Flames stretched 80 feet high — taller than Ray Deutsch’s three silos — when he was roused from bed with a sharp pounding on his front door.
It was 4:30 a.m. Friday, an hour before he would normally wake to begin daily chores on the Scott County dairy farm where he was born and raised. A neighbor heading to work stopped to alert Deutsch and his wife, Cindy, that a raging fire was gutting their century-old barn.
By the time he reached it, the roof of the 140-foot-long wooden barn was beginning to buckle and it was too risky to run inside. The barn, built in 1915, soon collapsed in a heap of ash and tin. The Deutsch family lost 63 dairy cows, four calves and three dogs. It was a loss that has crippled operations on the Elko New Market homestead and has Deutsch questioning how — or whether — to rebuild.
“You tell yourself it’s not your fault, but sometimes you feel that way,” said Deutsch, 61, as tears rolled down his face. “Maybe if I’d just been a better farmer, this wouldn’t have happened.”
A network of friends and fellow farmers began arriving before sunrise to comfort the family, offering to shelter their 14 remaining dairy cows at nearby facilities so they could be milked.
Firefighters battled the blaze for 14 hours in subzero temperatures, but nearly 3,000 bales of hay lying beneath the rubble kept the pile smoldering for days. Even an overnight blanket of snow didn’t staunch the heavy smoke.
“We couldn’t do a whole lot,” said Elko New Market Fire Chief Todd Friedges, who was first to arrive on the scene. “It was gone already.”
The State Fire Marshal has yet to determine a cause, but authorities said early indications are that it was not set deliberately. Friedges believes the cause is likely electrical, as there was no heat source in the barn (cows create their own), just lights.
One day at a time
Reality hits hardest in the morning for Ray and Cindy Deutsch, whose daily routine has been abruptly interrupted.
The couple, both second-generation farmers, have been forced to oversee a massive clean up instead of completing regular dairy duties.
“We’re used to working 12 hours a day and it’s all stopped,” said Cindy, who encouraged Deutsch to buy the property from his father in 1998.
Deutsch, one of nine children, came of age on the farm, located near the intersection of 260th Street East and Xerxes Avenue. His father began operations there in 1948. They reinforced the barn over the years, recently hiring a crew of Amish men to re-tin the roof.
“I think it would have made it another 90 years,” Deutsch said. “It hurts.”
Relatives attended a ceremony around the rubble, where Deutsch’s nephew, a priest, read scripture about God’s animals. The words paid homage to the hardworking cows that produced 2.25 million gallons of milk last year, which Deutsch sold to Hastings Co-op Creamery.
“They’re not pets, but you get to know them,” he said.
On Tuesday, workers arrived to butcher one of Deutsch’s cows that broke its leg. On this farm, nothing is wasted.
Although they have insurance, the family remains unsure whether it will cover all the damages.
Some of their teenage employees, who work part-time to help milk the cows, started a GoFundMe page that raised more than $10,000 for expenses. The Deutsches — convinced they don’t need it — pledged to donate a large chunk of the money to firefighters who fought the blaze.
“It’s overwhelming and humbling that people opened their hearts,” said Cindy Deutsch.
Fire departments from Elko New Market, New Prague, Lakeville and Prior Lake worked rotating shifts to put out the fire. The local Domino’s delivered free pizzas every three hours for their efforts.
The loss is devastating, but the couple said they’re just grateful a family member wasn’t killed.
“We have a disaster, but we don’t have a funeral,” Deutsch said.