When a fire displaced 400 cows in Sheldon, farmers and friends stepped up to help

Ashley Swainbank, co-owner of Kane’s Scenic River Farms in Sheldon, speaks inside a barn in Sheldon in January 2024. Photo by Catherine Morrissey

About 75 cows died after a fire broke Jan. 20 and turned a 400-foot-long barn into a pile of rubble and ash. 

by Lauryn Katz, Community News Service Ashley Swainbank and her mother, Nancy Kane, speak fondly of Petunia, the little Jersey heifer who made it after the family, owners of Kane’s Scenic River Farms in Sheldon, fought for two weeks to save her life.  

They remember Pepper, too, Swainbank’s favorite calf. The pair of cows were two of 75 who died after a fire broke out the morning of Jan. 20 and turned a 400-foot-long barn, once home to about 500 replacement heifers, into a pile of rubble and ash. 

When Swainbank rushed that morning to open the frozen barn doors, she feared it was a bad idea. 

“We’re never catching them again,” she thought. 

But what she didn’t realize was at least 100 people, farmers and neighbors, had gathered outside with their arms out wide, forming a human fence so the cows couldn’t run off.  

Drivers on East Sheldon Road stopped and tried to block the escape as the animals slipped and stumbled along the icy road. The first fire trucks arriving at the scene had trouble pushing through. 

Farmers with trucks and trailers hurried to collect the displaced cattle and bring them to empty barns and farming facilities. In the wake of the blaze, those farming folks have put up the 400 or so cows on their own properties as Swainbank and her family begin to rebuild. 

“Farmers help farmers,” Kane said of the outpour of support. 

The charred skeleton of a barn at Kane’s Scenic River Farms in Sheldon that burned down Jan. 20, 2024. Photo by Catherine Morrissey

The morning of the fire, Swainbank and her husband, Caleb, had just gotten back into their house about 50 feet from the barn after finishing chores, she recounted on a recent day at the farm. Then a neighbor called and said there was a lot of smoke. Swainbank shot up off the couch, urging her three children to stay inside. Ada, the couple’s 8-year-old daughter, called 911. 

Had the wind been blowing in the other direction that day, their house would have been engulfed too.  

“There was literally 10 minutes to get the animals out from the time that we saw the smoke,” Swainbank said.  

The doors on the building — what she calls the “old barn” — were frozen shut, she said, so she ran to the ones she knew were opened most recently. As her husband tried to unlatch dozens of pens one by one in the old barn, Swainbank started ushering free-roaming animals out before the structure went ablaze. 

Caleb feared the ceiling would collapse at any moment and didn’t get to the last two pens. But even the heifers they freed wouldn’t come out at first. Confused, the natural pack animals stuck together, and a large chunk of them didn’t make it.  

Kane, mother to Ashley and co-owner, drew a picture with a blue marker to illustrate the scene of stress.  

“We thought we only had lost 20 or so,” she said, “but we’re missing 75.” 

Nancy Kane, co-owner of Kane’s Scenic River Farms in Sheldon, speaks inside a farm office January 2024 after the blaze. Photo by Catherine Morrissey

Swainbank has often been in the rubble in the weeks since, her hands covered in soot from digging around for treasures that remain usable. Kane stays clear of the site. 

Insurance greenlit clean-up in the area at the end of January, and at the time Swainbank was hopeful she would soon wake up without a pile of ruins out her window. The plan is to rebuild within six months, but costs are serving as a barrier, the family says.  

Sheldon Fire Department Chief Richard Piaseczny said the fire caused at least half a million dollars in damage to the barn structure alone. The cost of equipment and tools lost inside the building could be the same number, he said.  

The roof had already collapsed when the fire department arrived Jan. 20. Firefighters from neighboring departments, called in to help, made at least 20 pieces of equipment available for the Sheldon crew, Piaseczny said, mostly for trucking in water. 

Among the 100-some-odd people who arrived to help the farm were about 30 “cow people,” as Kane calls them. Those folks knew how to handle cattle and sped up the process of catching and relocating the heifers running down the road.  

One of those cow people was Dean Wright, owner of The Wright Farm about 10 miles away.  

With roughly 200 dairy cows and the same number of replacement heifers of his own, Wright has taken in about 100 heifers displaced by the fire at Kane’s. 

Wright said he’d never had to take in another farm’s animals before. But folks in Vermont’s ag business look out for one another, he said.  

“Everybody kind of works together and reaches out to help,” Wright said. That’s exactly what he did the day of the fire.  

Those 100 heifers will remain in his barn until the team at Kane’s rebuilds theirs. 

Cows at Kane’s Scenic River Farms in Sheldon. Photo by Catherine Morrissey

As for the calves, they are back home, a priority for Swainbank. She needs to feed them manually twice a day, she said, as the farm’s robotic feeder burned down in the fire — adding at least two hours to her normal chores. But now her kids can visit the young cows again, something they have been doing for years.  

Between milking some 1,100 cows, doing daily chores and clearing the debris, the family had been working at full throttle.  

“I usually start in my calf barn, and then I come here and milk fresh cows, and then I go get my kids ready for school, bring my kids to school, then I go back to the calf barn, and me and my husband would feed ‘em and make sure they are clean and dry. Then I’d come back here and do whatever needed to be done,” she said, chuckling at the laundry list. 

The optimism will come in handy. 

Ashley Swainbank, co-owner of Kane’s Scenic River Farms, stands inside a barn next to some of her cows January 2024. Photo by Catherine Morrissey

The Community News Service is a program in which University of Vermont students work with professional editors to provide content for local news outlets at no cost.

vermontbiz.com Vermont Business Magazine