Fire ravages dairy barn, Walkers "overwhelmed" with community support

·3 min read

The Walker family is grateful for the outpouring of community support after a fire ravaged one of their dairy barns last week.

“We’re so overwhelmed by what everyone did for us,” said John G Walker. “It was really cool that everyone was able to pull together.”

Firefighters, neighbours and local businesses rallied to help the family in their time of need. “It’s hard to name them all, because there were so many people that contributed, donated, and sent food,” he said.

A fire destroyed a large portion of the main barn at Walker Farms in Summers Corners on Wednesday, Feb. 17, just before 5 p.m. Damages are estimated at $3-million.

“The volunteer firefighters really stepped up,” said Mr. Walker. “They did a phenomenal job.”

He noted, “No one getting hurt was the number one thing.”

Firefighters from Malahide, Bayham, Central Elgin and Aylmer managed to save the back portion, which otherwise would have resulted in an additional $2-million loss. The fire took about seven hours to bring under control.

While the family is thankful for what was saved, and that no people were injured, they were upset at the loss of livestock: an estimated 78 cows were lost as a result of the fire. “It’s obviously emotional a little bit. You never want to lose anything - the livestock are part of our lifestyle, our livelihood,” said Mr. Walker. “You can always build new buildings, but losing livestock always sucks.”

Another 875 cows were saved, quickly herded out of the barn and into a nearby penned pasture by Walker Farms staff and firefighters.

Some of those displaced cows were sent to another Walker dairy farm on Talbot Line, while others will stay at Skipwell Farms, a nearby 1,800-acre, 420-head dairy farm.

They are currently being closely monitored for any health issues from smoke they may have inhaled, but Mr. Walker noted they have dealt quite well in the aftermath.

Gerald Schipper, who runs Skipwell Farms, said the 80 cows have adjusted well to their new surroundings since taking them in.

“The neat thing about cows is that they’re like humans,” said Mr. Schipper. “If you go by yourself to a strange place it can be intimidating, but if you go with 10 friends together it’s a lot easier.”

Skipwell Farms uses a very similar milking system and layout as the Walkers, making the transition that much easier.

“The Walker family have helped out a lot of dairy producers in our province, including ourselves,” said Mr. Schipper.

When firefighters responded on Feb. 17, night was sinking in, and temperatures were dropping with it, starting at -8°C and getting colder. Workers brought hot food and coffee from local restaurants including Aylmer Sub, Domino’s Pizza, Tim Horton’s and KFC to help firefighters during the physically exhausting, several hour fight in the frigid temperatures. All refused offers of payment.

The Walkers were also provided with lunches and suppers in the days that followed.

The Walker Dairy office, milking parlour, milk house, former sales arena, and storage area were lost to the fire. Live auctions have been hosted monthly in the sales arena since the 1960s.

Mr. Walker said the fire did not impact the sales side of the operation.

“With COVID-19, we haven’t been running our live auctions, we went online,” he said. “We don’t need to physically have the live auction part.”

The family has insurance for such emergencies and they plan to rebuild a similar structure with the possibility of some changes, said Mr. Walker.

Veronica Reiner, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Aylmer Express