From The Ashes
How a farm family not only survived one terrible night, but has used the experience to fuel their own drive to recover.
By Richard Banks | Photos By Jamie Cole
“I remember getting the phone call,” says Jered Rediger. “It was about midnight. I drove the 10 miles from my house as fast as I could, and when I got about 5 miles away, I could see it—not the fire, but the plume of smoke that was rising up from the fog.”
The source of the smoke and fire was his family’s hay and equipment storage facilities in Harrisburg, Ore. Already engulfed were an office trailer and a total mixed rations (TMR) mixer, as well as a barn filled with hay, tractors, balers and other equipment. Not far away were a smaller tool shed, Jered’s parents’ house, and, perhaps more ominously, diesel and propane tanks.
“It was a big fire [with] lots of fuel,” says Ben, Jered’s father. “It was really intense. Initially, we were trying to move rigs out, and [the fire department] was watering things down to keep them cool for us. But when you get in a situation like that … you try to be calm as much as you can, and think about safety. Yeah, you want to save as much as you can, but you really got to keep in the back of your mind, ‘Is it really worth it?’”
Jered doesn’t know how many firefighters and trucks eventually arrived on the scene. “It was so foggy,” he says, “you couldn’t see very far, even with the light from the fire.” He remembers the lights from the emergency vehicles bouncing off the fog and adding to the surreal nature of the night. “We fought it for hours, just trying to keep it from spreading. Had those tanks caught …” he says, trailing off.
The blaze—fueled in large part by some 4,000 tons of straw, mainly from rye, fescue and orchardgrasses—basically burned itself out by dawn. That, however, was after destroying an estimated $3 million in farm equipment, outbuildings, hay bales and other items, including the trailer where a rodent had eaten through wiring. “That’s what started it,” says Jered, “just a little thing like that started that huge fire.”
Three-plus years later, the fire’s impact can still be seen: visible ones like the remnants of the TMR mixer standing next to the new hay barn and the less tangible impression left on family members themselves. Says Collin, Jered’s younger brother and only sibling, who was just 17 years old at the time of the fire: “I hope I never have to see anything like that again.”
“It was scary, real scary,” adds Jered. “Something like that is not what anyone should have to go through, and I still think about that night. I’m just thankful, first, that no one was injured and we were able to save our shop,” and, he continues, “my parents’ house.”
In addition to just being thankful for what wasn’t damaged, hurt or worse, the Redigers also have used the event to fuel something of their own fire, as motivation to claw back what they lost that December night. “Out of those challenges,” says Jered, “other things come up. It makes you re-evaluate, and you can choose to be really negative, or you can choose to take the positive out of it and try to see what opportunities open up.”
Other opportunities have indeed come up. While the fire forced the Redigers to downsize, including putting the TMR business on hold, the two remaining businesses—Haystorm Harvesting & Fiber, which focuses on custom baling and storage of straw, and a trucking firm, Haystorm Xpress—have begun to grow again. According to Jered, who owns both companies, the two businesses grew by a healthy rate of about 15 to 20% from just after the fire through last year, even with fewer full-time employees and less equipment.
Both of the businesses, revenues of which are still smaller than before the fire, says Jered, are centered around the region’s grass seed industry. According to Oregon State University, the state produces almost two-thirds of total U.S. production of cool-season grasses, the harvesting of which has given rise to custom operators throughout Oregon’s Willamette Valley who, like the Redigers, bale the residual straw. Ben started in this line of work in the late 1970s when, shortly after he and his wife, Sheila, moved from South Dakota, restrictions began to be placed on grass farmers who burned that residue after harvesting the seed.
Today, according to OSU, seed crops from eight grass species are grown on more than 375,000 acres statewide. Of these, 347,000 acres are located in the Willamette Valley, and the Oregon Department of Agriculture allows burning on only 15,000 of the acres.
Such regulations leave tens of thousands of acres of residual straw to be harvested each year, much of which is exported to Pacific Rim and other countries thousands of miles away. The Redigers bale, store and truck upward of 60,000 large square bales annually from some 15,000 to 20,000 acres, all in a tight six-week window usually beginning in July.
An Inextinguishable Spirit
In another sign of the Redigers’ recovery, the family recently purchased 600 acres to house new equipment and hay sheds, and for use as farm ground, where they plan to grow crops, such as grass seed, and raise cattle.
On the new property, they’ve installed a pond, too, which will connect to dry hydrants and allow water retrieval from the air. This will help fight any future fires on their property, as well as on other nearby acreage, where field and forest fires are somewhat common during the region’s dry summers.
It’s part of the family’s plan to push ahead, growing slowly but steadily, over the next several years. “If we can overcome the challenge of that fire,” says Jered, “we can overcome a lot.”
“Farming is a huge risk,” adds Ben, “and that’s why not everybody does it. It’s a gamble. You never know—the elements, the weather are a huge risk. You put that money out there. You’re hoping that it’s going to be a good year, but you don’t know if it’s going to be too dry or too wet. So, it is a risk.”
Farming, he continues, “is not for the person that isn’t willing to hang in there year after year after year and just stick with it. I would say when you have something bad happen, I guess you have the choice of quitting, or you work through it. And you choose to keep going. That’s the heartbeat of a farmer.”