Archive for Sunday, July 19, 2009

Silver linings: Support pours in for area farmer after destructive fire

Debbie Yarnell, who owns Homespun Hill Farm southwest of Baldwin City, had a fire at her home Memorial Day weekend while she was selling meat at the Lawrence Farmers’ Market. A quirk in her insurance policy means Yarnell will need to pay for much of the repairs.

Debbie Yarnell, who owns Homespun Hill Farm southwest of Baldwin City, had a fire at her home Memorial Day weekend while she was selling meat at the Lawrence Farmers’ Market. A quirk in her insurance policy means Yarnell will need to pay for much of the repairs.

July 19, 2009


The words were strung together in a tidy little sentence.

Like the kind one sees diagrammed on the black boards of elementary schools. Just five little words. Concise, simple, life-changing.

“Your house is on fire.”

When Debbie Yarnell heard those words, she was serving customers several heads deep. It was Saturday morning, Memorial Day weekend, and these folks were looking forward to a couple of days in front of the grill. Yarnell, owner of Homespun Hill Farm, was playing her role as “Farmer Debbie,” selling off her herd of grass-fed cattle and lambs one cut at a time during a busy day at the Lawrence Farmers’ Market.

First, the words came from a family friend. Next, they came from an officer, dressed in blue.

“Your house is on fire.”

The police offered to shut down the market to get Yarnell and her trailer out of there that second. It was not yet 10 a.m., and the market was in full swing — hosting a full crop of folks enjoying the first day of a three-day weekend. No, she told them, she could wait. And from that moment on until her lunchtime visit to her blackened home, the same refrain played in her head.

“There’s a reason this happened, there’s a reason this happened ...”

It’s been two months, and through days spent on the phone with insurance liaisons, tallying up the $25,000 in county-requested upgrades and nights spent sleeping in a camper out by her barn, she waits. Waits for normal to return and bring a reason with it.

Learning, rebuilding

Homespun Hill Farm is as picturesque as its name implies. There’s a red barn, a pen full of sheep, friendly dogs that greet anyone and everyone at the mouth of the drive. Up front is the kind of cute white farmhouse that Dorothy Gale wished of when she repeated the words “there’s no place like home.”

These days, though, plywood covers a few windows in the front bedroom, the only indication to quick passers-by that anything really is amiss at the Baldwin City farm. It was smoke seeping through one of those windows that alerted a passing motorist on East 1400 Road that something was wrong that day. The driver’s keen eyes allowed firefighters to get to the scene just as the heat inside shattered the glass and the flames really started going. As a result, the home — the frame, the roof, the foundation — was spared. But nearly everything else was charred black beyond recognition, the result of a rogue space heater, turned off, but plugged in.

And though a complete rebuilding isn’t necessary, the drain on Yarnell’s time and finances has been tremendous. The plaster lath walls, put in before the days of sheet rock, went up without much of a fuss, leaving a shell of a home. The fire took her clothes, furniture, business files. It knocked out her power, forcing her to find an electrician on a holiday weekend so that her animals could get the water they need pumped to them.

“That was the biggest headache,” says Yarnell’s sister, Brenda Little of Lawrence. “It’s like pulling teeth trying to find people who will answer the phone on a holiday.”

Soon, the headaches began to grow. Because of a quirk of her insurance policy, Yarnell must pay for anything needed to bring the 1920s home to code, which, with only the frame still standing, means nearly everything. A supervisor at Hallmark in Lawrence, Yarnell works full-time and maintains the farm, the completion of a longtime dream, but it’s not as though she’s rolling in grass-fed dough. So she isn’t exactly getting the home makeover of her dreams. Rather, she’s getting what she can afford and what she needs. The doors will be basic, shelving will replace her kitchen built-in cabinets, and her copper gas lines will be upgraded.

Moreover, because she needs to stay near her animals, it was necessary for her to find a way to live on the farm’s grounds. She hoped to buy a cheap camper but because of the timing — Memorial Day weekend — every camper she found was at a premium. After weeks of searching, Yarnell knocked on a neighbor’s door, introduced herself and asked to buy an off-the-market camper parked in the drive. Add it to her tab.

More painful is the fact that she was actually overinsured — just not insured for the replacement costs. Because of the age of the house and its lack of updates already, the company has told her it wouldn’t have offered her replacement costs in her policy to begin with.

“I could have had a million-dollar policy,” Yarnell says. “I could have insured the house for a $1 million dollars and it wouldn’t have mattered because I didn’t have a replacement costs declaration in my policy.”

Instead of retreating into self-pity, Yarnell decided to turn her financial pain into a clinic for other farmers. She figured that any number of other Farmers’ Market regulars probably live in the same kind of cute old houses that make perfect kindling at the hint of flame.

“I sent an e-mail and said, take a look at your policy, make sure you have replacement costs because a lot of us live in these old 1920s, 1930s-whatever farm houses that ... had hardly any codes back then,” Yarnell says. “The next Saturday after the fire, I was going to the Farmers’ Market, I’m driving down Mass. on the way, and I’m like, ‘All these old homes ...’ and if anybody doesn’t have replacement costs ...”


Unexpected, at least to the unassuming Yarnell, has been charity from the community. Farmers’ Market vendors have donated clothing, shoes and money, and market coordinator Tom Buller says he has been accepting donations from market vendors and anonymous folks alike.

And Yarnell’s co-workers at Hallmark have also been generous with donations and understanding — her boss, having gone through a fire himself, didn’t blink at allowing her to change to the night shift so that she could deal with insurance and code personnel during the daytime.

Even her customers are getting into the act, taking the time to ask how she’s doing, making donations and even driving up to Yarnell’s processing plant rather than having her deliver their meat. And they are learning from her as well: Customer Kris Hermanson, who was standing at Yarnell’s table when the police arrived that Saturday, continues to be impressed by Yarnell’s attitude despite such a major setback.

“How would any of us handle that situation? I am impressed that she could maintain calm during her crisis while being mindful of the people at the Farmers’ Market,” Hermanson says. “She’s a strong woman.”

To say that Yarnell feels grateful would be an understatement.

“I’ve been really, really blessed,” Yarnell says. “There’s been so many people who say, ‘You know, there’s a silver lining there somewhere, Debbie,’ and I truly believe that. I really do. I do believe that things happen for a reason. I don’t know what that reason is today, but in time, I’ll realize why it happened.”


mikeryan 8 years, 10 months ago

We were having a party that same weekend which featured meat we bought from Debbie's farm. It's amazing that when something so fun and happy is going on that something so destructive and upsetting can be happening at exactly the same moment in a different location.

A few years ago our old house caught fire. While it's painful and exhausting to shed the skin of a previous living arrangement, my wife and I agree that since we've put things back together, they're way better than they were beforehand.

Here's to new beginnings.

ssargdons 8 years, 10 months ago

This is a fine example of why it's very important for agents to communicate to policy holders what they are being sold, and for policy holders to actually read and make sure they understand what they are being sold. When an agent fails to communicate, there's always a chance that an additional claim can be filed on the agent's errors and omissions policy to cover portions of the loss denied under the primary claim.

Also, if the dwelling is actually located outside of the city limits, I find it hard to believe that any building ordinances would apply. It seems the dwelling should be able to be rebuilt as it was. Of course, current construction methods are very different than they were in the 20's (i.e., you won't find any pipe-fitter willing to put in copper gas lines, and no one's using lath and plaster anymore). But that doesn't seem like a code issue as much as it does an obsolescence issue. I would think this would be a legitimate argument to take up with the insurance company.

countrygal 8 years, 10 months ago

This is a sad situation for Debbie. Our hearts go to her. Unfortunately our county is not so sympathetic. Building in this county is much harder than the city. We have a older farm house we want renovate, but the county codes are ridiculous!! Let alone the permit fees!! Our family had fire in their home, lost everything. Douglas county made them get the home location surveyed (they were building in same location as destroyed home) to make sure the home was 50 feet from the road. The original home site was over a 1/4 mile away down their long driveway. The county did not care that is was obvious of the building site and made them pay for survey. The stupidity continued. Again, we hope Debbie gets thru all the mess ok. Our county will put it to her.

Paul R Getto 8 years, 10 months ago

Good luck, Debbie and bless those who choose to help.

Janet Lowther 8 years, 10 months ago

As I understand it, fuel gas suppliers are now promoting the use of copper gas pipes 'cause flexible copper pipes vastly reduce the number of joints to leak! They just have to be located so you can't drive nails into 'em. . . Now, to just get the codes changed.

As I understand it, here (or in Jefferson County, at least) propane suppliers can use copper, but once it reaches a place a plumber or HVAC tech has to touch it, it has to switch to iron.

As I understand it, all the underground natural gas lines are plastic these days.

sherbert 8 years, 9 months ago

I hope this article makes insurance agents and homeowners alike stop and double check their policies to make sure everyone is protected for replacement costs.

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