The Indispensable Power of Relationships

The following commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of AgWeb or Farm Journal. The opinions expressed below are the author's own.

In March 2017, the Starbuck Fire burned more than 800,000 acres across western Kansas, killing around 10,000 cattle, destroying hundreds of miles of fencing and leveling around 30 homes and uncounted agricultural buildings. It could not, however, harm the spirit, generosity and resilience of the agricultural and rural community.

Stories of the fire have been told before, but during the recent American Association of Bovine Practitioners (AABP) Conference, rancher Mark Gardiner, from Gardiner Angus Ranch, and veterinarian Randall Spare, with the Ashland Veterinary Center, retold the story with an emphasis not on the losses, but on the power of relationships and community in responding to tragedy and uniting to work toward recovery.

The presentations dovetailed with the conference theme of “Become Indispensable,” focusing on how veterinarians can collaborate with clients, identifying services and information beyond diagnosing and treating sick animals – services that help ensure long-term success of the operation and sustainability of the veterinary practice.

Gardiner, whose family operates a large and well-known seedstock operation, and Spare, who provides veterinary services to the Gardiners and other area ranches and feedlots, were at “ground zero” when the fire exploded on that dry spring day. On the Gardiner ranch alone, the fire burned more than 43,000 acres of rangeland and 200 miles of fencing.

They talked about treating burned cattle and euthanizing those beyond treatment, about finding temporary housing in feedlots and calf ranches for orphaned calves, about organizing hay deliveries and cattle donations to area ranchers and coordinating an army of volunteers from the community, the region and around the country who came to offer help.

Photos and descriptions during the presentations illuminated numerous images of community: Truck drivers delivering (donated) hay from distant states asking how to donate their own money to ranchers; a rancher herding a neighbor’s cows to safety while his own house burned; a Kansas State University veterinarian operating a skid-steer forklift to unload donated hay; and many others.

While the physical, emotional and financial toll was devastating for all involved, Gardiner and Spare stressed they all found inspiration from the way the community rallied in response to tragedy and heartbreak. Through the aftermath of the fire, Spare recalls not one producer said “I quit.” To him, he adds, “indispensable” is synonymous with relationships – between producers, veterinarians, neighbors, bankers, ag suppliers and the rural community overall.

The stories remind us that while market trends, politics, regulatory issues and the latest production technologies play important roles in the health of American agriculture, our future depends largely on what got us here in the first place: hard work, community and generosity.

For more on “becoming indispensable” from the AABP conference, see these articles on

Focus on What Really Matters

Flying Solo

Keep Clients Asking for More

Systems Thinking in Bovine Practice