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Farmers recall how community helped after tornado

PRAIRIE FARM — If not for the many twisted, broken trees, little evidence remains of the vicious tornado that ripped through the Cory and Janelle Picknell farm two years ago, tearing the roof off the barn as Cory, his sons and the family dog huddled, terrified, in the corner.

Since then, the Picknells have completely rebuilt their 60-cow dairy farm set in a picturesque valley north of Prairie Farm. They’re the first to express that they couldn’t have done it without the strong support of their rural community.

In lieu of writing and mailing hundreds of thank-you notes to the many who stepped up to help them in their time of need, the Picknells will host the Barron County Dairy Breakfast on Saturday, June 1. The event also will give them an opportunity to showcase their newly rebuilt dairy operation. Some fencing and installation of gates are all that remains on the to-do list before the farm is ready for the more than 3,000 guests expected.

“We want it to be a thank-you for what everybody did for us,” Janelle said. “We want people to see what they did for us.”

Perhaps especially poignant in this time of low milk prices and declining farm numbers, the Picknells say they hope to show the strength, resilience and determination of the people in the dairy industry.

“We need to support dairy farmers and hope this will help for that,” said Cory, 51, who had always wanted to host the county dairy breakfast someday.

No doubt in his mind

While Janelle admits that, if the decision had been hers alone, she wouldn’t have rebuilt the dairy in these economic times, seeing it as an “out,” Cory said he never really thought twice about it after the tornado swept through.

“It never crossed my mind that I was gonna sell out, once we started looking at things,” he said, adding that the cows were OK, they had insurance, they had recently replaced stalls and concrete inside the barn, and they had strong support from family and neighbors. “It’s a way of life that I enjoy. I like the day-to-day challenges being on the farm.”

“Once a farmer, always a farmer,” said his mother-in-law, Janet Nelson, coordinator of the county dairy breakfast, who’s proud that her daughter and son-in-law are hosting this year.

Like Cory, Janelle also relishes the independence of farm life and working with livestock, and while she’d love to be there full time, she must work off the farm to provide health insurance for their family, which includes Seth, 24, an agronomist for Synergy Cooperative in Ridgeland (and his wife, Bailey, a teacher at Cumberland); Jonah, 21, a medical student at UW-La Crosse; and Kaden, 19, who’s studying at Chippewa Valley Technical College to be a diesel technician.

Tractor crushed, restored

This was the second time the Picknells have rebuilt their dairy, the first time being when they bought the rundown foreclosure farm in the 1990s. And the tornado wasn’t their first brush with adversity, as Cory has battled cancer since 2010. His most recent surgery was last November.

They plan to display vintage photographs of the farm, as well as pictures from the tornado damage, at the dairy breakfast. Of the more than 20 buildings the Picknells had at the time of the tornado, the only one that went unscathed was a summer shanty on their other farm along Highway P.

The machine shed was gone, and the barn and house were heavily damaged. All three tower silos went down, crushing an International 986 tractor that was the Picknells’ first major equipment purchase in 1994. The dealer had thrown in a matching pedal tractor, which the couple gave to Seth for Christmas that year. The tractor is being restored for display at the breakfast.

“We didn’t think it would even run, but it started and we drove it away from the silo,” Cory said.

In the rebuilding, the barn got a new roof and steel siding, and a new milkhouse and feed room expansion were incorporated. All other facilities, including a new heifer barn and machine shed/shop, are new.

Janelle, who was at work in Cameron on the day of the EF3 tornado, vividly recalls the storm’s sudden onset: “In the snap of your fingers, everything was black and hail was coming down,” she said. “I couldn’t get to the house; they met me with boots. I knew I was coming home to it, but you can’t imagine how bad it is ... .”

With no time to run to the house, Cory said he and his sons, who were preparing for evening milking, had no choice but to wait out the storm in a corner of the barn as the roof over their heads disappeared. They watched debris crash down upon a calf in a pen. To their amazement, the calf was uninjured.

Volunteers come through

By the time Janelle arrived home from work that day, volunteers — many the Picknells didn’t even know — had already begun the daunting task of sifting through the debris. They brought generators, portable lighting and Porta-Potties; covered a newly exposed section of the house to prevent water damage; and arranged for transportation and alternative housing for the cattle.

“All these people just came and took care of it,” Janelle said.

They’re proud of their revamped dairy, and while none of their children are interested in dairy farming at this time, they hope they have set up their place for the future so it can continue as a family farm for many years to come.

“I look at the pictures and see where it started and see the progression,” Cory said.

“I love to drive down the road and see what it looks like now,” Janelle said.