OSSEO — Inga Witscher’s barn was never just a barn.
For 13 years, it was where the organic farmer known for hosting Wisconsin Public Television’s “Around the Farm Table” toiled day in and day out, milking and caring for her cattle, some of which were born there.
It was inside the barn that she and her husband, Chance Orth, had their first date — milking cows, of course. They married there, the barn filled that day with locally grown flowers and straw bales from the 30-acre farm in the Trempealeau County town of Hale for their friends and family to sit on while watching them commit their lives to one another.
It was inside the milk house attached to the front of the barn that Witscher preferred to spend time with friends, family and neighbors visiting.
But now all of that’s gone after tragedy struck about two weeks ago on Witscher’s barn south of Osseo, when it burned to the ground in an early morning fire.
“You know, you spend every day of your life out there, 13 years for me,” Witscher said Thursday, shaking her head as she trudged through the blackened, snow-covered ruins of what used to be her barn. “It was never like this office that I dreaded going to work in. This was my barn. It was home.”
Witscher and Orth had planned for a “lazy day” on Nov. 14, as they’d been out late the night before for an event and the cows were no longer producing milk.
“We were like, ‘It’s gonna be the best day ever,’” Witscher said. “But that obviously didn’t happen.”
At about 8:30 a.m., Witscher and Orth awoke to the sound of repeated honking. Typically, that’s what the neighbors do to let them know the cows have gotten out — a relatively regular occurrence on the farm, Witscher noted with a laugh.
But when Witscher and Orth got out of bed, still groggy from sleeping, they looked out the window to find flames. Everywhere. And there was nothing they could do.
“It was really traumatic,” Orth said. “There was nothing that could’ve been done.”
Within minutes, firefighters from Hale, Osseo and other agencies were outside, before either Orth or Witscher thought to call 911.
“It was amazing to see how they worked, and I’m just so thankful,” Witscher said. “They’re volunteer firefighters, but they know what they’re doing.”
Despite their efforts, it was too late.
The largest barn, as well as the milk house attached to the front of the barn and the creamery, where Witscher and Orth planned to start making cheese in just a few days, were a near total loss.
Although most of the cows were outside, Witscher and Orth also lost three calves and three hens that were inside the barn at the time.
“That was sad. This is where we used to wash them, milk them,” Orth said, gazing at the milk buckets, slightly melted from the blaze, that remained hanging on a burnt beam of the barn. “They were really lovely little calves.”
Investigations of what’s left of the barn have led fire officials to believe the blaze was caused by a space heater that was inside the barn, though they’re not entirely sure.
“From 8:30 to 9:15 that morning, it felt like we’d lived six months with the emotions you go through,” Witscher said. “It was so draining for everyone, being there and seeing that happen.”
Witscher and Orth aren’t sure exactly what lies ahead, as winter sets in and they have not yet received word of how much their insurance deductible to replace the barn will be.
“It’s like you just don’t even know where to start,” Witscher said. “These situations, you’re never really taught what to do, you know?”
But what they do know is that they will continue farming and they will, eventually, begin producing cheese as they had planned. For now, their remaining herd will stay outside for the winter and use an unharmed outbuilding as shelter.
From there, they’ll figure out how to continue their work as organic farmers fighting for local, sustainable agriculture.
“We’re farmers. That’s who we are,” Witscher said. “Farming right now, it’s terrible what’s happening, but I still think we can show by example that you can have a small, sustainable farm by marketing directly to people instead of that 5,000-cow operation and still be successful. Maybe things can change.”
The couple hopes to build a new barn in spring — a barn that will be completely theirs and that they can design themselves, as Orth tries to reassure Witscher.
“I still cry every day,” Witscher said, “but my dad and my husband have been so great at telling me to think about what the barn could look like and that kind of thing.”
“It’s really hard to lose, but when it comes down to it, it’s just a building. It’s just a barn,” Orth added. “We got pretty philosophical about it pretty fast. You know, we’re OK, we’re alive, nobody died. It’s a possession — a pretty big one, but still.”
Although filming for this season of “Around the Table” has wrapped up, Witscher expects the show going forward will document the aftermath of the fire and rebuilding the barn.
Outpouring of suppot
Above all else, Witscher and Orth agreed they’re most emotional about the support they’ve received from the community since the fire.
From texts and phone calls from friends and family members, to messages on social media from viewers neither she nor her husband have ever met, Witscher and Orth agreed they’ve been “overwhelmed” by the support the community has shown for them.
“How the community came together, that’s what gets to us,” Orth said as Witscher teared up. “It’s kind of one of those things were you have no idea how supportive our community is until something like this happens. And that’s powerful.”
But the community’s support goes beyond well wishes.
On the day of the fire, one of the local volunteer firefighters whom they’d never met offered to take the cows as long as they needed. Another man messaged Witscher on Facebook, offering to donate a calf to the couple whenever they’re ready for another.
When Amy Huo, a longtime friend and neighbor of Witscher’s, heard the news of the fire, she sprung into action, creating a GoFundMe account that day.
As of Friday evening, the account had raised $7,149, surpassing its goal of $5,000.
“She’s done a lot for local food in Wisconsin,” said Huo, a local chef who owns and operates Locavore Mobile Kitchen. “I feel like we owe it to her to help her out when she needs it, because she would do the same for anyone else. She deserves it.”