By Patrick Meagher
Dairy farmer, grain elevator operator, crop farmer and hay dealer Arnold Kuratli will not be rebuilding his hay processing plant after it was wiped out by an August fire.
Kuratli lost three buildings, three tractors, equipment and 5,000 large, square hay bales in an Aug. 21 fire that came close to taking down the grain silos next to Kuratli’s house and dairy barn. Damage to the St. Isidore business, east of Ottawa, is estimated at $4.5 million, he said.
Kuratli, who exported most of the hay he processed under the name Sonibrand Farm, said he will move the processing to Florida since that’s where the clients are. He said he operated a $500,000 horse-hay business supplying nine vet clinics in central Florida through two feed stores. He operated the hay business with partner Hans Dittli.
The hay packing plant, with custom hay processing equipment, opened for business 10 years ago and “is completely gone,” he said, adding that it was not insured because the custom-built equipment is irreplaceable.
“We will have a processing plant in Florida,” Kuratli said, adding that labour and building costs are cheaper in Florida.
The fire destroyed three connected buildings covering more than 56,000 sq. ft., including the hay processing plant and a warehouse. Kuratli plans to start rebuilding a 40,000 sq. ft. warehouse and machine shop this year and figures they will have to cover about $1.5 million in costs.
He told Farmers Forum that the replacement costs surprised him. With the low Canadian dollar, farmers should check their insurance policies to be sure they have enough insurance coverage in case of disaster, he said.
He said the night of the fire he thought he smelled a wood barbecue. “I turned around and saw a big red ball over the south side of the building.”
They managed to get the two combines out of one of the buildings but Kuratli said they only had about five minutes to act before it became too dangerous. They lost a lot of seeding equipment, he said.
“It is a horrible shock for the whole family,” he said. “Our main shop was destroyed, and a 40-year collection of tools, speciality tools we built ourselves, parts and antique machinery destroyed.”
He said that the shop had thousands of parts, some valued at as much as $400, and it will take years to rebuild the inventory. Meantime, they have to head into town right away when they need equipment parts, he said.
More than 80 local firefighters, working on rotating shifts, took almost two days to ensure the fire was out. The wall of one of the destroyed buildings was only four feet away from the nearest grain silo. At one time there were nine operating water hoses with some showering the large silo walls to keep the fire from spreading. The local fire chief said it was the worst farm fire he’d seen in 15 years, Kuratli said.
The cleanup was still ongoing one month later and included removing 260 metric tons of steel, he said.
The farm includes 10 employees, including one full-time mechanic. The farm also owns 2,500 acres and crops 3,500 acres, operates a commercial grain elevator and a dairy farm milking 120 cows .
“Thank God the wind shifted,” Kuratli said. “This saved my elevator and so did the firefighters.”
He added that he “was surprised our employees were so connected to that working place. I had an employee who cried for one week. Everything was gone in one night. But no one lost a job.”
He said he still has trouble sleeping at night and in the first 10 days after the fire he said he had that ball of fire in his eyes when the day turned dark. “If someone touched me I would shake,” he said. He made frequent trips through different buildings and into corners to be sure everything was safe.
“I’m still angry,” he said. “Still angry. I’m working on myself. Lots of people prayed for us. I don’t know how we would have made it if people didn’t pray for us.”
Neighbours and friends poured onto the farm to help and some provided hay for the dry cows. “A really big hug and thanks to them,” he said. “They were amazing.”