2016-06-30
I hadn't been paying attention to the national news that July because it was haying time on our small Michigan farm. My husband, Ron, and I raised a dozen Hereford cattle, and I worried about Ron being stuck outside in the heat when I went to my cashier's job at our local grocery store that Saturday afternoon. As I lay down for a short rest before my shift, I started to pray that Ron wouldn't overdo it. Before I could finish, three words burst into my mind: hay...drought...south. It was the oddest thing. More like a command, really. And with it came such enormous pressure on my body that, for a moment, even breathing became difficult. Finally, I sat up, tears in my eyes. Why was I crying?

I walked into the kitchen. Ron was having a cup of coffee. I asked, "What do the words hay...drought...south mean to you?" He told me there was a terrible drought in the South. Fields were parched, and farmers were losing their cattle because the animals didn't have any hay or feed.

I knew how I'd feel if our cattle were dying. "Ron," I said, "that explains my message." I described the cryptic words and the urgency that had overcome me.

"So what are you going to do about it?" Ron asked.

I had no idea. I didn't know anybody important. I was just a farmwife and a part-time cashier. God, I implored, find someone else to help those farmers.

But later that day when I was chatting with folks at my checkout counter, I kept thinking, hay...drought...south. The words wouldn't leave my mind.

At church on Sunday, I reminded God that the drought in the South wasn't really something I could do anything about. Yes, we had some hay to spare, but how could we move it down south? By Monday morning, when the urging just wouldn't go away, I made a few calls to put the matter to rest. I spoke to some other local farmers. Sure, they'd be glad to donate hay, but there was no way they could send it to the ravaged areas. As for our state's ag department, they hadn't organized a thing. "See, Father," I said, "if they aren't going to do anything, how can I? Please, find someone else."

Hay...drought...south.

By noon, I did the only thing I could think of. On the highway, I'd often seen trucks from Steelcase, a huge office furniture manufacturer in Grand Rapids. Maybe they would ship hay. If I made this one call I could be done with it. After all, who'd take me seriously? I looked up Steelcase's number in the phone book and dialed. Almost immediately, I was connected with a woman in public relations. To my amazement, she gave me the CEO's private number. Before I lost my nerve, I called and reached his secretary.

"What would you like to speak to him about?" she asked. "If I told you, dear," I said, "you'd round-file me as a nut."

Minutes later, the CEO of Steelcase, a company with thousands of employees, called me back. I told my story, concluding by saying, "Michigan farmers want to donate hay to the South, but they can't get it there."

"How many trucks would you need, Mrs. Silver?" he asked.

"Twenty," I said without a pause. Where did that number come from?

"Expect a call from Mr. Marlotti. He should be able to help you."

Half an hour later, when Mr. Marlotti did call, telling me that he was instructed to give me whatever I needed, I hooted into the phone. At that moment, I realized this was much bigger than me. All I could do was follow.

OK, God, I prayed, you win. I'll do what you want, but you have to help me along the way.

He did. That day I got a hold of Bill Penn, director of the U.S. Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Department in Lansing. He promised to send a rep to our house to meet with the Steelcase people and folks from the state ag department so we could coordinate shipments of hay to the South. Meanwhile, someone from Bill's office set up a 1-800 telephone number to our house. The "Michigan Haylift" was under way.

When the media got hold of the story, broadcasters and newspapers announced, "Call 1-800-Hay-Farm to donate or help ship hay." All those people ended up calling me.

Twenty-four hours a day, the phone in our kitchen rang. We even had an extra line added. People would try to dump hay in our front yard. Reporters interviewed me at the checkout counter at work. Finally, my supervisor suggested I take some time off. "I want you to devote yourself to the hay project," he said. Amen, I thought.

Sometimes, I didn't know how I'd manage. One day, I was sitting in my kitchen when the phone rang. "We've got 500 bales of hay over here in the Thumb." (Michigan is shaped like a mitten, and the eastern peninsula is referred to as the Thumb.)

"Hang on," I replied, checking the map. "We'll get to you." Then I prayed, God, send me someone who can pick up 500 bales of hay, 150 miles away, and get them to the first convoy of semis going south.

I hadn't even hung up when the other line rang. "I've got an empty truck," a man said.

"How can I help?"

"I know just where you're needed!" Things like that kept happening.

On July 24, Bill Penn called from Lansing. "We need you here for a meeting with all the government departments who are involved. I want them to hear from you about what's happening."

I panicked. There was no way I could appear at a meeting in the capital. "I can't," I said. "I can't leave these phones. I can't drive in big cities, and I can't leave the farm."

"You have to be here," Bill insisted. "I'll send a driver to pick you up." How could I argue with that?

When I walked into the conference room in Lansing, I thought I was going to hyperventilate. The table seemed as long as a football field, and around it sat representatives of the state's ag and transportation departments, the governor's office, the state police. They all looked so official.


"Mrs. Silver," Bill Penn said to me, "would you tell these gentlemen about what you're doing?"

I looked at all those suits, said a quick prayer, and spoke. As clearly as I could, I explained about the thousands of farmers donating hay and people volunteering trucks, and how urgent it was to get the cattle feed to the drought-stricken farmers in the South. I told them that I had cattle and knew how terrible I'd feel if I couldn't feed them. At the end of my speech, a young man from our U.S. senator's office stood up.

"Bonnie," he said, "we've talked to Conrail. You've got as many railcars as you need."

The Lord was working in so many people's lives. The Michigan Haylift was growing by leaps and bounds.

With the railroad involved, we had a more efficient way to ship hay to the South. Drivers picked up hay from farms and delivered them to the 16 rail sites that were set up. Then volunteers loaded the hay onto railcars for the trip south.

One August night, after I collapsed into bed, Ron asked me how much longer I could keep up my part of the organizing, answering phones, talking to reporters, giving out information.

"Until the job's finished," I said.

"When will that be?"

"I don't know," I answered wearily.

In mid-August, I went to Grand Rapids to see firsthand what was going on. High school football teams, youth-corps volunteers, prisoners on work detail, all kinds of people were taking the hay from trucks and putting it into railcars. It was brutal work, especially in the heat, but no one slowed down. Good thing McDonald's, Burger King, and Pepsi donated massive amounts of food and beverages to keep everyone going.

We started getting reports from grateful farmers down south whose cattle were getting fed again. We were delivering hay into seven states--over 10.5 million pounds--and not one dollar had exchanged hands. All the labor, fuel, transportation, and feed were donated.

Then one morning in September, a TV reporter came to do an update on the story. I tried to answer her questions, but my words just wouldn't come out right. "Excuse me," I said, "you'll have to talk to my husband."

After the TV crew left, I smiled at Ron. "I guess it's time."

"What's time?" he asked.

"You wondered how I'd know when I was finished. Well, all these months, God's given me the strength to do things I would've never been able to do on my own. But today I can't. I think that's his way of telling me I'm done.

Drought conditions eased and the project did wind down after that. Our phones stopped ringing, we took out the extra line, people stopped bringing hay to our farm, and I returned to my job at the grocery store. Only one blessing remained, and that was meeting some of the folks who'd been on the receiving end.

On a rainy Thanksgiving weekend--how fitting that it rained--we joined hundreds of others under a big tent outside Greenville, S.C. A choir sang, a minister led us in prayer, and a proclamation from the governor was read. "Thank you, Bonnie," people said, "we're so grateful for what you did."

The real thanks belonged to the Lord, for whom I was only a reluctant servant. But he gives us what we need to do his will. That's what I learned. He gave me willingness when I was unwilling, words when I was tongue-tied, stamina when I was weak. How else would a farmwife and part-time cashier ever have been able to help start the Great Michigan Haylift?

Since this story happened in 1987, Bonnie and Ron have turned part of their acreage into a wildlife preserve. Their love of farming and of animals is as strong as ever--as is their belief in the difference one person + God can make.

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