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Sean Kirst: After barn fire, Little Valley farmers find 'kindness everywhere'

Sean Kirst

Every now and then, as Deborah Ann Ritchie describes the aftermath of a fire on the family farm, her voice cracks. She pauses to speak through raw emotion.

It would be easy to believe she is stopped by grief, compounded by fatigue. She and her husband Stew went to bed on a November evening thinking they had no worries beyond their daily tasks. Their life is built around supplying organic vegetables or grass-fed beef to hundreds of shareholders who buy their Native Offerings food as part of community-supported agriculture, or CSA farming.

Stew had just returned from a Wednesday meeting of volunteer fire commissioners in East Otto. The couple fell asleep shortly past 9 p.m. Not long afterward, ripples of light through the window roused Deb from sleep. She looked outside and turned to Stew.

Their barn was on fire. By 9:15 p.m., it was engulfed in flames.

Built in 1900, the barn burned to the ground. The couple farms lettuce, zucchini, peppers, greens, mizuna and other vegetables. They lost 80 percent of their harvest, including 10,000 pounds of potatoes. Six tractors were destroyed. So was the fencing that helps contain their 20 head of cattle.

All told, after insurance, rebuilding will cost $150,000 to $200,000. The Ritchies are small, organic farmers. To them, that is a vast amount.

Those challenges do not bring Deborah, a tough and resilient farmer, to tears.

The reason she cries is exactly the opposite.

"Kindness," she said. "You find kindness everywhere."

Deborah Ritchie sorts through squash donated by a fellow farmer inside her room, since there is no storage left after the burn burned down. (Derek Gee/The Buffalo News)

She choked up as she talked about a family tradition, classic Christmas gift lists made by their children. Sam is 21, Jessica 17 and Allie 15. They never said a word about the situation as they wrote down what they wanted, but they understood. Their requests – for pillows and socks and even for Chai tea – involved items that essentially cost no money.

Deborah struggled again when she recalled how Elliott Hutten, a potter who creates stoneware at the Hog Shed Studio just down the road, arrived with soup and muffins not long after the fire. Or how Tom Wilder, a neighbor, just happened to show up with a window in his truck that could replace one that was ruined in a newer building, connected to the barn, that managed to survive the flames.

Not only that, Wilder found the time to put it in, and to provide some forklift help after the fire.

The Ritchies are friends, Wilder said. He recalled how they hired his son Tyler when the teenager needed a job, how it was "good for him to get out and work in the dirt a little."

What Wilder did for the Ritchies, he knows they would do for him.

Deborah grew up in Waverly, not far from Ithaca. She met Stew, raised in Mississauga, Ont., when they both worked for an organic farmer at the Grindstone Farm in Pulaski, in Central New York. Deborah said they shared a passion "for growing nutritious food." They were married 21 years ago, just about the time they started renting their own farm, in East Aurora.

In 2002, they bought the place in Little Valley. They sell their crops at the Elmwood-Bidwell Farmers Market and also have drop points for their CSA shares in Orchard Park, Amherst and Buffalo for vegetables, as well as meat from their cattle. The work is all-consuming, but they believe in it.

“They are really two of the biggest-hearted people I know,” said Tara Laurenzi, who has worked for the Ritchies for eight years at their stand at Elmwood-Bidwell. “They care really deeply about being good stewards of the Earth, and about providing quality food for people.”

Organic farming is not a passion that often makes you rich. Stew and Deborah could easily react to the fire with despair.  They look at it this way: They were lucky. If the wind had been blowing from the east, the flames might have crossed Maples Road and claimed their house.

No one was hurt in a fire they guess was started by electrical problems. It is one of the reasons they can see some blessings in what happened. Another one is this: Stew, at 53, had started to quietly contemplate the physical toll of farming. He had started to wonder if in some ways they should consider scaling back.

The fire is their answer. They will not.

They will not because Mike Porter, of Porter Farms, called to ask: Could you use 2,000 pounds of cabbages and onions?

And because Peter Johnson, who runs the Rusty Bucket mushroom farm, told them he had mushrooms to spare.

And because Steve and Erin Blabac of Root Down Farm – in the same way as Kent Miller of Plato Dale Farms – said it had been a good year for squash, and maybe some extra squash would help Native Offerings to fill its shares?

And because Laurenzi, grateful for years of friendship, is planning a fundraiser for early spring, probably in March.

Every person on that list – and Stew and Deborah say the list is far too long to mention everyone who gave – seemed surprised the Ritchies were so moved by their reaction.

“We’re all small farmers, and it’s not an easy life, and we lean on each other a lot,” Erin Blabac said. “There’s an ethic that goes with this. We're kind of a breed of our own.”

The ruins of the barn at Native Offerings farm, Maple Road, Little Valley. (Derek Gee/The Buffalo News)

Johnson, the mushroom farmer, understands how busy the farming life can be. When he was considering starting a mushroom farm, he said the Ritchies sat down with him – not just for a few minutes, but for hours – to talk through all the challenges, physical and financial, he might face.

In a business where time is truly money, the Ritchies gave to Johnson with ample generosity.

"What goes around, comes around," he said, of what he did after the fire.

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While these friends downplay what they gave, Stew Ritchie speaks of the quiet magnitude. "In a sense, these are competitors, and none of us are getting rich," he said.

To Stew and Deborah, the way so many responded in such a selfless way is a reminder of why the couple chose the life they live.

Drive out to the Ritchie farm, past pewter fields that rise up to meld with a gray December horizon, and the smell of soot is everywhere as you step from your car. The family barn is charred rubble and the cattle stand behind it, dark silhouettes above the snow. One look tells you that it will be a long road back.

Walk into the house, and the entrance-way is crowded with bins of donated squash. The Ritchies sip coffee at their kitchen table and speak with appreciation of a GoFundMe account started by a friend, Michael Sutton. A Christmas tree stands near a window in the living room, because even the fire was not enough to shut down the yuletide.

Not long ago, their daughter Allie owed her mother $40 for a “Secret Santa” gift Deborah purchased on Allie's behalf through Amazon, a gift Allie needed for a commitment at school. The 15-year-old handed her mother $60, and Deborah, surprised, said the extra $20 was too much.

“That’s OK, Mom,” Allie said. “You hang on to it.”

There it was, a symbol of every gesture, every moment, that makes Deborah cry this Christmas.

What goes around, comes around.

“We’ll rebuild,” Stew Ritchie said.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at or read more of his work in this archive.


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