Bell said that an individual wishing to come to the region and volunteer would only be charged $25 by the FCFI for insurance, which would cover them during the entire length of their stay. Bell said the importance of “mending fences” in Louisiana is foremost in the minds of most of the area’s farmers.

“We asked them what they wanted us to concentrate on and building and repairing fences was their main concern. When the floods came in fences filled up with fodder and just lay over. As a result of that, no one can bring their cattle back until they have their fences repaired,” Bell explained, adding that most of the state’s cattlemen removed their stock to environs north of I-10 prior to Hurricane Rita’s landfall, where they remain in rented pastures. “What we’re doing now is really just the first step in what needs to be done.”

After encountering some initial trepidation from the mostly Cajun farming populous of southern Louisiana, Bell said FCFI is now warmly received.

“The Cajuns are a fairly closed-shop people who are not used to outsiders coming in and offering them anything; at first they were suspicious,” Bell said. “But once they understood we were there to help them and were there because of Jesus Christ, it became very easy to work with them. We’re now getting two or three applications a day and the word is spreading.”

In the southernmost reaches of Vermillion Parish, conditions for farmers are even worse.

“Down there they have no hay, they have no grass, and they can’t even construct fences of any value yet,” Bell explained.

Those who the FCFI are able to help are very appreciative, Bell said.

“It’s very rewarding. People are often crying because of the desperation they are in, but they always are saying ‘thank you.’ One farmer said ‘I don’t know who brought Rita, but I know who sent you.’ That alone is something I’ll remember all my life. That’s a life-long reward. I guarantee if you (volunteer to) go down there, you will come back a changed person.

“No one else is helping the farmer down there. Even the federal government is making promises but no money is involved yet. We’re the only organization looking out for the farmers.”

Calvin Leboues, president of the Vermillion Parish Cattleman’s Assoc., told Farm World the FCFI has been “a big blessing” to the area’s rural denizens and has even helped some farmers and ranchers in relieving their depression.

“They are a one-of-a-kind breed of people,” Leboues said of the volunteer corps from the FCFI. “Whatever we have asked them for we have received, plus more. They are such good people and hard-working people; they have gone out of their way for us. They even take the time to talk with the farmers and share a smile. I believe that has helped some of them through their depression.”

Aside from needing more Louisiana volunteers, the FCFI welcomes new members and donations of cash and services to help with the relief efforts and others the organization undertakes.

“There is no bureaucracy involved in making a donation to the FCFI,” Bell said. “All the money goes straight to the relief efforts.”

To volunteer for the relief effort or to make donations, contact Dennis Schlagel, FCFI executive director, at 309-65-8710 or through their website at www.fcfi.org

In addition, Schlagel can be contacted via e-mail at fcfi4him@aol.com

This farm news was published in the March 1, 2006 issue of Farm World.

3/1/2006