It's been a farmer tradition ever since the first barn needed raising or the first cardiac arrest left a family and crop with no one to harvest it.

Neighbors still arrive with hammers and nails in hand, or combines and grain carts ready for the turn row. Farmers help their fellow growers in need. And in the case of a Lexington, IL-based organization, those growers may be four or five states away.

The Fellowship of Christian Farmers International (FCFI) is a 14,000-member-strong organization of supporters who lend a hand to disaster-stricken farmers and ranchers by helping build fences, repair structures, provide feed and, most of all, provide a congregation of prayers.

Started after the credit crunch in the mid-1980s, FCFI was founded in the mold of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, a worldwide group that blends Christian beliefs with athletics.

“They actually helped walk us through getting incorporated as a 501(3)(C) non-profit organization,” says Dennis Schlagel,FCFI executive director.

FCFI volunteers respond when their peers face hurricanes, ice storms, wildfires, tornadoes and other weather-related catastrophes. Sheldon DeLange, Girard, KS, was among those helping build fences in flood-ravaged southeast Kansas last summer and into the fall.

“I'm still doing needs assessment of farms in the area,” says DeLange, a retired grower who has been an FCFI shepherd for three years and who lost several buildings himself in an early 2007 ice storm. “We ask farmers or cattlemen to provide the materials if they can, then we do the labor,” he says.

That labor can mean helping clean up after a southern Kansas tornado that virtually leveled the town of Greensburg. Or it can mean clearing out charred fence posts and wire that have been through a 700,000-acre wildfire in the Texas Panhandle or a 60,000-acre prairie blaze in Nebraska's Pine Ridge area.

Then there's the blizzard that engulfed parts of Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas, or the massive mess left by Hurricane Rita. “We hear so much about Hurricane Katrina,” says Schlagel. “But Rita happened three weeks later and it covered cattle and farm country (in Louisiana and Texas).

“It destroyed virtually everything — pasture, land, barns, canals. FCFI responded to help rebuild fences and structures. We shipped 140 semis of hay to south Louisiana for Hurricane Rita relief.

“And when the Greensburg disaster happened, cattlemen who were aided in Louisiana returned the favor and went to Kansas. That's one of the blessings of the organization — the relationships that evolve between farmers and ranchers from different parts of the country,” Schlagel notes.

A donated FCFI motor home provides shelter for volunteers who travel from their homes to disaster-stricken areas. It's a place to eat, sleep and share the gospel. “The FCFI motor home was built from scratch by central Illinois farmers over two winters in 2000-2001,” says Schlagel.

“We also are exhibitors at more than 70 farm shows in the U.S. and Canada,” he adds. “And we receive a wonderful welcome from farmers wherever we go.”

While helping farmers and ranchers in need, FCFI lives up to its name. Volunteers eagerly promote their Christian beliefs in communities they help and trade shows they visit. The walking stick helps spread their message.

Walking sticks are 40 in. long and 1 in. square. Many farmers with portable sawmills make walking sticks from trees on their farms. The wooden rod features a leather strap that's thread through five colored beads.

A gold bead represents heaven;a black bead, sin; a red bead, the blood of Christ; a white bead, purity and forgiveness; and the green bead, spiritual growth.

“There are no words on the stick,” says DeLange. “We've spread the gospel to many people in our foreign missions through the beads. We've given out more than 1 million sticks.”

Schlagel points out that when the California wildfires broke out, FCFI was ready for a call from weary producers who may have been in the path.

“With the help still provided to Rita survivors, as well as recovery from the floods, fires and ice storms we're involved in, we are still behind on what we can do,” he says. “But we can offer probably the most important thing we provide, and that's prayer.”

And prayers will always be welcomed when farmers are in need. For more about FCFI, go to www.fcfi.org.