On a recent visit to Wilcox Family Farms in Roy, a group of hens could be seen pecking at the ground beneath the breathtaking backdrop of Mount Rainier. It was a clear, sunny day on the banks of the Nisqually River and many of the farm’s 800,000 chickens had emerged from their hen houses.
One would never have guessed that the fourth-generation family farm was still reeling from the worst event in its 102-year history.
On Dec. 2, 2013, a silo at the farm’s nearby feed mill collapsed; burying a worker underneath 500 tons of corn.
“Your first instinct is to grab a shovel, grab a wheelbarrow – do whatever it takes – just get him out,” said Brent Wilcox, who runs the farm with his brothers Andy and Chris.
Emergency responders were on the scene within minutes.
Chief Bob Vellias with South Pierce Fire and Rescue was among the first to arrive that day and said the silo was too unstable for his crew to save 44-year-old Steve Green, whose body was recovered more than two days later.
“In the fire service you have to make some very tough decisions, and this was one of them,” Vellias said. “I felt that we had to put the safety of the people who were there to find this man first. You don’t want to create two scenes.”
Green, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, left behind his wife, four children, and 13 grandchildren.
“As an employer, especially a family business, it’s the worst thing you could ever imagine happening,” said Andy Wilcox. “The fact that we weren’t able to find Steve for two days was really tough.”
While the Wilcox brothers said it was their first priority, rescue efforts at the feed mill were a small part of what the farm was faced with after the collapse.
The mill produced 100 tons of feed per day – a mix of soy mill, wheat, alfalfa and corn needed to take care of the nearly one million chickens that call Wilcox Family Farms home.
When the silo collapsed, the farm’s feed supply was abruptly cut off.
“The loss of life is your number one concern, but the next priority is, ‘How do we feed our chickens?'” said Brent Wilcox, who knew that without feed, the chickens could fall ill and starve to death in a matter of days.
The Wilcox brothers started making phones calls.
“Immediately, we had 800,000 hens that need food. A third of those need food within a day,” Andy Wilcox said. “We called up what is typically our competitors and said, ‘Hey, we’re in a terrible situation here.'”
Within 24 hours of the collapse, competitors were shipping truckloads of feed to Roy. National in Everett, Steibrs in Yelm, and Briarwood in Rochester were among those who pitched in to help.
“It never crosses your mind to say, ‘Let them suffer,'” said Steve Wagner, general manager at Briarwood Farms, which is a division of Valley Fresh. “It could happen to you the next time and you wouldn’t want 800,000 chickens going without feed.”
To accommodate Wilcox Farms, The Briarwood feed mill in Rochester has doubled the number of workers and lengthened hours. The mill used to produce five truckloads of feed per day, and is now producing 10.
“We’ll help until they don’t need us any longer,” Wagner said. “If it’s a month, if it’s three months, if it’s a year, we’re just here to help.”
In the past, Wilcox Farms has also stepped up to help competitors in need.
After a fire shut down an egg processing facility at National in Everett, Wilcox moved operations to their own facilities.
“Within this competitive arena, we realize that we’re all in this together if we’re going to survive as farms here,” Brent Wilcox said.
Wilcox Family Farms will reopen the feed mill in Roy after Labor & Industries completes their investigation into the collapse, which could take another month.
For now, flowers and flags sit near the silo in honor of the worker who died. Over the Christmas holiday, members of the community got together to deliver presents to Steve Green’s children and grandchildren and to cook the family a warm meal.
A memorial fund to honor the life of Steve Green has been set up at Key Bank. Those who wish to make donations can do so by giving to the “Memorial Fund for Steve Green” at any Key Bank location.
“KIRO Radio On Assignment” features in-depth, investigative reports on a variety of topics including government accountability, consumer advocacy and the criminal justice system. To send a KIRO Radio reporter “On Assignment,” email [email protected] or use our online form.