Another Day on the Farm:
Another Christmas has come and gone. A new year is upon us. May the human race come to it's senses in time to prevent a complete collapse of civilization. It's obvious that we cannot continue to abuse our planet as we are presently doing but I have little hope for the future in view of our past performance.
Another Christmas has come and gone. A new year is upon us. May the human race come to it's senses in time to prevent a complete collapse of civilization. It's obvious that we cannot continue to abuse our planet as we are presently doing but I have little hope for the future in view of our past performance.
Since I have lost interest in updating this blog on a regular basis I have decided to post all of the remaining chapters of "Defying the Odds" this time. There has been very little feedback so I can only conclude that it's a waste of my time to continue this blog. To those that have responded over the years I extend my thanks. Your comments are much appreciated.
Since I have lost interest in updating this blog on a regular basis I have decided to post all of the remaining chapters of "Defying the Odds" this time. There has been very little feedback so I can only conclude that it's a waste of my time to continue this blog. To those that have responded over the years I extend my thanks. Your comments are much appreciated.
28th and Final Excerpt from “Defying the Odds”
(Available from http://www.publishamerica.com)
Our First Harvest…
Toward the end of August I started cutting grain. It was tough going. The binder ran well enough, but it wasn't designed for cutting such a short dense crop. It produced bundles which looked more like wads than sheaves of grain. To make matters worse, the ground was so wet that the tractor was constantly getting stuck. But finally, after many days of frustrating struggle, the last field was bound.
Then there was the job of stooking the bundles, which dad had explained before he left. Stooks are bunches of ten or twelve bundles standing on end, with their tops leaning together. This is done so that the grain will dry out for threshing and to facilitate loading them onto wagons. Standing the bundles on end allows rain to run down the straw to the ground, rather than soak into the straw and causing it to mold. I had never watched anyone stook bundles before, but by the time two hundred acres were finished, I was getting the hang of it.
The folks showed up to help with the harvest on September 5th, dad's sixty eighth birthday. It had been raining for several days before they arrived. Dad's fears of missing harvesting altogether soon turned to fears that we might not be able to harvest at all. They had planned to stay for two weeks, but it turned out that we couldn't even start threshing in that time. But, eventually the weather turned nice enough to start.
Threshing went surprisingly well. The John Deere tractor was used to power the thresher and the smaller Allis Chalmers tractor was used to haul bundles. We would load two wagon loads of bundles, thresh them out and then load up again. The grain was augured directly into one of the wooden granaries, that were scattered among the fields, and the straw was blown into piles at each threshing site. Although the crop was very poor, the granaries gradually filled and the straw piles grew into large stacks. Things looked much better and my disposition improved with each succeeding day. The folks left for home right after the grain was all threshed.
I started plowing the fields the day after we finished threshing. In a good day—when you didn't break down or get stuck too many times—about twenty five acres could be plowed. It was a slow cold job, sitting all day long, unprotected from the weather, on a steel tractor seat. At three miles per hour, it takes a half hour to make one round on an eighty acre field. Plowing four feet per round, you could just about spit across your work at the end of the day.
But winter caught up with us before the plowing was finished. On the day I finally had to give up, it started snowing just after noon. For a while it didn't seem to matter, except for the miserable cold snow blowing down my neck, but as the ground became whiter, the tractor tires began to slip. Before long it became impossible to move, so that ended the field work until springtime.
Worrisome Times …
We sold just over six hundred dollars worth of grain that fall…our entire income, from the farm, in 1962. The only other income came from the federal government Family Allowance program, which paid five dollars per month for each child under the age of sixteen. This only amounted to twenty five dollars per month, but it did help stretch our rapidly disappearing savings.
It may have been possible to survive, even on such a small income, if we had not also been faced with paying off the debt to the Fertigs. According to the purchase agreement, the entire debt was to be paid off by the end of the first crop year…otherwise we would forfeit our purchase option and become renters. In that event, the Fertigs would retain ownership of all the machinery, as well as the land, and we would have to pay them one third of the crop as rent.
I suspect that some might think that this was a stupid arrangement, and maybe it was. But the circumstances of the time must be taken into account: I had no job; our home in Washington had been sold; we had moved to Canada with no other place to go, or the money to go with. So, it had been necessary to make some kind of deal that would give us the time to sell our home, move to Canada and put in the crop. As well, the Fertigs had to look after their own interests, and they knew very little about me. My only option had been to make a deal that would buy us some time, and then sort things out later.
In hindsight it does seem a bit foolhardy…but it worked! It not only worked, but it gave me the confidence to take other calculated risks that have paid off in subsequent years. It also changed my life from a dull existence of working for someone else to an exciting challenging life of being my own boss. It turned out to be the second smartest thing I ever did—marrying Betty being number one. So far, we had managed to defy the odds.
Shortly after moving to the farm, we received a down payment of two thousand dollars from the sale of our house in Washington, a substantial part of which had gone to the Realtor. The balance owing was to be paid out in monthly installments. It was the best arrangement that could be made under the disadvantaged bargaining position that we were in.
Although the payments arrived on time each month, we needed a substantial lump sum of cash very soon if we were to hang on to the farm. So, out of desperation, I offered to drastically cut the balance owing on our house if the buyer would pay us out immediately. Fortunately they agreed and we subsequently received a cheque for about seven thousand dollars. But seven thousand dollars wont pay off a fourteen thousand dollar debt.
The Farm Credit Corporation (FCC) had recently been established, by the federal government, to provide low interest long-term loans for expanding existing farms and to help new farmers get started. I went to see the local FCC representative about a loan to pay off the Fertigs and was relieved to find that I was qualified, as a landed immigrant. But I was surprised when they recommended that I borrow more money than I asked for. It was their policy to only lend money to farms they considered to be 'viable'. That is, if in their opinion, after making a loan, a farm was unlikely to generate enough income to provide a satisfactory living for the farmer plus enough money to make the loan payments, they either declined the loan or offered enough money to make the farm viable.
In my case they felt that more land and livestock were necessary to meet their criteria. Consequently, a loan was approved for sufficient money to pay out the Fertigs, clear additional land, build a barn and buy six more milk cows. That loan turned out to just the first of several and the beginning of thirty years of debt—but the only thing that mattered at the moment was that we still had our farm.
Tempting Murphy's Law…
That hurdle cleared merely led to the next one. Our most pressing financial problem had been solved, for the moment at least, but we were still faced with the reality of having no income and very little cash. Our rule was: Only spend money for absolute necessities and stretch every dollar to the limit.
Now that the money was available to buy more milk cows, getting them became the first priority. The thing about cows is that they start making you money immediately—the first time they're milked, there's more cream to sell.
By coincidence, a farmer, who lived about twenty miles away, happened to have six milk cows for sale. We went to look at them. They were nice big Holsteins…just what we wanted. He said he was selling them because he was away working in the oil fields most of the time and the milking chores were more than his wife could handle by herself. The cows looked okay to me, so we made a deal to by them…on the condition that he would help with the hauling. The reason being that it would cost me around twenty five dollars to hire a trucker to haul them.
Now, I need to explain something at this point. Our old '47 Dodge truck, which had served us so faithfully while moving to Canada, was not a standard pickup with the conventional steel box. I originally bought it with the idea of making a family camper out of it. To this end, I had replaced the steel box with a wooden flat-bed…slightly wider and longer than the original box. This made it well suited for hauling furniture or lumber but less than ideal for hauling livestock.
As mentioned before, Don…the owner of the cows…had agreed to help haul them. He had a stock rack, for his three quarter ton pickup, and could haul two cows per trip. I had no stock rack for my half ton pickup but figured I could haul two cows as well…fuzzy figuring at best. Anyway, that was the plan.
We first loaded Don's truck with a couple of the least docile cows and locked them securely in his heavy duty steel stock rack. Then we loaded two of the most docile…but largest…animals onto the open deck of my truck, securing them with ropes, around their necks, tied to a steel ring in the deck floor (I don't think duct tape had been invented at that time).
Driving cautiously out of the barnyard, to see how the old girls would react, we proceeded blithely on our way. The cows actually seemed to enjoy their ride…gazing around from their unusual vantage point with the wind blowing in their faces. They quickly learned to cope with the swaying of the truck and stood solidly as stumps as we made our way homeward.
Admittedly, I was a bit apprehensive about driving through the town of Athabasca—mostly for fear of attracting the attention of an RCMP—but all went well. Apparently the cops were all busy with their dough nut shop security checks. Anyway, aside from the double-takes of pedestrians as we drove up main street, all went well…at least until we were almost home.
On the final leg of the journey, after labouring in first gear to the top of the last steep hill, a back tire, on my truck, exploded with the sound of a shotgun shell. Fortunately we were barely moving at the time. My passengers promptly regained their balance and stood quietly, on the now badly listing truck bed, as I got out to inspect the damage.
The back wheel had suffered the same fate as its mate on our final move to Canada. The rim had split wide open from being grossly overloaded. My accomplice, who had been following close behind, stopped to help assess the situation. Having little choice, we decided to take his load on to the farm and then come back for mine…which we did without further incident. He then went back home for the last two cows while I put another wheel on my truck and drove it home.
"How stupid can a person get?", you might ask. Well, you needn't bother because I've already asked myself that question a hundred times. A better question might be, "How often can a person expect to break Murphy's Law and get away with it?" The answer: "Until your luck runs out."
Saved By Rutabagas…
There were the family expenses to contend with too. Seven faces to feed three times a day, and the only income being the twenty five dollar Family Allowance check that came once a month. We certainly didn't starve, but there wasn't much variety.
Fortunately Aunt Georgina had planted a garden for us while dad and I were busy putting the crop in. Unfortunately, her choice of which vegetables to plant seemed to be influenced more by what grows well in our planting zone than by the palatability of the vegetable. Her tendency was to lean heavily toward root crops that swine and starving peasants might relish. Beets and carrots are civilized foods but, in my opinion, no member of the turnip family was ever intended for human consumption.
My memory might be a bit clouded by the lingering taste of boiled rutabagas, a staple of our diet, but it seems that at least half the garden was planted to this repugnant vegetable. Rutabagas do exceptionally well here. Apparently every seed germinates. I suspect that even the little particles of dust and seed residue left in the empty package would germinate—possibly the package itself, for all I know. At any rate, every little seedling eventually develops into a massive spheroid, like a pumpkin-sized blackhead zit erupting through the skin of the earth.
It is difficult to find anything favorable to say about rutabagas, except that it doesn't take many of them to make a meal for a large family. This would be a good feature in some vegetables—meal-sized potatoes, peas or beans, for instance—but it is a definite flaw in rutabagas. Pea-sized would be much better. They could then be swallowed whole without offending the taste buds or triggering the gag reflex mechanism. But, regrettably, they are huge and must be reduced to bite sized portions prior to mastication. This is most often done in one of two ways—cutting them up into spoon-sized chunks or mashing them like potatoes. Either way they are going to taste like rutabagas, but chunks are slightly preferable to mashed because they can be swallowed whole.
Mashing—a good thing to do with potatoes, because it brings the food into more intimate contact with the taste buds, allowing one to savor the delicious juices and flavors—is not a good thing to do with rutabagas. Mashing rutabagas reduces them to a consistency of pre-chewed baby food. (Prior to canned baby food and blenders, some mothers used to chew food to the consistency of gruel, then spit it into a spoon and feed it to their babies—a practice, in my opinion, just one level above regurgitation.) Swallowing such a nauseating mess requires a good deal of reflux control.
Another staple of our diet was sausages, the little greasy highly spiced ones made from slaughter house pork trimmings. These little culinary delights were the cheapest meat available at the local Red & White store. They were cheap because they were sold in bulk quantities, ten pound boxes, and they were largely lard in composition. In fairness to the little critters, they are very tasty as well as a good cold-climate food. But, when you sometimes have them three times a day, they can become a little monotonous.
I would not want to leave the impressions that we suffered gastronomically. On the contrary, we had very nutritious and delicious meals. Betty was a very good all-around cook and an excellent baker. She consistently turned simple foods into gourmet meals. Sausage gravy on mashed potatoes with freshly picked garden peas and hot homemade bread slathered with home churned butter, is hard to beat. Sugar coated raised doughnuts or chewy oatmeal cookies fresh from the oven, with all the cold milk you can drink is about as good as it gets.
Huey the Human Hoover…
The thought of rutabagas brings to mind our neighbor. Huey showed up just after dark one evening shortly after we moved to the farm. He was a dried up little Englishman, probably in his early fortys at that time, who was destined to become the talk of the community.
We had just finished eating our evening meal, rutabagas being the main dish, when the sound of a tractor driving into the yard caught my attention and I went outside to see what was up. Beyond the circle of light from the yard light, it was pitch dark. I could hear someone fussing about in the dark and went back to the house for a flashlight.
When I came back, a very loud voice from the dark was speaking non-stop. There was no greeting or introductory remarks, just an unbroken series of complaints. "…I've been on the road since afore sunrise this morning. Me wagon broke down about half ways here and set me back a couple hours…else I would'a made it afore dark. Been pushin hard all day…plumb wore out. Haven't had a bite to eat since mornin. Seen the light in yur window and was hoping you'd be neighborly enough to offer me a meal…"
I introduced myself and asked him where he was heading. He said his name was Huey and apparently thought that I should have known that he was the "feller that had bought the Lovejoy place" a couple miles to the south of us. As we walked toward the house, I got my first look at him under the yard light. He was a short man, probably no more than five foot four, but it was impossible to tell much more about his size because he was so bundled up.
Aside from the hobos that used to camp along the railroad when I was a kid, right after the depression, and the homeless people I had encountered in Korea, I had never seen such garments as this man wore. He may well have been wearing every stitch of clothing he owned. The outer layer consisted of an over sized mans suit jacket, with the sleeve cuffs rolled up to expose his hands. The tail of the jacket hung well below his knees, hiding from view most of the mix and match trousers of his ensemble. The trousers, the crotch of which hung to about knee level, were supported by a twine tied around his waist and the legs of which were tucked into the tops of his rubber boots…giving him the appearance of a short fat man with unusually short legs. As I recall, on his head was some kind of furry thing.
In the light of the back door mud room, I told him we had just finished supper but there was plenty left over. After removing an outer layer of clothes, he followed me into the kitchen where I offered him a chair at the table. Betty had already set a plate and cup of coffee for him and cautioned him that the coffee was very hot…just a fraction of a second too late. I don't recall any audible indication, but the way he arched his back and the rigid neck muscles stood out as the hot liquid made its way down his esophagus, gave an almost x-ray view of its progress.
Giving no indication of hearing Betty's profuse apologies, he immediately prepared to take a second swallow, but this time he cautiously extended his upper lip nearly halfway across the cup as he noisily slurped its steaming contents, all the while batting his eyes like a toad in a hailstorm.
By this time, Betty had reheated the remains of our supper and placed it on the table. The bulk of the leftovers consisted of a large bowl of rutabagas, but there were a few potatoes and some sausage gravy. Huey did not spoon the food onto his plate, he simply tipped the bowl over his plate and scraped out the contents. After emptying the potato and gravy bowls in this manner, there was still a bit of room on his plate, which he promptly filled with rutabagas.
The man was a human vacuum cleaner. There was little evidence of chewing as he shoveled the food into his mouth, which, by the way was placed as near as possible to the plate. Being a short man to begin with, it required very little bending forward to locate his mouth to close proximity with the food.
Stopping occasionally for a gulp of coffee to wash things down, the plateful of food disappeared amazingly quickly as we all watch in fascination. The last morsel on his plate had hardly been shoveled in when he again loaded his plate with rutabagas…the only thing left. This process was repeated until there was nothing left on the table to eat. Betty asked if she could get him anything else and he replied, "Another cup of coffee would be nice." While drinking his last cup of coffee, he informed me that he would be leaving his wagon behind for the night and would come back for it in the light of day.
As he was taking his leave, he said, "Seeins I don't have a flashlight and no electricity at my place, I wonder if I could borrow your flashlight for the night. I'll get it back to you first chance." Not having a good excuse to offer for not lending him the flashlight, I reluctantly gave it to him. Now, I should point out that, since flashlight batteries cost money and have a rather limited life span, we tended to view a flashlight as an emergency device to be used very sparingly and only when necessary. Huey apparently did not share that view, at least with a borrowed flashlight.
Bright and early the next morning, Huey showed up on his tractor to get his wagon. Now, it may have been just a coincidence that he arrived at breakfast time, I couldn't say for sure, but anyway, I went outside to talk to him rather than inviting him into the house. After talking for a few minutes, with no mention of the borrowed flashlight, I asked about it. He said, "I'll be needing it again tonight, so I didn't bring it with me."
Toward evening that day, a semi-truck, hauling a small house, went by. It had been raining most of the day and the road was getting soft and muddy. The house, which showed signs of once having been painted white, was covered with mud from bottom to top and end to end.
Somewhere between Edmonton and here, the back door of the house, which happened to be directly in line with one of the truck drive wheels, had blown wide open and remained so. Mud and gravel from the spinning truck wheels had been flying into the open door for many a mile, from the look of things.
Just after dark, Huey came charging into our yard on his little tractor. He was yelling something which I couldn't make out as he drove up, but from his state of agitation, I assumed that there had been an accident of some kind. As his tractor came to a stop, I began to understand what he was saying…the truck with his house on it was high-centered in his driveway and his little tractor couldn't pull it out and the truckers had to get back to Edmonton tonight and he would have to pay them extra if they didn't and he needed a pull with my bigger tractor.
Well, as I said, it was already dark and it was raining steadily. I explained to him that I had no lights on my tractor and, since I could see no real emergency, I would prefer waiting until morning to pull them out. Muttering something about it costing him extra money and something inaudible about neighborliness, he headed back home.
Early the next morning I got my tractor started and set out for Hueys place. The top speed on the old John Deere Model D was five miles per hour. It was two miles to Hueys. About a half hour later, soaking wet and feeling more stupid by the minute, I pulled into his driveway. There was no sign of a truck. His house was sitting on the ground where it belonged and he was talking loudly to himself as he shoveled mud out the back door.
Leaving my tractor running, I walked over to his house. He looked up and said, "You're about ten hours late." I'd about had it with him by then and just asked for my flashlight. As he handed me the mud covered flashlight, his only comment was that the battery must have been about dead when I loaned it to him because he had hardly used it before it died completely. That was only the first of many similar encounters with my good neighbor Huey.
Our First Barn…
Although there were a dozen or more small sheds, of various kinds, on the farm, there weren't any suitable for cattle. Our long range plan was to ultimately have beef cattle as our main enterprise, but our immediate need was for a multipurpose cattle shelter that could be used either for dairy or beef cows. Now, with the FCC loan, we were in a position to fill that need.
The plan was to build a barn as large as possible with the available money. It would be an open front pole-frame building with both ends and the back side enclosed. The roof would be a truss-frame with plywood sheathing. The intention was to construct a bare-bones building that would provide shelter at minimal cost…a simple plan, easy to build, with no frills..
The pole-frame design was chosen for its simplicity, fast and easy construction and the fact that a foundation was not required. In theory, it's just a matter of digging holes with a post auger and dropping poles in them. In practice, at least one large rock will be found at each pole location. Consequently, by the time a hole is dug deep enough to support a pole, it will most likely be about the size and shape of a toilet hole. This makes it easy to line up the poles accurately, but difficult to back-fill them solidly. But, once the poles are set and braced, it's just a matter of chain-sawing all the tops off to the same level and the framing is largely done.
The pressure-treated poles had to be purchased from the lumber yard but the dimension lumber, for wall and truss framing, came from a neighbor who had a pile of farm-sawn rough lumber. Rough lumber is, ordinarily, full-dimension lumber…that is, a two by four is a full 2 inches by 4 inches, rather than the undersized dimensions of planed lumber. However, the sawyers of this particular pile of rough lumber either didn't know that, or weren't too concerned about trivial matters, because their two-by-fours varied from 1.5 to 2.5 inches thick by 3.5 to 4.5 inches wide. But, since Tony was only asking forty five dollars per thousand for his pile of lumber…less than half the lumber yard price…we opted for the savings.
The unevenly sawn boards worked pretty well as nailers, but building trusses out of them was problematic. The boards first had to be sorted according to thickness, so a completed truss could be constructed of evenly matched components…more or less. By the time the last truss was constructed, I was beginning to think it might have been wiser to pay the extra money for planed lumber. The trusses were strong, but very heavy and lumpy looking.
By the way, we actually made twice as many trusses as would have been necessary if we had placed them on the customary four-foot centers. Not knowing any better, as well as not wanting to err on the weak side, we put them on two foot centers.
By the time the folks came up that fall, the barn was all framed up…ready to install the trusses. A few days before going back home, dad offered to help us put them up. Guy and I had planned to do the job by ourselves, but, knowing it would be quite a job for just the two of us to wrestle those monsters in place, we accepted his offer. So, it was decided that Guy and I would lift them up from the ground and dad would work from above. His job was mainly to nail a temporary brace on each truss, to hold it upright, while we climbed up to finish nailing it.
All went according to plan for a while. We had worked out a system for handling the heavy trusses, and had about half of them in place, when trouble developed. As sometimes happens when things are going well, we were probably not paying enough attention to what we were doing…maybe talking a bit too much…because dad forgot to nail the temporary brace to the truss we had just put up. Nobody noticed the oversight until he climbed out on it to help pull up the next one.
As he reached down to help lift it in place, the unbraced truss he was standing on started to tip. There was nothing anyone could do but watch as he and the truss came down in a heap. It was about a ten foot fall, which could easily have resulted in serious injury, but, as luck would have it, Dad managed to ride the buckling truss to the ground, with only a blow to the ribs when he ended up beneath it. No bones were broken, but he was sore for a couple of days. After the folks had gone back home, Guy and I finished building the barn and it's still in use more than forty years later.
Learning the Ropes…
Our land is classified as marginal for farming. It is rocky, sandy, hilly and thin soiled. The normally fiberscarce soil had been further depleted by thirty five years of poor farming practices. Erosion had become a problem because the soil could not absorb and hold water efficiently. Continuous grain cropping and excess tillage had pulverized the soil to the point that tractor tires found little traction. Implements often had to be lifted to enable the tractor to make it over small knolls or around a corner.
The meager farming experience I had was mostly of little value because it had been imported from an entirely different environment. Temperate climate farming practices are not wholly transferable to the subarctic conditions of Central Alberta. A rain forest background does not prepare one for semiarid conditions—nor is fifteen years of industrial training a proper apprenticeship for farming.
We learned many things the hard way, and mistakes were made, but gradually we discovered what worked and what didn't. We also discovered it was necessary to do without things once thought essential. The station wagon was traded for a forage harvester shortly after we arrived, leaving us with just the old pickup truck for transportation. We had no water system until 1974, when we built our new house. There weren't many frills, but there was a growing satisfaction in knowing that we were able to cope with the challenges.
With the passage of time, the details of the first few years have kind of blended together, but the general trend remains clear. Our first significant source of income was from the sale of cream and hogs. For several years, when we only had a few milk cows, we milked by hand and separated the milk with a hand-ranked cream separator. The skim milk was fed to the pigs and the cream was sold to the creamery in Athabasca. We first shipped our cream in three gallon cans and then switched to five and finally to ten gallon cans, as production increased.
At first the cream separator was kept in the house and all the milk was carried from the barn to the house for separating. As the herd grew, it became too much work to carry the milk to the house, so we moved the separator to the barn. When the old hand powered separator wore out, we bought an electric one, which made the job much easier.
The skim milk was mixed with barley chop and fed to the pigs. As the dairy herd increased in size, the number of pigs we could feed also increased. Before long the hog house, that Fertig had built, became too small, so we built a new hog barn…a combination farrowing and finishing barn. It was designed to handle forty sows and their litters.
More than forty five cubic yards of concrete was used in the construction of the building and every bit of it was mixed in a little concrete mixer that we had brought from Washington. The building was heated with an oil furnace and had water piped into it, the first building to have running water and central heating on our farm since the beginning of time.
We kept all of the heifer calves, to build up our milking herd, and sold the bull calves when they weighed about seven or eight hundred pounds. In 1965 we bought nineteen more cows from a farmer in Boyle. We also bought his milking machines. With the increased herd size, the old log barn became too crowded and inefficient, so we built a small milking parlour addition where we could milk four cows at a time. Moving ahead in this manner, one small step at a time, we slowly but surely made progress
For a time we did very well with pigs. At first we shipped them at a market weight of two hundred pounds, but later on we decided that we could make more by selling them as weaner pigs…around thirty five pounds…and let someone else raise them to market weight.
We were no longer growing enough grain for the number of animals we were feeding, so I made a deal to buy feed on credit from Ron's feed mill in Athabasca. We had been dealing with Ron for several years and had gained his confidence and trust. Being in a period of expansion, having just built our new hog barn and setting up to sell weaner pigs, the deal was made to charge feed until we started selling pigs. We knew there would be very little income for a while, but once we reached full production, the money would start coming in on a regular basis.
This arrangement worked fine for some time. The account would grow for a while, then a payment would be made and it would drop a little. The feed mill's policy was to give two percent off for cash, so even though we weren't technically paying interest, any feed we charged on the account was costing us two percent more than when we paid cash.
About this time the market price for pigs started dropping. Over a period of several months, the feed bill climbed to around four thousand dollars. It was beginning to look like we were never going to get out of debt. Finally, when it became apparent that things were only going to get worse until hog prices increased, we were forced to ship enough livestock to pay off the feed bill.
In addition to all of the pigs, all male calves, down to the age of one week, were sold, some of them bringing only twenty five to thirty dollars each. The pigs did even worse. Good brood sows went for forty dollars each. The total check came to just over four thousand dollars. Almost the entire amount was handed over to the feed mill. This left us in the rather awkward position of having lots of skim milk and no pigs to feed it to.
For a time we continued shipping cream and feeding all the skim milk to the few calves we had left. Although the calves did well, they couldn’t use all the skim milk and they certainly didn't bring in the income that the hogs had. Nevertheless, we kept on gradually expanding the milking herd.
In January of 1964, Ken was born. Five years later Pat, our last baby and seventh son, arrived. Right from the time I had first started thinking of farming, I had visions of someday having a family farm partnership with my boys. The five we had before moving to Canada would have been the envy of most farmers, and now we had two more sons…my dream seemed almost assured.
There were lots of good times…but there were some very bad times too. One winter afternoon, the boys and I were finishing up the afternoon chores, just before supper time. The wood pile was a little low, so we were splitting fire wood and looking forward to watching one of our favorite television programs. Frank and I were splitting wood and the other boys were packing it to the wood box in the house. Frank would set the chunks of wood upright on the chopping block and I would split them with the axe.
In attempting to keep up with the wood packers, Frank set the blocks up as fast as he could and I would split them just as quickly as he set them up. Everything went well for several minutes and we had just about enough wood split.
Then Frank set up another block and it started to tip over. He grabbed it and set it up again just as I was about to swing the axe. I noticed in time to stop the swing and warned him to be careful. After splitting a few more blocks the same thing happened again…Frank grabbed the block, with his gloved hand on top. I had already started to swing the axe. He wasn't able to get his hand out of the way, and I couldn't react quickly enough. The axe struck his hand.
I can never forget the way Frank looked up at me. It was a mixture of disbelief, horror, pain, anger and guilt. I couldn't believe what had happened, it was the worst moment of my entire life. I knew I had hurt him badly, but his glove was still on his hand so I couldn't see how badly. My first thought was that I had cut his hand in two.
The next few moments are permanently printed on my memory. I carefully pulled the glove from his hand, dreading what I would see. By this time it was bleeding quite a bit. One after the other his fingers were exposed. The middle finger was about half missing and I feared the worst. The next finger to it was bleeding but not cut off. The last finger was okay. A surge of relief shuddered through my mind and body, but the horror of it all was overwhelming. I could only hold his hand and repeat over and over, "I'm sorry Frank, I'm sorry Frank." I will never forget that terrible feeling.
Luckily he had only had one finger on top of the block, or it would have been much worse. As traumatic as it was, I controlled my panic. If anything could be done to help Frank, it was up to me to do it. I told one of the boys to remove the severed finger from the glove and wrap it in waxed paper. I ran to the house and told Betty what had happened, wrapped Franks hand in cloth, grabbed the truck keys and started for the hospital in Athabasca with Frank. The temptation was strong to drive recklessly, but I managed to keep control.
The doctor happened to be at the hospital when we arrived. He looked at Franks hand. After cleaning it up and bandaging it, he told me that he wouldn't be able to sew the severed finger back in place. He said that there was a chance that it could be done, but it would require the skills of a doctor in Edmonton. He packed the finger in an ice pack and suggested that we get to Edmonton as quickly as possible.
The ambulance service was very poor at that time (still is, for that matter). I knew that I could be half way to Edmonton before an ambulance driver could be located, so decided to leave immediately by truck.
The drive to Edmonton seemed endless, it takes about two hours by truck. I didn't know the exact location of the hospital, but somehow got there without getting lost. When we arrived at the emergency entrance, we went directly to the first doctor we saw. Without looking at Franks bandaged hand, he told us to sit down and we would be called in our turn. We waited for several minutes. By this time Franks hand was getting pretty painful. I couldn't stand waiting any longer and told one of the attendants that something had to be done soon. Nobody seemed to be in a hurry.
Eventually they called our name and we went with the doctor. He had Frank undress and lie on a cot. After examining the hand he said that there was no point in attempting to sew the finger back on because it probably would not be functional, even if it healed properly. Frank was given something to ease the pain and his hand was re-dressed.
At the time I was very upset and angry with the doctors and the entire hospital system. It seemed that nobody really cared. In retrospect, I realise that I was overly critical because of my own extreme feelings of guilt. I wanted someone to bail me out, to make it all right again. Compared with some accident victims that the emergency personnel see every day, Franks injury was actually not very severe, but it took me a long time to realize it.
There is no way to make amends for the carelessness I was guilty of that day. Nothing has ever had such a devastating impact on me, before or since. If there was anything I could do to give back Franks finger, I surely would. Obviously there isn't. I am so very sorry, but there is nothing I can do about it. It was a painful lesson that I shall never forget. The best I can hope for is that someone else might learn from my foolish carelessness and avoid the anguish that I have felt ever since that hateful day. Franks hand eventually healed—I never will.
Guy Leaves and Returns…
Soon after Guy graduated from high school he got a job working in the oil fields, in order to make money for his university education. Since he planned to come back to the farm after graduating, he enrolled in agricultural courses. After completing his first year, he again went to work in the oil fields. About three months into his second year, he quit school because he was failing his math courses. I hated to see him quit, but assumed that he would be coming back to the farm. Instead, he went down to the states and joined the army.
At that time the Viet Nam war was being fought. Hundreds of American boys were moving to Canada to avoid the draft. Apparently Guy wanted to show people that he was not going to hide in Canada. He not only joined the U.S. army, he volunteered for the paratroops and ranger school and became an airborne ranger. He spent two years in the army and was discharged without having to go to Viet Nam. When he came back home, we formed a partnership and started making plans to include all the other boys as they finished school.
Those were optimistic times. With the newly formed partnership between Guy and I, and the potential of several more partners in the future, it seemed advisable to start expanding our land base. And, as luck would have it, our neighbour, Joe, had decided to sell his farm at this time.
Joe had moved onto the farm joining ours a few years prior to us. He was farming with horses and an old tractor at the time we moved in. He had five or six cows, a team of horses, a couple sows and a flock of chickens. His machinery was old and in poor repair. He and Nellie had raised three children…just eking out a living. Their chances of succeeding as farmers were slim.
Eventually they decided to sell out and move to town. Land prices at the time were picking up, but still low. He listed the farm, in the local newspaper, at a price of seventeen thousand dollars. Another of our neighbours told me that the farm would never sell at such a ridiculously high price. However, I suspect that he was actually interested in expanding also but wasn’t in a position to take on such a large debt at that time.
The recently organized Alberta Agricultural Development Committee (AADC), happened to be promoting a scheme designed to enlarge the average farm size, to make them more viable in the changing agricultural world. Their plan was to assist small farm owners in selling their farms, so there would be more land available to farmers that wanted to expand.
After investigating the plan, it seemed perfect for both Joe and us. Joe would be eligible to receive three thousand dollars from the government, on the condition that he sold his land to a farmer who was expanding, and we would save that amount on the cost of his farm.
There was little interest shown in Joe's farm by other farmers. Betty and I had discussed buying it, while Guy was still in the army, but we couldn't see how we would be able to manage the additional work. Still, the fact remained that, if someone else were to buy the land, we would probably never have another chance to buy it.
Luckily the land still hadn’t been sold by the time Guy came home, and, in the meantime, Joe had dropped his price to fourteen thousand five hundred dollars.
Just a few days after Guy came home, we went down to talk to Joe and offered him eleven thousand five hundred. We explained that this offer would include a payment of three thousand dollars from the AADC…our investment would actually be only eight thousand five hundred dollars. We also advised Joe to talk to the AADC people and get detailed information, to ensure that he understood how the plan worked. After talking to the AADC people, he came back to us and accepted our offer. He then made arrangements to buy house in Colinton and we arranged for a loan from the AADC, to cover our share of the money for the farm.
There were some misunderstandings about the deal that caused some problems for a while, but within a few days the deal was finalized. It's unfortunate that such things happen, but it is understandable when so much is at stake for all parties.
Another land deal that turned problematic was with our neighbour, Mike. I had made it known to Mike, several years before, that I was interested in buying his land if he should ever decide to sell. As a matter of fact, I had told other nearby neighbours the same thing about their land. Then one day Mike stopped in and said that he had decided to sell his farm and he was asking eight thousand dollars for the half section.
I immediately went to Athabasca and talked to the FCC loans officer, who assured me that the money would be available. Then I went back and made a handshake deal with Mike. We agreed to his price of eight thousand dollars, which was actually a relatively high price at that time. I then applied for an FCC loan and started making plans for farming the additional land. Among other things, the plans included some additional machinery purchases.
A few days later, Mike and his wife stopped in. Without even getting out of their car they told me that the deal was off because the land was worth more money. I reminded them that we had shaken hands on the agreement and that I had already made arrangements for a loan. His wife replied, "Mike has put too much work in the farm to sell it for such a low price” and then added that there was nothing I could do about it. It was obvious who was in charge in that family.
Then there was the land deal with Frank, another neighbour. Frank had apparently been moving from one farm to another for years, never succeeding on any of them. He and his wife bought the farm just east of our home quarter the same year that we bought ours. After several years of struggle, with little sign of progress, they decided to sell their farm. They listed the farm with a local Realtor, for around nineteen thousand dollars. After making a deal to sell their farm to another local farmer, they backed out at last minute because they figured they had set the price too low…apparently because they had found a buyer quite easily.
A few years later they again put the farm up for sale, this time listing it with an out of town Realtor, but they increased the price to twenty seven thousand five hundred dollars. We contacted the Realtor and anonymously made a ridiculously lower offer of twenty five dollars per acre, through the Realtors local representative. She went to Frank with the offer and was angrily told off. She was visibly shaken when she came back to us to report the abuse that had been heaped upon her.
Well, to understate things a bit, the Realtor's rep seemed less than enthusiastic about repeating the experience and suggested that maybe we should do our own dealing…which we did. We met with Frank and his wife a few days later. They ranted and raved about people trying to rip them off and threatened to raise their price again. But in spite of all the rancour, we finally managed to make a deal and wrote out a cheque for their farm.
Even after paying for the farm in full, they remained very belligerent and uncooperative. They refused to vacate the house until they were good and ready, even though the agreed upon vacating date had past. During one of our 'discussions' it actually came to blows. Frank had picked up a two by six board and waved it threateningly at us. Then his son, the class bully in school, attacked Guy physically…to his regret.
After that unpleasant incident we had no further contact with them. On the day they finally vacated the house, we went over to check things out and found that they had turned the oil heater up full blast, apparently to use up the remaining fuel oil. The house was extremely hot and the furnace was actually pulsing and throbbing as though it was about to explode. It’s a wonder the house hadn’t burned down.
Each time we bought land, our neighbours told us that we had paid too much…but time has proven them wrong. In every case we borrowed money when interest rates were very low and then paid off the loans with inflated dollars. My only regret is that we didn't buy more land while it was so cheap.
Throughout this period of expansion, several more buildings were constructed. In all we built three cattle barns, a hog barn, a machine shop, a large metal Quonset building for machinery storage, three steel granaries, a sheep shed, six dugouts, three large pit silos, eighteen miles of fence and a new house. In addition to the construction projects, we had purchased a total of ten quarter sections land and cleared five hundred more acres, ending up with eight hundred acres of cultivated land and eight hundred acres of pasture land.
From the time that I first started thinking of moving to Canada, I had been making plans to involve the boys as farming partners With five sons—later to become seven—the possibilities seemed limitless. We had an opportunity to build a family farming enterprise that most farmers dared not even dream of.
However, having heard many stories of failed partnerships, I was determined to devise a plan which would maximise the chances of the partnership's success. I knew that compromises would be necessary, that it would take time to build a farm that could support several families and that we would likely have to do without many desirable things until the partnership could afford them. But the rewards of success appeared to far outweigh such costs.
Presumably, the ultimate goal of most family farm enterprises is to pass the farm on from generation to generation. Finding a method of doing this, in a fair and practical way, is difficult. The most common way is to sell the farm to the next generation, but this usually burdens succeeding generations with huge debts. Such debts severely handicap young farmers while enriching lending agencies and lawyers. A better way, of passing a farm from parents to progeny, would be to adequately compensated the parents for their contributions while allowing the progeny to take over debt free. With these thoughts in mind, I set out to develop a partnership agreement that would avoid the causes of failure of so many family partnerships in the past.
The older boys were now experienced enough to think for themselves and make decisions about their own futures, so we worked out a partnership agreement together. It was designed to benefit all partners equally, safeguard each members time and money investments and ensure the viability of the farming enterprise.
In brief, our partnership agreement is based on an orderly and gradual transfer of ownership via share certificates. An initial number of shares are issued to cover each partners original investment, in time and/or money, and then additional shares are issued annually in such a way that each partner gradually attains equality of ownership. Over a defined period of time, the older generations shares will be paid out by the younger generation, thus gradually transferring ownership without burdening the younger generation with a massive debt.
As the boys finished high school most of them left home to find work. John went on to graduate from the University of Alberta with an agricultural engineering degree. He had intended to become a partner with Guy and I, and worked with us for a couple summers while still in school, but it didn't work out. There were just too many incompatibilities. Later on, Ken decided to stay on as a partner. He tried it for a short time, but it didn't work out either.
As each of the boys made his decision to leave home to find other work, he was invited to join the partnership. They were told that they would have until age twenty six to make their decisions. It was also made very clear to everyone that only partnership members were eligible to share in the farm estate. One by one they all declined…with the exception of Guy.
I think I understand why the boys decided to leave the farm. One of the major factors was their need, or desire, for immediate personal discretionary money. They had grown up in a money deficient environment. Their only source of spending money had been from the sale of furs. They were never paid an allowance or wages because, in my opinion, the farm could not afford it.
Another factor was their lack of opportunity to meet girls. The only vehicles the farm owned, for many years, were trucks…first a one-ton truck and later a three-ton. Again, this was because, in my opinion, the farm could not afford a car. Cars cost money, they burned more expensive fuel than trucks, they are expensive to maintain, they have to be insured and insurance for young drivers was very expensive.
Possibly another major factor was their lack of confidence in farming as a way of attaining a satisfactory standard of living. Farmers, in general, appeared to have substandard lives, in comparison with their urban counterparts…at least in the perception of young people. Many farmers had to find off farm work to subsidise their farms. The most successful farmers were often the ones who had married nurses, teachers or women with some other off-farm sources of income.
But possibly the most significant factor might have been their perception of me as a satisfactory partner. I am rather inflexible when I'm convinced that I'm right. Although I try very hard to make clear my reasons for certain key management decisions, sometimes my explanations may not be persuasive. But, be that as it may, whenever I am confident that I am right, and the welfare of the farm is at stake, and endless discussion has failed…I take the responsibility of making the final decision.
Some of my decisions may have been unpopular and some may have even been mistrusted, but the most important decisions have withstood the test of time. My dreams of a whole-family partnership ultimately ended in disappointment, and I accept my share of responsibility for that failure. Nevertheless, our farm has thrived as a partnership between Guy and myself, at a time when so many other farms have failed.
Switching To Cattle…
After feeding our skim milk to hogs for several years, a Northern Alberta Dairy Pool representative contacted us about shipping bulk whole-milk to them. They were looking for new sources of milk because the dairies around Edmonton were unable to fill the demand. They offered a price for our milk which would be much more profitable than the sale of cream alone. The deal looked good, so we signed up.
It took us about a month to get ready, at a cost of approximately twenty thousand dollars. The Milk Marketing Board gave us sufficient quota to permit us to ship all the milk were currently producing and we became the first farmers to ship bulk milk from Athabasca County to Barrhead. As a matter of fact, we were the only shipper for a while and their trucks had to drive all the way from Barrhead, more than a hundred miles round trip, just to pick up our milk, twice per week.
Shortly after we started shipping bulk milk, the dairy commission activated a program designed to gradually integrate new milk producers into the quota system. The quota system was designed to regulate milk production via a two-price system. A premium price was paid for quota milk while over-quota (surplus) milk received a much lower price. At the time there was a shortage of milk being produced in Alberta, so the dairy commission was offering quota, free of charge, to producers who signed up and agreed to maintain a specified level of production. Over the next few years, we accumulated a substantial amount of quota in this way…absolutely free.
When we first started milking cows, we intended to switch over to beef cattle as soon as we were financially able to do so. We had no desire to spend the rest of our lives in the dairy business, but it made sense to milk cows, for a time, as an interim step to reaching our ultimate goal more quickly. In light of that plan, we were careful not to invest more money than absolutely necessary in equipment that would not be useful after switching to beef cattle. Consequently our milking facilities were just barely adequate to meet the dairy commission's minimum requirements.
As more and more dairies began to ship bulk milk from our area, the marketing regulations became more strict. As a consequence, since our set-up barely met the original, more lenient, regulations, we were constantly pestered by the milk inspectors to upgrade our facilities. Finally we were told that we would have to upgrade if we wanted to continue shipping fluid milk. For a while we just stalled them off, without making any commitments, one way or the other. Our strategy was to continue shipping milk as long as we could in order to put ourselves in the best possible financial position before converting to beef cattle. There was no rush to give up the ten thousand dollars per month that the milk cows brought in during the peak months.
As luck would have it, just as we were about to quit the dairy business, the dairy commission initiated a new plan which permitted the sale of quota directly from one producer to another—provided that the seller agreed to quit producing milk altogether. Upon investigation, we discovered that our quota had a market price of approximately one hundred thousand dollars! It sounded too good to be true, but further inquiries confirmed it. To make the deal even better, the dairy commission would handle the sale for us and we would have no contact with the purchasing party. All we had to do was sign an agreement to sell our quota and the commission would find a buyer and deliver the cheque to us. And that, in a nutshell, is what happened.
The money from the milk quota, plus some additional money from the sale of a few cull milk cows, provided us with the capital needed to get started in beef cattle.
The conversion to beef cattle was made in two steps. The first step was to breed our Holstein milk cows to Hereford bulls, which we had already started doing. We had kept our best milk cows as the nucleus of our breeding stock. The second step was to buy a hundred head of
Hereford heifer calves, to be bred in the spring.
Later on, when our breeding herd had become a bit too large for our feed supply, and the price of milk cows had risen, we sold the remainder of our Holstein cows. Our herd grew steadily and eventually peaked at five hundred and fifty one head, of which three hundred and eight were mature cows.
Although the beef business has been very good to us, there have been some bad times, the worst of which occurred one cold January day. We had been feeding the cattle in a sheltered area back in the bush, nearby a beaver pond where they watered. The pond was frozen over with thick ice. Every morning we would cut watering holes through the ice, in the shallow water near the edge of the pond. This was a common way of watering cattle in the winter.
That morning, as we were passing the beaver dam with a load of hay for the cattle, we stopped to break open the watering holes. It had been extremely cold the night before. The cattle were still bedded down back in the shelter of the trees.
As Guy was chopping open the water holes, I noticed some strange looking round frost covered mounds out in the middle of the pond. There were a couple dozen of them and they stuck up about a foot above the ice. The pond was eight or nine feet deep where the mounds were. As we walked over to investigate the strange pinkish mounds, the sickening realisation dawned on us that they were the bloated sides of drowned cows.
The rest of the herd had to be moved away immediately so more wouldn't drown if they came to drink. So, Guy jumped on the tractor and pulled the load of hay up close to the remainder of the herd and started calling them. As the cattle came out of the bush, most of them started following the load of hay, but some were thirsty and headed for the water holes, where I was standing guard. Guy kept going with the wagon and called the cattle while I did my best to chase the thirsty ones away from the water. As hard as I tried, I could not turn them away. Some of them got by me and walked out on the pond. The ice around the drowned cattle was not thick enough to support their weight and they began breaking through.
By the time we were able to drive the rest of the herd to safety, a total of thirty head had drowned. Although we did manage to pull two or three out, one of them was so far gone that it had to be shot. It took us four days to chop the frozen carcasses out of the ice and drag them onto the bank. It took much longer to recover from the financial and emotional effects of the loss.
As much as one might like to take full credit for his success, the truth is that we have had a number of pleasant surprises, in the form of windfall income, that have been very helpful. In addition to the milk quota windfall, there have been others, from time to time.
During the past forty-plus years, oil and gas companies have seen fit to share some of their vast wealth with us peons. They apparently like to pay for the privilege of driving heavy equipment across our land and punching holes in our fields. Then, when they tire of punching holes, they move their equipment out and send in a crew to pick rocks for us and fix our fences. Sometimes they even continue sending us money for several years after completing their work, apparently because they are too busy punching holes in other places and just can’t find the time to mail out release forms.
Considering the fact that, in all the time we've been farming, we have received thirty to forty thousand dollars from these guys, it’s a bit embarrassing to admit that greed has occasionally motivated us to take advantage of their generosity. Like the time they wanted to cut some seismic lines across our land, and we happened to know that they had already signed up all the neighboring land owners, and that our land was vital to their plans because two of the lines crossed smack dab in the middle of one of our quarters. This is an interesting situation to be in…I think it's called "being in the drivers seat". I’m mortified to admit that we may have taken advantage of the situation and got a teeny bit more than they really wanted to pay. But, as the saying goes…"You'd better get while the gettin's good."
Computer Crash Course …
My first experience with computers was back in the late '50s when ALCOA installed a state-of-the-art computer system at the Vancouver works. The components of the system cost over a million dollars and filled two good sized rooms. One room housed the card punching machines, where a dozen or more women sat, at typewriter-like keyboards, typing in raw data to be read by the computer. These machines created cards, about three inches by six inches in size, with rows of small rectangular holes in them. Each card represented a single instruction. For example, the set of holes in one card might represent an employees name, address, telephone number, et cetera. Another card would represent the number of hours he had worked, his rate of pay, and so forth. The computer then read these instructions by electrical contacts through the holes.
The computer, card sorters and the printer were in the other room. The computer itself was a huge contraption. At the back were openings filled with program boards. The boards were very similar in appearance to old fashioned telephone switch boards, with tangles of wires plugged into them. These wired circuits routed the electrical impulses…which had been read from the punched cards…to the central processor in the innards of the computer. After processing the data from the cards, the computer then punched the results of its calculations into still more cards.
The thousands of cards thus produced by the computer, and the key-punch operators, were next taken to the card sorters. The card sorters were much like the letter sorters in a modern post office. Stacks of cards were fed into the machine, which sorted them into separate stacks, according to the data which had been punched into them. After all this punching, calculating and sorting, the cards were then sent to the printer.
I should point out that the computer did not have 'memory' or data storage capability and there was no monitor for displaying information. So everything had to be printed on paper to be read.
The printer was another huge machine, approximately eight feet long by four feet wide and about table height. A endless chain of alpha-numeric characters continuously revolved around the perimeter of the printer top. As this chain of characters passed by a battery of little hammers, the appropriate character would be struck by a hammer and the character would be printed, via an inked ribbon, on the paper behind the ribbon. It was all very cumbersome, noisy and awkward by modern standards but it was fascinating to watch.
It was not until about 1981 that computers next invaded my life. That was when Radio Shack started marketing their first home computer, which they called the CoCo…short for ColorComputer. I bought one immediately…justifying the expense by assuming I could learn computer programming and write programs for farm use.
The CoCo consisted of just two components, a combined keyboard/computer—with 128K of memory—and a monochrome monitor. The operator's manual contained excellent programming instructions for beginners. I learned to write computer programs on that humble little machine and became hooked on computers. My goal was to computerise our farm accounting system and other farm bookkeeping jobs. There were no commercially written programs available for farm accounting at that time.
My first programs, although useful, left a lot to be desired. They were slow in operation and very limited in scope, mainly because of the meagre amount of memory in the primitive little CoCo. Over time, with better computers and improved programming languages, I eventually wrote a complete set of farm bookkeeping programs, which we used exclusively for several years. Ultimately we switched to a commercial accounting program, when they became available, but we still use some of the other programs that I wrote.
My fascination with computers and programming lead to a desire to put this newly learned technology to some monetary use. The first thought was to write programs to sell, which I did…with very limited success. This was mainly because my programs were not 'user friendly', in that they did not have graphic user interface (GUI) capability, which quickly become the standard.
I had noticed in the GrainNews, a western Canada farm newspaper, that many of the articles were contributed by freelance writers. There were articles on just about every subject of interest to farmers, but there was little mention of computers. This was understandable, however, because very few farmers had computers at that time.
There was a kind of a Catch 22 situation associated with farm use of computers. Very few computer programs of any kind were available at that time and practically none that farmers would find useful. So, farmers weren’t apt to buy computers if there was no useful software available and programmers weren’t apt to write software that few would buy.
The programs I wrote had proven to be very useful to us. They not only made our bookkeeping chores easier and more accurate, they also made the job more enjoyable. I felt that if more farmers were made aware of the advantages that computers had to offer, they would be more apt to buy one—provided, of course, that useful programs were also available.
An idea started forming in that space between my ears: "Maybe I could teach other farmers to write their own programs!"; or, "Maybe I could sell my programs to them!"; or, "Maybe it would even be possible to write articles about computer programming, for the GrainNews paper, and not only get paid for the articles but advertise my programs, to a large number of farmers, at the same time!"
Now, it’s easy enough to dream up such an idea but not so easy to work up the guts to actually do something about it. I agonised about it for days, then finally decided to write to the GrainNews publishers. I explained to them that, although I had no writing experience and no formal computer programming training, I would like to write articles about computer programming for their newspaper.
I was surprised to get any response at all, but even more surprised that they wanted me to start right away and asked me to submit something for them to evaluate. I did so and a few days later received a phone call from one of their editors. He said he liked my article and asked if I would be willing to submit a series of them. He also informed me that the starting pay for new writers was a hundred and fifty dollars per article. I agreed to give it a try.
Every article I submitted, for approximately a year and a half, was published. My name was even added to the newspapers mast head, as a staff writer. It was a very interesting experience. I received a number of letters from people all over western Canada, some of them suggesting ideas for future articles, some just expressing their appreciation, and some asking questions about programming. But one letter in particular really surprised me. It was from a professional software publisher. He complained bitterly about the fact that he had recently invested over a hundred thousand dollars in a new business to produce software for farmers. He went on at length to tell me how unfair it was for me to try to teach farmers to write their own programs, when people like him were trying to make a business of it. As if!
Not long after that, I realised that the whole idea was just a pipe dream. My own enthusiasm for computers had clouded my judgement. The fact was that most farmers had little, if any, interest in computers and even less interest in programming. But, even more importantly, a number of professionally written accounting programs, as well as a variety of other software of use to farmers, were now being marketed. So, with some reluctance I informed the editor that I would no longer be writing for them.
I Lose My Betty…
Nineteen eighty nine was the worst year of my life. Betty died shortly before noon on the 28th day of October, three weeks after her 61st birthday.
In retrospect, there were some early indications of her deteriorating health. The first sign was an occasional numbness in her left hand. Later on she started dropping things that she was carrying in her left hand, and would be unaware of dropping them. She actually thought it was kind of funny and laughed about it. It didn’t occur to me that it might be an indication of a serious problem.
I first took notice that something was odd about her behaviour when Betty and I were walking through the pasture together, looking for rocks. Betty liked to collect small rocks to cut and polish with her lapidary outfit. She usually went out by herself, carrying a little burlap bag that she had made, and always brought back a load of rocks. I used to get upset with her for bringing so many rocks home. She had boxes of them stored all over the basement. She did a little cutting and polishing occasionally, but the huge stockpile of rocks she had accumulated would have kept her busy for years.
On this particular day I went along with her. As we strolled along, I noticed that she seemed to be walking differently than normal and hardly seemed aware of me being with her. Once or twice she nearly ran into me and would laugh and say she hadn't seen me. I also noticed that she dropped her rock bag a couple times but didn’t seem aware of the fact for a few moments.
I walked a short distance away and stood watching her. When she saw me looking at her she apparently thought I was being critical and became quite irritated, saying something like, "What's wrong now?" I think it was at that moment that I first realized that there was something seriously wrong.
The next day we went to Dr. Oldale's office in Athabasca. After a quick examination and a few questions, he apparently suspected what the problem was and immediately made an appointment for a neurological examination at the University Hospital in Edmonton. The following morning we went to Edmonton.
Upon examination it was determined that she had a brain tumor. They operated about three days later and removed a large malignant tumor…two others were inoperable. The operation was followed by a series of treatments, both radiation and chemotherapy. Her health was deteriorating very noticeably.
I had phoned my daughter as soon as the operation was scheduled and she immediately flew to Edmonton. Lynne was with her mother all through the operation and the first days of recovery, which was a great help for both Betty and I. I went down to see Betty about every other day. It was a period of emotional highs and lows. One day the doctors would seem a bit optimistic when she showed signs of improving. The next day things might look totally hopeless.
One of the sad things that happened was when Betty's hair started falling out. Lynne had treated her mother to a permanent just a day or two before her operation…her first permanent since moving to Canada. She looked very nice. Shortly after the radiation and chemotherapy treatments started, her hair began to fall out. Betty didn't seem to mind, but it was very distressing for me.
She recovered slowly over the next few months, eventually to the point that she felt well enough to take a short trip. We left one morning, with the truck and camper, intending to make a camping trip through southern Alberta and east into Saskatchewan. We visited the Terrell Museum, which Betty seemed to enjoy and camped at public campgrounds.
She complained of a pain in her leg about the third day of the trip. The next day the pain got worse, so we decided to go back home. By that afternoon all she wanted was to get home as soon as possible, she also mentioned several times that she wanted to see Pat. We drove straight through, getting home late in the evening.
Her health deteriorated rapidly after that. She was in pain most of the time. Stronger and stronger drugs were prescribed, with little effect. Finally, there was nothing to do but take her to the hospital where they could give her better care and ease her pain.
On the morning I took her to the hospital, she had a seizure and fell in the bathroom. Guy and I were outside doing chores at the time. When I came in to check on her, which I did every hour or so, she was in very bad condition…confused and in great pain. On the way to the hospital she had another seizure. I had to support her with one hand and drive with the other. I feared she was dying and drove extremely fast, hoping for an RCMP escort.
The hospital staff helped Betty as much as they could, but there was really nothing anyone could do except try to ease her pain. Toward the last the pain was unbearable. Betty always had a high tolerance of pain, but this was too much.
I spent as much time as I could with her during the final days and nights…sleeping on a couch next to her bed at night. I knew there was little chance of recovery but refused to give up hope. Finally, late one night, Dr. Reddy told me that Betty wouldn't last more than a few more days.
That evening Betty and I had our last meaningful talk. It is too painful and personal to relate in detail what we talked about, but I’m glad we at least had a chance to say some long overdue things to each other. Although I had never cheated on Betty during our entire marriage, I know she thought I had and I felt the guilt of knowing how close I had actually come a couple times. I wanted very much to clear my conscience in that last conversation with Betty, but could not bring myself to cause her any more pain. Without being specific, I just asked her to forgive me for the times that I may have hurt her in the past. We forgave each other.
The next morning Betty was feeling a bit better, so I went home for a few minutes to change clothes and then went right back to the hospital. About a half hour after I got back, Bettys pain became extremely bad. She asked for "Something to knock me out". By that time normal doses of morphine were ineffective.
She was lying on her back. I was kneeling over her at the bedside trying to find some way to comfort her. The pain distorted her face and showed in her eyes. I had not noticed that Dr. Reddy and two or three nurses and other staff members had entered the room.
Betty pleaded for something to stop the pain but there was nothing anyone could do for her. Watching her pain contorted face was unbearable. She looked up at me, her feverish eyes pleading for help. I said , "Why don't you just let go?". She responded, "Do you mean, die?" I nodded my head and said, "Yes". Those were our last words to each other. How I have wished ever since that I had told her once more that I loved her, before it was too late.
The end came very quickly—I remember every detail. The pain appeared to leave at once. Her face became relaxed and she seemed to breath more easily, she was breathing through her partially opened mouth. Her breaths gradually slowed and became weaker. Her face relaxed more. Then, there was one final small breath and her pain ended.
It was then that I realised that several people had quietly entered the room. Obviously word had gone out that Betty was dying. Officially, they were there as witnesses but their tears belied that mere professionalism had brought them to bid my Betty goodbye.
My daughter-in-law, Louise, happened to be in the hospital that morning for a lab appointment. It was her birthday and she was in her usual good spirits. She had been in to see Betty a little earlier, before going to the lab. Within minutes after Betty died, Louise came back to see mom before going home. As she entered the room, she immediately realized what had happened and came to me. We held each other and cried. She was as broken hearted as I. That shared moment of grief proved to be the beginning of a close friendship between the two of us.
I took Louise home because she felt unable to drive alone and then went on home to tell Guy.
The next few days were the saddest and most difficult days of my life. All the kids except John came home. Pat was flown home in a military helicopter, which landed on our lawn not more than fifty feet from the house. Betty had requested that there be no funeral, because she did not want to be "a bother to anyone". She had also requested that her body be cremated. In respect of her wishes, the only public awareness of her death was a notice pinned up at the post office and an obituary in the local newspaper.
Guy, Bill and I made the arrangements with the undertaker and were shocked by his attitude. He tried to intimidate and pressure us into going against Betty's wishes, implying that we were not showing proper respect. He tried every pressure tactic he could to shame and cajole us into having an expensive funeral. It was a real shock to see firsthand just how unfeeling and money grubbing undertakers can be.
Betty's ashes are buried in her garden, near her apple trees, in a stainless steel container that Bill made. It is stamped with her name and dates of birth and death. I designed and carved a small wooden plaque as a marker for her burial place and Guy cast it in aluminum. My will specifies that my body is also to be cremated, there is to be no funeral, and my ashes are to be buried next to Betty's in a similar manner.
No man ever had a more devoted wife than my Betty. She stood by me through every adversity…"in sickness and in health, for better or worse, 'til death us did part." It so unfair that, after more than forty years of defying the odds together, she was not allowed to live and reap her share of the rewards.
Life Without Betty…
Adjusting to life without Betty was very hard. After living together for more than forty years and expecting to have her by my side for many more years, her loss was an emotional shock. Although her death was neither sudden nor unexpected, I was still not prepared for the dramatic change in my life.
I went through the same stages of sadness, denial and anger that I suppose most people experience with the death of their spouse. At first I tried to hang on to the past, denying that she was gone by refusing to allow changes to take place. I wanted everything to remain as she had left it. I didn't want any of her things to be given away. No matter how trivial a thing might have been, if it was hers it had meaning. Her clothes, dishes, books, household appliances—all the things she had collected during our forty one year honeymoon—now took on a greater significance. I would touch and smell her clothing in the dresser drawers and closets. It was more than two months before I changed the sheets on our bed. Then, before the sheets finally went into the washing machine I pressed them to my face and wept.
Gradually it became obvious that it made no sense to keep clothing and other things that we had no use for when most of these things were perfectly good and of use by others. As the job of sorting out her things got underway, I saw that I needed the help of a woman. Louise volunteered to help. She not only helped sort and box up everything that I decided to give away, she also hauled it all to her house where it could be divided up amongst the other daughters-in-law without me having to be involved. Louise worked hard and made many trips hauling the heavy boxes away and, as it turned out, she ended up getting the things that others didn't want. I am very grateful for your help Louise.
As time passed, it became easier to get rid of things that we had no use for, but it never ceased to surprise me that there are memories attached to everything in ones house, no matter how trivial it might be. Old Christmas tree decorations, a damaged cooking utensil, tattered old books that Betty had read, all caused pangs of remembrance.
With further passage of time, parting with the past became easier. As a matter of fact, it eventually became almost an obsession to get rid of everything that was not being used. It was like a purge. Truck loads of old furniture and space consuming junk were eventually hauled to the dump until the house actually echoed with hollow emptiness.
The nature of our partnership had obviously changed as well. With the passing of Betty, there were now only two partners, rather than three. Additionally, it had become more apparent, with each passing year, that none of the other boys were apt to join Guy and I in farming. It also became obvious that it is much easier for two partners to make decisions than it is for three or more. But to be brutally frank, the most significant change was that management plans and decisions would no longer have to be concerned with a woman's point of view. That is not to imply that women should not be involved in decision making, or that a woman's point of view is not important…it just means that the decision making process was significantly simplified.
Debt Free At Last…
One of our main goals had always been to eventually become completely debt free. As with most farmers, we had, for many years, no option but to borrow money for most of our major expenses. In fact for most of our farming life it had even been necessary to borrow money for our day to day operating expenses. Our annual operating loan, of forty five thousand dollars, had been routinely renewed every year.
Interest on borrowed money had become one of our major operating expenses. In 1981 alone, we had paid out more than thirty thousand dollars in interest, when bank interest peaked at over twenty one percent. It didn’t take a genius to see that the elimination of interest would make a significant difference in our net income. So, we made it a high priority to get completely out of debt as quickly as possible and eliminate the need for an operating loan.
Using frugal spending practices, careful planning, plus some lucky breaks, we were able to realize our goals. It has been a long difficult process but the security and pride that comes with being out of debt is well worth the sacrifices required. It would have taken longer to accomplish our goal had it not been for an occasional bit of good luck however.
We, like most farmers, have had some unexpected windfalls that had little or nothing to do with good management. For example, a number of seismic lines and gas exploration wells, mentioned previously. We also benefited from the sale of things as diverse as milk quota, timber, and even rocks. Although there is no question that such windfall income helped us attain our debt free goal much sooner, we do take credit for spending the money wisely. Also, we take some credit for having made decisions in the past that ultimately led to our being in a position to benefit from such windfalls. At any rate, for whatever reason, we have been completely out of debt since 1992 and have been banking enough money each fall to cover the next years operating expenses.
Another event that enhanced my personal lifestyle was when I started receiving government pension checks at age sixty five. Although the amount of the pension is modest, it nevertheless made it possible for me to do things that I might not otherwise have been able to do, such as travel and meet new friends.
One of those friends was Afton. For a period of about two years we were close friends and spent many pleasant hours together. We travelled and went camping together. We spent time in the mountain parks, flew down to Washington D.C. to visit the Smithsonian museums, went to art shows, attended agricultural fairs, and drove all over Alberta together. She introduce me to opera and musical concerts. I introduced her to computers. We had a lot of fun together and enjoyed each others company very much but eventually stopped seeing each other because of differences in personal objectives. She later married another man whom she had known in high school.
Senior Citizen Student…
I have thought for many years that it would be fun to go back to school some day when there was more time for such things. I’ve worked with educated people most of my life and regret not having a better education myself. Even though I read quite a bit, and have learned to do many things on my own, one would expect to learn quicker in a structured education environment. I was also just curious to know how well I could do.
So, I enrolled at Athabasca University. I should point out that, being a senior citizen, there was practically no cost involved, just a thirty five dollar enrolment fee and nothing at all for the courses or course materials. At first I intended to take only courses that I was particularly interested in. Later on I decided to try for a general degree of some kind, by taking a prescribed set of courses, even though I was most interested in writing and computer courses.
Things went very well for some time. I completed a number of prerequisite courses and then went on to complete courses of my choice in writing, computer programming, et cetera. By the end of the first year I had accumulated a significant number of credits toward a degree.
With all due modesty, I was pleased at how well I was actually doing. In fact, it came as a total surprise when I received a check for fifty dollars, in the mail, for having made the highest grade in the current class of students who were taking the Critical Thinking course.
Well, my inflated ego was soon to be deflated. As a school kid, taking tests had never been a problem for me. I made it a practice to be prepared and there was never a feeling of stress. Not so with the old kid though. Even though my grades were good enough, I felt more and more anxiety with every final examination, even after thorough preparation.
I think a large part of the stress was caused by the conditions under which the tests were conducted. They were given in a small room, furnished only with a chair, a table and a clock on the wall. The first few exams went quite well. But when it came time for the final exam in a writing course, in which an extemporaneous essay was required, I went totally blank. After several false starts, with time running out and a blank sheet of paper still in front of me, the clock on the wall started looking more and more like a fan. I felt panicky. My heart was pounding. I couldn’t think. Finally I just gave up and walked out, never to return. I still feel like a failure for quitting.
Dealing with Dealing…
Farming involves many business dealings. As one gains skill in the art of dealing, it sometimes becomes kind of a game. Often a farmer is at a disadvantage because he’s in a poor bargaining position. This is especially true when first starting out, particularly when dealing with bankers.
Dealing with business men, lawyers, bankers and so forth, is much different than dealing with other farmers though. The main thing in dealing with business men is to be aware that they are as dependent on your business as you are on theirs. Also, be aware that they are not telling the whole truth and they will never reveal their bottom line figure until forced to. The main thing in dealing with most farmers is honesty and frankness. Farmers generally get to the bottom line quickly. But…there are exceptions to all rules.
One notable exception involved the sale of a used forage harvester, that we no longer needed, to a Lac Labich farmer, whom I will call Mr C. Mr. C. had a reputation of being a rather difficult person to deal with. Gary, the sales manager of the local John Deere agency, had dealt with Mr. C. many times and had finally reached the point where he refused to deal with him any more.
One day Gary phoned to say that Mr. C. was looking for a used forage harvester and he had referred him to us, because he knew we had one to sell.
That afternoon Mr. C. came out to see us. He was a friendly man and he liked to talk. We spent about an hour looking at and discussing the forage harvester. We went over the machine quite thoroughly, pointing out some of its faults and problem areas as well as its good features. Mr. C. seemed willing to talk all afternoon, but we had work to do. He thought our price of thirty eight hundred dollars was too high and left without making a deal.
About a year later, Mr. C. called us one morning, wanting to know if we still had the forage harvester. We told him we did and that the price was now forty five hundred—we raised the price primarily to see if he was really interested in buying or just wanted to talk some more. He said that he would be out that afternoon for another look.
In the meantime, we called Gary and told him what had happened. Gary was a bit reluctant to say much, but cautioned us to be careful in dealing with Mr. C. Being for-warned, we decided that we would stick to our price and not waste time dealing.
When Mr. C. showed up later that day, he immediately started finding fault with the machine. He claimed that it required a lot of repairs to get it in shape to use. We told him that, to the best of our knowledge, it was ready to use as is and the price was firm. He attempted to waste our time by haggling, but we told him that we were too busy to talk any more and that he had already had ample time to make up his mind over the past year.
To our surprise, Mr. C. finally took out his cheque book and wrote a cheque for forty five hundred dollars. After he left with the forage harvester, I called Gary and told him about the sale. Gary didn't have much to say, but mentioned again that Mr. C. was a funny guy to deal with.
Later that evening, Mr. C. called and said that we had misrepresented the machine. He claimed that it vibrated excessively and feared that it would shake itself to pieces. He said that it needed a lot of repairs and he was returning it. We knew that we had not misrepresented the machine, and suspected that the excessive vibration was caused by hooking up the power-take-off shaft out of phase (which we had cautioned him about), but told him we would give his money back if he returned the machine and we found there was actually something wrong with it.
I immediately called Gary and told him what had happened. Gary said he had expected something like that to happen because the same sort of thing had happened to them several times. He said that Mr. C. had a habit of taking a machine home, then claiming there was something wrong with it and returning it. It had happened so often, in fact, that Gary would no longer deal with him. He asked to be kept informed on how the deal turned out. He also suggested that we have the cheque certified for our own protection.
Early the next morning, I left for Lac Labich, which is about ninety miles north east of our farm, to have the check certified. Just a mile or two from Lac Labich I met Mr. C. and his two sons, towing the forage harvester back with their pickup truck. As luck would have it, they didn't recognize me and so were completely unaware of what I was up to.
After having the cheque certified at their bank—which I understand banks cannot refuse to do—I immediately started home again. About halfway home, I noticed their truck and forage harvester parked at a coffee shop. This was perfect…it was one of those rare occasions in my life when I knew I was in full control of a situation. I hurried on home, arriving there about a half hour ahead of them.
When Mr. C. and sons pulled into the yard with the forage harvester, he promptly went into a tirade about all the things that were wrong with the machine, intimating that we had tried to swindle him. As we listened to his complaints, we had the satisfaction of knowing we were in full control and that he was completely unaware of that fact. While we were talking, someone noticed a nail had punctured one of the tires on the forage harvester.
After discussing each of his complaints, we found them all to be groundless. We even hooked the machine up to our tractor for a trial run and showed that it ran smoothly. As suspected, he had apparently hooked up the power shaft wrong at his place. We pointed out that he had been made aware of the machines condition prior to paying for it and, since there had been no misrepresentation, we would not return his money.
Mr. C. seemed to take this rather calmly. He made snide remarks about dealing with disreputable people and then said that he would have to go get another tire for the machine, because he didn't want to drive all the way back home with a punctured tire. Of course we assumed that he intended to go straight to his bank to stop payment on his cheque and we would never see him again.
Savoring the situation we were in, we didn't disclose what we had done. We merely told them that they could save themselves a lot of driving if they took the machine with them, since they would just have to come back for it later. Mr. C. and his boys drove away, confident that they had out smarted us.
The next morning the two boys came back alone. They had nothing to say. They just hooked on to the machine, after pumping up the tire, and drove away. We have never been bothered by Mr. C since and the people at John Deere were elated that Mr. C had finally gotten his comeuppance.
In 1965 we bought a new truck. The old ‘47 Dodge that had moved us to Canada, and served as our only means for transportation for three more years, was showing its years. It had hauled everything from furniture to livestock. No repairs, of any significance, had been made on it since we moved to Canada, but it needed many.
One time I was going to Athabasca on the old road from Colinton. I usually took that road rather than the highway because there was less chance of meeting a cop. As I drove along, I noticed a vehicle overtaking me. It was a neighbour, Andrew Wood. He pulled along side and waved to me to stop. Upon stopping, he took a battery out of the back of his truck and said, “I think this belongs to you.”
There was no floor mat in the old Dodge, so without even getting out of the cab, I just lifted up the wooden floor board which covered the battery box. There was no battery. It had fallen out, back down the road a ways. The corroded old battery box had finally weakened to the point that it could not support the weight of the battery as we banged along the rough gravel roads. I suspect the battery had dangled by the cables for a while before slipping free. The old girl was literally falling apart.
How the battery had survived the abuse it took, as it rolled and banged end over end down the road, I’ll never understand. But, aside from a little road-rash, it looked okay. Andrew helped me put it back in the truck and tied it in place with a wire he found in his truck. When the cables were again hooked up, the old clunker started as if nothing had happened. I drove on to Athabasca and back home without further incident.
Some time later, on the same road, I was coming home from the feed mill with a full load of feed. Ordinarily I went by myself, but on that particular day Pat went along with me, he hadn’t started school yet. We were about a mile from Colinton when a screeching-grinding noise, from the rear of the truck, told me that something was seriously wrong. I pulled over and had a look.
There was no visible sign of what the problem was, so I decided to try to make it on home. The truck started fine, I shifted into low gear without a problem, but when I let the clutch out, it tried to move momentarily, then shuddered and refused to move. I could see that the drive shaft was turning but we weren’t going anywhere. It turned out that the differential was completely shot. Apparently all the oil had leaked out and it had overheated and melted the gears.
Pat and I walked on to Colinton where I got my neighbour, Ed, to take us back in his truck. After shoveling the load of feed from my truck to his, he towed us to the mechanic's garage in Colinton and then took us home.
I told the mechanic that we couldn’t afford to spend much money fixing the old truck, but if he could find a used differential he should go ahead and repair it, because we had nothing else to drive. It took him about a week to find and install the parts, and he only charged forty five dollars for the parts and his labour. Meanwhile we used a tractor for transportation.
Well, it was obvious that something had to be done. It’s almost impossible to farm without a reliable truck. Replacing the old girl with another used truck would likely have just been trading one set of problems for some different ones. So, as tight as money was, we decided to buy a new truck.
A week or so later we had our new truck…a 1965 one-ton Dodge, with dual wheels and an eight by ten foot grain box with cattle rack extensions and hydraulic hoist. What a difference that truck made! Not only from a reliability and efficiency standpoint but also psychologically. Rather than sneaking around back roads, when going to town, we now proudly drove down the main highway. It’s hard to describe the boost it gave my moral…I was no longer ashamed to drive into the feed mill for a load of feed or go to the post office for mail, or park in front of the grocery store along side other farmers modern trucks. It created the illusion of being a successful farmer…a big boost to my ego.
That truck served us well during its lifetime, it was our only means of transportation for many years. It hauled our feed, took us to town for groceries, transported our pigs and cattle to market, and served as a family car for our very limited social life.
Although it was a source of pride and satisfaction to me, I’m sure it was a source of embarrassment as well, particularly the time it was used to take Lynne to university. Having no other means of transportation, when the time came for her to leave home, we loaded her luggage in the back of the truck and her mother and I took her to the big city in country style. Although she has never mentioned it, I’m sure it must have been more than a little embarrassing for her to be the only one to arrive at the university in a cattle truck.
Eventually we were able to buy a second, more practical vehicle, for family use. One of the problems with the bigger truck was that Betty couldn’t drive it, or at least didn’t feel that she could. Consequently, I always had to go along as driver when she needed groceries or to get the mail, which didn’t make a whole lot of sense since she was a very capable driver herself.
Anyway, we bought a second hand Toyota pickup, which she was more confident to drive.
Until we got the Toyota, we really had no means of taking trips or getting away from the farm for recreational purposes. Actually, the Toyota didn’t really change that situation much since only three people could fit into the cab. There was a shell enclosure on the box, but there was neither heat or creature comforts back there.
Shortly after we got the Toyota, dad had a stroke. For a while it looked like he might not make it but then he started showing signs of recovery. Eventually he was able to return home from the hospital, although he still had trouble walking and his speech was quite slurred. My brother phoned one evening to ask if it would be possible for any of us to come down for dads sake. I told him that I wanted to very much and would try to manage it somehow, but not to say anything the folks just yet.
After talking it over with Betty, we decided that she and the two youngest boys and I should give it a try. Money was scarce, as always, so it would have to be a very low budget trip. Betty prepared enough sandwiches, and other things, so we wouldn’t have to eat at restaurants. I filled the gas tank as full as possible, with farm gas, to get us well on our way before having to spend money for fuel. After loading the back of the pickup with blankets and a couple suitcases, the boys jumped in and nestled down in the blankets at the front of the box…where they could see into the cab…and we headed out for Washington.
The weather was miserable…chilly, wet and snowing lightly. The highways were very slushy. Our little toy truck was drenched with sloppy brown slush by every passing vehicle, especially in the heavier traffic of Edmonton. At times the windshield wipers actually stalled, making visibility impossible for a few seconds. Turning back seemed the wise thing to do, but we kept mushing on.
As we traveled further southward, the weather improved and we started making better time. We drove all day and were well into Idaho before stopping for the night. There was no money for motels…hence all the blankets in back. We just pulled off the highway, on an isolated road, and Betty and I got into the back with the boys for the night.
Before daylight the next morning we were on our way again. Somewhere along the line I phoned my brother to let him know we were coming and asked him to pass the word on to mom. Late in the afternoon we arrived at our destination, tired and bedraggled. Mom met us at the door and said that she had not told dad we were coming, for fear that he would be disappointed if we had to turn back.
I anticipated that dad would have changed quite a bit since we last saw him, but I was really not prepared when I first saw him. He looked so much older and one side of his face was partially paralyzed. He walked very slowly, with the aid of a cane. The shock of seeing him in that condition brought tears to my eyes as I put my arms around him. His first words were, “What’sa matter…got somethin in yer eye?” He showed no emotion or surprise at seeing us, although he obviously recognised us.
Two days later we were on our way back home. The trip home was uneventful and, after tallying up all expenses, the round trip had cost just a bit over fifty dollars. The little Toyota had definitely proven its worth.
Dad continued recovering his health until he was nearly back to normal. He fought hard and his determination brought him through. There were very few signs that he had ever had a stroke. He walked a bit slower than before, but he eventually got rid of his cane. His speech returned to normal, but his language suffered somewhat…used a few swear words now and then, which was a bit of shock to hear from dad.
Eventually he recovered enough so that Don brought him up to Canada for a visit. They stayed with us for several days. Dad was very interested in the farm and I’m sure he enjoyed his visit as much as we did. When they left for home, we did not know that it would be the last time we were to see dad. His second stroke proved to be more than he could handle. He died at the age of eighty five in 1979.
Mom lived alone after Dad's death, in the house that they had built together. When her health started to gradually deteriorate, and it looked like she might not last too much longer, Kathleen brought her up to Canada for what proved to be our last visit. Although she had not had a stroke or any specific illness, she had lost a lot of weight and became quite frail since the last time I had seen her. I rather suspected that it would be the last time we would see her when she and Kathleen left for home. She died at the age of eighty two in 1984.
We had wanted a bulldozer for clearing land for many years. Finally, in 1980, we bought a 1969 D85 Komatsu 'cat'. With a fourteen foot wide dozer blade, and enough power to push over our largest trees, the landscape began to chang very quickly. I disliked killing trees, but we needed more pasture and cultivated land, so the trees had to be sacrificed .
Having said that, it is exhilarating to drive headlong into a heavily wooded area and mash down a fourteen foot swath of trees and brush, leaving behind a path of flattened uprooted destruction. The sound and smell of trees crashing to the ground, mixed with the smells of diesel and the screeching of metal, as the cat grinds and lurches relentlessly ahead, never fails to get the adrenaline flowing. There is a mixed feeling of massive power, tempered with a sense of guilt for destroying natures trees.
The shear massiveness of the machine tends to foster a sense of invulnerability in the operator. It would seem that, under the protective steel canopy and behind the wall provided by the dozer blade, one would be totally protected from physical harm. Not so! More than few cat skinners have been skewered by the end of a pole slipping unseen into the cab and penetrating his body before he can react. Many more have been injured by flying chunks of shattered trees, especially when temperatures are down around minus thirty degrees. At such cold temperatures, green trees are frozen solid and break like glass. When trees are frozen, even a good jolt to the bottom of the tree can cause the top of the tree to whip and snap off. A two or three hundred pound chunk of wood, falling from thirty or more feet, can raise a pretty good lump on your head.
Over a period of several years, we cleared around five hundred acres with our cat. We also dug several dugouts (water reservoirs) and cleaned up approximately eighteen miles of fence line.
Life with Lillie…
Lillie and I met on the internet. On January 5th, 2001 we had our first contact via e-mail. A bit over four months later, on April 12th, we were married. Those ninety days transformed both of our lives forever. It went something like this…
Apparently at some point in my online excursions I had filled out a form, on a match making website, giving a profile of my physical statistics, et cetera. Some time later a lady down in Oregon was searching for the man of her dreams on that same website. To her astonishment and everlasting joy the very first search found her perfect match. Well… almost perfect…she was actually looking for a rich handsome well mannered intelligent charming cosmopolitan man with whom she shared some common interests but, for reasons known only to her, she decided to check out this backwoods tiller of the soil from Alberta instead.
After corresponding via e-mail for a couple weeks, we felt it was time to meet face-to-face. The first plan was to meet at some point halfway between Oregon and Alberta, which seemed fair to me, but she chickened out and we decided that it would be much better if I made the long tiring eleven hundred mile drive all the way down to her place for our first meeting.
In the afternoon of February 5th, I parked my car at Lanes End in front of the most Lavender house I have ever seen and proceeded to the door. Looking through the glassed doorway, I saw this lady standing immobile in the center of the room. Upon entering the room it appeared that she was uncertain as to which way to flee, but too petrified to move. After removing my shoes, a Canadian habit, I walked across to her, took her in my arms and planted a big farmer-kiss on her lips.
We spent the next two or three days getting to know each other. The more time we spent together, the more we realized how lonely our lives had become since losing our spouses. Maybe we had both even subconsciously resigned ourselves to the idea of being alone for the remainder of our lives. But the companionship we had shared for those few days had completely erased any such subconscious thoughts that I may have had. I decided, then and there, that Lillie was the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, and I told her as much… my exact words were, “You are the woman I want to marry”. Somehow she construed that as a proposal.
As soon as I got home, I told Guy that Lillie and I were going to be married. After regaining his powers of speech, we discussed the ramifications, and there were many, such as the obvious matters of housing, privacy, et cetera. It soon became clear that there were no insurmountable problems. Actually, I thought Guy took the news surprisingly well, being unaware that he had a pending surprise of his own.
Lillie and I corresponded daily via e-mail or telephone and made plans for her to come to Canada. I tried to allay her fears of freezing to death or being mauled by grizzly bears in this God forsaken country, but I don’t think she was totally convinced. In spite of her fears, she eventually agreed to risk her life and bought a plane ticket to Edmonton.
I can only guess what her thoughts were as we met at the airport, but I sensed that she was relieved to find the terminal building was not an igloo. Then, as we drove home, it seemed that she was further reassured by fact that Alberta’s highways and cities were comparable to those in Oregon. But some doubts may have again been raised as we drove mile after mile in the direction of the north pole, taking us farther and farther from civilization.
After spending a wonderful time together at the farm, making plans for our future, Lillie left for Oregon to put her house up for sale, in preparation for moving to Canada. As it turned out, she would be making several trips back and forth before making the final move. In the meantime, we decided to get married without further delay.
On April 12, 2001, dressed in our finest, we were married in St. Alberts by a justice of the peace. I will never forget looking squarely into each others eyes as we said our vows. This union was to be forever. Youth does not have a monopoly on love. Love is ageless...Lillie and I are the living proof.
But no marriage has ever been without some problems. We too have weathered some difficult times, which is not surprising when you realize that people tend to get very set in their ways as they age. It is not easy to change ones own lifelong habits and personal quirks of behavior. It is even more difficult, and totally unfair, to expect another person to change theirs for your sake. We soon realized that we both needed to make some changes…in ourselves and also in our expectations of each other. I think we also learned that age is not necessarily synonymous with maturity. Love, compromise, understanding, tolerance, fairness and respect for each other are vital keys to a lasting marriage.
Shortly after Lillie and I married, Guy and Gail became engaged. Lillie and I had planed on moving into a house of our own, after selling her house in Oregon, but with the advent of another marriage and the prospect of two couples sharing the same household, it became even more urgent that we get our own house. Guy and Gail tied the knot on November 4, 2001.
Dealing with Drought…
It had been several years since an adequate amount of rain had fallen and it was taking a toll on our crops. Pastures too were beginning to show the effects of the lack of moisture. More and more hay fields were needed for pasture. In normal times, we generally had a surplus of hay. But, for the past two years we had been forced to turn the cattle out to pasture earlier in the spring, than is advisable, because our winter hay supply was all used up.
The spring of 2001 was especially dry. The pastures had been overgrazed the previous fall and, with the lack of spring rain, did not recover sufficiently by the time we ran out of hay. On top of that problem, the water in the dugouts was very low and, since there had been insufficient snow runoff, the creek was not flowing. With insufficient pasture and water, and no indications that things would improve, we felt we had no choice but to sell the cattle.
Fortunately cattle prices were at an historic peak, making the decision to sell a bit easier. Calving had gone pretty well that spring, so there was a good number of cow-calf pairs in the herd. Once the decision was made to ship the cattle, it was just a matter of arranging for trucks to haul them and loading them up.
Early in the afternoon prior to the sale day, three cattle liners pulled in to take our entire herd to the auction mart. One after the other, they backed up to the loading chute, each swallowing up a third of the herd that had been slowly building for many years. It was very depressing to watch. It was not by choice that they were disappearing into the bellies of the trucks. It was because of a whim of nature.
We received a very good price for our cattle, which took some sting out of the disappointment of being forced to sell. But even though we deposited a check in the bank for nearly a quarter of million dollars, it was depressing to be out of the cattle business. Strangely, I felt very much like I had when I quit my general foreman job and when I was discharged from the army. Suddenly I was a nobody…my identity had been stripped from me. Our hopes were that it would only be temporary.
Trial by Fire…
Lillie and I both like to go camping and see the country, but since we like to do it in comfort, we decided we needed a motor home. After looking at several units we selected one that suited our needs. One fine day in May, a little breezy but otherwise very nice, we went to pick it up.
As we waited, while the motor home was getting its last minute check out, and listened to the salesman’s explanation of what all the gadgets did and how to use them, we noticed that the breeze had developed into a strong wind. Then one of the employees mentioned that a fire had broken out in Colinton. By the time we were on the way home, the wind had developed into a gale strong enough to rock the motor home quite severely, making driving a bit difficult.
As we made our way up the highway toward home, the wind became progressively stronger, and then we noticed smoke off in the distance toward home. I thought to myself that, in order to see smoke from such a distance, it must be a good sized fire…most of Colinton must be in flames.
Driving as fast as the conditions permitted, we eventually got close enough to the fire to see that it appeared to be south of Colinton. By this time the whole northern sky was filled with gray-black smoke. The closer we got, the more it seemed to originate from somewhere south of our farm.
By the time we finally drove into our yard we knew that we were in serious trouble. Guy, Jim, Bill and Ken were frantically putting out little spot fires in the barnyard area—fires which had been started by flying embers from burning trees more than half mile to the south. The boys, using shovels and pails of water, were able to squelch the smoldering patches as quickly as they were found.
But the howling wind rapidly pushed the fire closer and closer and showered us with more and more embers. Suddenly a roaring fire erupted in the hay field just to the south of our buildings. In a few moments it had crossed the twenty acre field and threatened to engulf our barns and house. There was little choice but to try to save the house, in preference to the barns.
By this time the county fire fighters had arrived with cats, and started cutting fire breaks around the house and adjacent buildings. Within minutes the barn that we had been trying to save was in engulfed in flames. There was obviously nothing that could be done to save it, so we concentrated on saving the house.
About this time the RCMP showed up and ordered us to evacuate. We assured them we were just leaving and then went right back to our work as soon as they drove away. The choking smoke was suffocating, and burned our eyes as we frantically struggled to save our home. As it turned out, I’m quite sure we would have lost everything had we followed the RCMP’s orders.
Finally, with the combined efforts of volunteer help, the firebreak and the fact that the fire had consumed most of the combustible material within reach, the raging inferno died down to more manageable spot fires.
We were very lucky to have saved our home, and most of our buildings, but we did loose two barns, the corral and about two miles of fence…to a fire that originated about ten miles to the south-east of us. We were the end of the line, the fire stopped at our place. From start to finish, it had completely burned three homes and destroyed hundreds of acres of trees.
It was later determined that the fire was started by a tree falling on a power line. The power company was actually at fault because they are responsible for removing all trees, from their right of way, that could fall on the power line. They admitted no blame and compensated none of the victims for their losses.
It should also be mentioned that, although there were water bomber planes and helicopters fighting fires to the south of us, not one drop of water fell on our buildings…even though they were taking water from our dugout.
After the smoke settled and the initial shock of our loss subsided, we began to realize that, in some respects, we had been very lucky. We still had most of our buildings…most importantly, the house…nobody had been hurt, and none of our machinery had been lost. We also realized how lucky we were to have shipped the cattle less than a week before the fire. Had we not shipped them, there’s no telling where they would have ended up, considering that so many of our fences were down.
No amount of thanks can ever show our appreciation for all the help we were given that day, but, thank you boys…I just hope there is never a need to repay you in kind. And, Stephanie, for your thoughtfulness in moving the horses to safety, while anguishing about the unknown plight of your own parent's home…all we can say is a very inadequate, but deeply felt, “Thank you!”.
To Hay and Back…
After shipping the cattle, we decided to give the hay marketing business a try. That year the crop was poor, because of the continuing drought, but, since hay prices were very good, we did reasonably well on the few bales we harvested. The following year the crop was even worse, a total of ninety bales, which would not have even covered our production costs if we sold them. So, we decided to buy some calves and feed our hay rather than sell it.
The forty heifer calves we bought sort of put us back in the cattle business again. That group of calves turned out so well that we decided that, the next fall, we would buy as many more as we could feed. Well, in the meantime, the Mad Cow thing happened and it looked like cattle prices were about to plummet, because the Americans didn’t want our beef.
You may recall that we had sold our original herd at a very good price. What is the old stock market axiom… “Sell high, buy low?”… something to that effect. Anyway, it looked for a while that we were about to fall into that kind of situation. But, for reasons I still don’t understand, it didn’t happen. Calf prices remained high, only dropping about five percent. But we stuck to our plan anyway and bought a hundred and seventy six more heifer calves, bringing our total cattle population back to over two hundred again. Time will tell if it was a wise move.
A Day in the Life…
It was a cold January night. The mercury had been dropping rapidly all night. Several times I had been startled awake from fitful sleep by loud rifle-like reports from the cold-stressed rafters overhead. The uneasy tossing and turning sounds emanating, from the bedroom across the hallway, affirm my son's anxiety as well.
Not knowing what problems might await us outside…but fearing the worst…we get out of our warm beds a half hour earlier than usual. There's no need for talk, as we put on our heavy winter work clothes in the back entrance mud-room, for we each know the others thoughts. Not fully alert yet, we sluggishly put on heavy insulated coveralls over jeans and work shirts. Then oversize felt-lined manure stained boots are awkwardly pulled up over heavy wool socks and tied snugly to ensure no snow gets inside. A furry hat with ear flaps is next, followed by a warm woolen scarf wrapped around our necks. Then, our heavy wind-breaker hip length coats with their protective hoods. Pulling up the neck scarves to cover our mouth and nose, we tighten the drawstring of the hoods until there is just a small hole to see through, then tie them securely. Lastly, we put on heavy moose-hide mitts with replaceable woolen liners, tuck our coat sleeves into the mitt gauntlets. Looking like earth-bound spacemen, we grab our flashlights as we step outside to see what awaits us.
The first sweeping glance tells us that the yard lights are still on…a good sign…the sidewalk is drifted full…as expected…and the yearlings are all huddled together on the lee side of the windbreak. Guy takes the scoop-shovel, standing handily next to the back door, and starts opening a trail through drifted snow, while I check the watering bowl and the barn thermometer. The steaming water bowl is empty…froze up again; the thermometer reads forty degrees below zero…Fahrenheit or Celsius, take your pick. There is no need for discussion because we both know what has to be done… anyway, with all the stuff we have wrapped around our heads, voice communication is almost impossible.
Trying not to think about what's ahead of us when the sun comes up, we trudge sullenly through the snow to check the cows in the calving corral. Turning our flashlights on, as we enter the corral, seems to simultaneously turn on a heightened sense of awareness. Alert to the well-known audible and visual signs of cows in labor, we slowly walk among the cattle—some sleeping, others quietly chewing their cud, but most making little grunting sounds as we quietly pass by.
Watching intently for the telltale signs we know so well—but hoping not to find a cow so bloody stupid as to calve on such a miserably cold night—we make our rounds. As we meet again, having completed our separate routes of inspection, one tentatively asks the other, "See anything?" Relieved by the, "Nope" response, we head back to our beds for a couple hours rest before facing the day.
The sun is just starting to show in the southeastern sky as we finish breakfast. We're a bit more talkative as we again suit-up for what looks to be a tough day ahead of us. The first priority is to feed the cattle. At such cold temperatures, it is vital that they have all the energy-giving food they can eat. Although there is still some hay left in their feeders, the cattle have stopped eating to seek out protection from the wind. By the time we get a fresh supply of hay to them, they will be ready to start eating again. The water problem will have to wait for a while…the cattle certainly will not die of thirst in the meantime.
The first thing to be done is start the tractor, which has been plugged in all night. It starts fairly easily, but the hydraulic oil is too cold to flow through the hoses to the front-end loader. After letting the tractor warm up for a few minutes, we carefully start moving the control levers back and forth to ease the stiff oil into the lines. With two thousand psi pressure from the pump, even steel-reinforced rubber hoses are easily rupture if too much pressure is applied too quickly. After ten minutes or so, the front end loader is responding well enough to get started with the feeding.
In the next half hour, five or six twelve-hundred-pound bales of hay are fed to the cattle—that's about two hundred dollars worth of hay, by the way…which works out to about six thousand dollars worth per month…in case anyone is interested. In the process of moving the hay to the cattle, the tractor traverses ground littered with rock-hard five-pound spheres of frozen manure…potentially lethal missiles, capable of breaking spruce planks, or a man's leg, when they pop out from beneath the heavily loaded frozen tractor tires.
With the feeding finished, and fresh straw bedding spread for the coming night, we tackle the frozen water system. A preliminary check confirms that the water pump is okay—big relief—so the problem must be a frozen pipe line. Most of the time we find that the line coming into the water bowl has frozen just below ground level…because the cattle have not been drinking enough to keep the line open with flowing water. Several trips to the house for jugs of hot water generally clear up the problem in a half hour or so. And, more often than not, when the line is finally thawed, the water comes blasting out…drenching you thoroughly as you scramble to turn off an open valve. This proved to be one of those cases.
But we have been lucky so far, the problems have been relatively minor. For some reason, a cold snap seems to stimulate parturition in cows…particularly late at night. During normal calving weather…around minus twenty degrees Celsius and above…it is only necessary to check the cows about every four hours to see if any are giving birth. This means that there's a fair chance of getting back to your nice warm bed for a little rest before the next check is due. But in very cold weather, it's necessary to check about every two hours, giving little or no chance of sleep between checks. Many a night is spent sitting in the relative warmth of a pickup truck when conditions are particularly bad.
A newborn calf is very wet with amniotic fluid when it is first born. A wet calf chills very quickly in cold weather if it is not dried off immediately. Normally, the mother will lick her new-born clean and dry with her rough stimulating tongue. But, if she fails to take care of it right away, or it is in an unprotected area, the calf must be moved to a warmer location and dried off manually. A good manager tries to always be prepared for such situations. His first concern is for the welfare of his livestock—second only to his family—not the economic ramifications.
However, in the cow-calf business, live calves are rather important monetarily too, because they are the main source of income. A cow normally has one calf per year…multiple births are about as common as with humans. With good management, and luck, a ninety percent live birth rate is considered to be reasonably good. Before the current BSE fiasco, a calf marketed in the fall, weighing five hundred pounds, would gross about five hundred and fifty dollars. After deducting all the expenses involved in producing a calf, the farmer is left with about a hundred dollars profit per calf marketed...marketed being the operative word.
Let me explain: An estimated ninety to ninety five percent of the cost of producing a calf has already accrued by the time the calf is born. In other words, using the above numbers, if a calf is lost at birth, it represents a loss to the farmer of about four hundred and fifty dollars…not just the hundred dollars of potential profit it represents. Looking at it in another way…for each calf lost at birth, it would take the profit from the sale of four and a half calves to pay for the loss of one—a dead calf at birth wipes out the profit of five calves for the year.
Admittedly, these are just ballpark figures to illustrate a point. Furthermore, these figures will vary from one farm to another, depending upon a number of factors, with herd size being one of the most important…the larger the herd, the more animals to spread fixed costs over.
So, be that as it may, from an economic viewpoint alone, it can be seen that it is vitally important to save as many calves as possible. But, I believe that majority of us cattle farmers feel the personal failure, even more than the economic loss, with the loss of a calf. Every farmer, who is worthy of the name, feels a strong responsibility for the health and welfare of every animal in his care.
Retirement?… From What?…
I hope I never have to retire. Although I like the idea of not having to bust my hump until the day I’m planted, I definitely would prefer that to having no work at all. Meaningful work imparts purpose and satisfaction to one's life. But, the real reason that I don’t want to retire is because I’m having so much fun. I enjoy farming and can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing. I’m one of the fortunate few…I have lots of worthwhile work to do, which I enjoy doing, and I can set my own pace.
This is largely the result of anticipating and planning for my old age. One of the main purposes of our partnership agreement was to ensure an orderly transfer of responsibility, labor and ownership from one generation to the next. For several years now, that has been gradually taking place. In the early years, when I was young and strong and full of whatever, I did the heavy work and I assumed total responsibility. Then, when Guy became a partner, we worked side by side, sharing the work equally. For the past decade or more, Guy has assumed most of the management responsibilities, as well as the heavy end of the work load. It seems both fair and logical.
I consider myself to be semi-retired. There is work that must be done at specific times of the year but very little to do at other times. With a little planning and scheduling, it is possible to get away from the farm for several weeks at a time, without overburdening Guy or neglecting my own partnership commitments.
But the truth is…farming is not very labor intensive any more. I’ve never bothered to figure how many hours we actually work per year, but just for the heck of it, I'll make a rough estimate now…
Winter Feeding Cattle: 1.5 hours/day for 225 days = 375 hours.
Calving time: 1.5 hours/day for 60 days = 90 hours.
Spring Seeding: 12 hours/day for 5 days = 60 hours.
Summer Haying: 8 hours/day for 30 days = 240 hours.
Fall Field Work: 12 hours/day for 14 days = 168 hours.
Total for year: = 933 hours.
So, on a year around average, we actually work less than three hours per day…leaving twenty one hours per day to play. Now, if that isn’t semi-retirement, or semi-employment, which ever way you choose to look at it, I don’t know what is. But, to put things in perspective, if it were necessary to work more than three hours per day, the hourly pay rate would suck even more than it does.
On one of dad's last visits to the farm, he was riding with me in the tractor while I was cultivating. The air conditioner was on and we were listening to music on the radio. It was a beautiful day. As we droned round and round the field, leaving a twenty four foot stripe of freshly turned soil in our wake, the occasional coyote or deer would be seen watching us from a safe distance. Dad had been lost in his thoughts for several minutes, and then he said, "It looks to me like you have a year-around picnic, compared to what it used to be." You were right dad, and it just keeps getting better and better…but maybe it's best we don't tell anyone.
Farming is not a celebrated profession. Most often when we farmers do gain public attention it is because of some negative situation—drought, BSE and the like. And, unfortunately, the resolution of our problems often involves government aid…perceived as yet another hand out to farmers. As a result, the public perception seems to be that we a bunch of whiners who are constantly in need of financial assistance; rather than the very foundation of the nation, which we actually are. In truth, it is the farmers who have long been subsidising the rest of society with cheep and plentiful food.
Now, I don't claim to be an expert at anything. Not being handicapped with a college education, my knowledge comes largely from personal experience and common sense. Those with university degrees, and paper proof of their wisdom, are most likely to become the leaders and movers that determine the way things will be—for better or worse. But do they have a monopoly on intelligence? Are their ideas better just because they may be more articulate?
Many examples could be cited to illustrate my point, but one should do. We have all seen instances where two experts in the same field—economists or politicians for example—have contradictory opinions on the effects of a specific action—taxation for example. One adamantly insists that increasing taxes is the only solution to the problem at hand, while the other is equally adamant that lowering taxes is the way to go. Obviously one, or possibly both of them, is wrong.
I contend that, if the experts, in all their educated wisdom, can't agree on the answers to our problems, there's little to be lost in one of us dummies taking a whack at it. At least less harm will presumably be done because who's listening?
The Farmers Dilemma …
References have been made to "The Farm Problem" for as long as I can remember. There was a farm problem back in the 1940s when I was a kid, though then it was no doubt a bit different then than the current one. I suspect there always has been a farm problem and there always will be.
The current farm problem is largely the result of overproduction. There is a false perception among individual farmers that by producing more their revenues will increase. This is true...to a point. When individual farms produce more, and sell at the same prices that farmers who have not increased their own production, they stand to make relatively more than the rest of the farmers. However, when all farmers increase their production at once, it tends to force the price of their produce and their total revenues down…because of over supply,.
No other sector of the economy has experienced such tremendous growth in productivity as farming. But, the demand for all farm products, as a whole, tends to be relatively price and income inelastic. This means that much lower prices, than one would normally expect for non-farm products, are required to significantly reduce a surplus of agricultural products—in other words: "If ya wanna get rid of too many spuds, you gotta give 'em away." Thus, the widespread adoption of more productive agricultural technologies tends to drive farmers revenues down even more. Increasing total production does not necessarily increase total revenues,
Since most farmers tend to follow the same expert advice, they may all end up all doing more or less the same thing. Governmental agencies, such as departments of agriculture, under the guise of offering good advice, more often than not will publish literature and offer seminars, et cetera, that encourage practices designed to increase production and efficiency. The obvious problem with such programs is that, if they are successful, the individual farmer ends up no better off in comparison with the rest of the farmers. Consumers, on the other hand, become the beneficiaries of increased production, in the form of reduced prices.
"The Farm Problem", an encapsulated term sometimes used by economists, is typically defined by them as, "The relatively low income of farmers, in relation to incomes in nonagricultural sectors of the economy, coupled with the tendency for the prices farmers receive to fluctuate sharply from year to year." That sums it up concisely, but not adequately. Although the problem is an economic malady, the cure wont necessarily be found by economists. The problem is not merely the result of fluctuating market demands vs. availability of supplies, it also involves perceptions, politics, global relationships, social structures, ignorance and other things.
Our basic human needs are food, clothing and shelter. To some degree all three of these basics are products of agriculture. A couple of centuries ago, nineteen out of twenty North Americans made their living by farming. Today approximately one in forty remain on the farm and economic pressures for farmers to leave the land remain undiminished. The tiny minority of North Americans who are farmers is an even smaller proportion of all the farmers on earth, yet we are still able to generate large surpluses for export around the world.
Agriculture remains the largest single industry and farming is often cited as the prime example of pure competition. According to well documented statistics, per capita farm income is generally less than in the rest of the economy and tends to be far more erratic as well. For a sixty year period, from 1930 through 1990, per capita farm income varied from a low of thirty percent to a high of ninety percent of non-farm income. It peaked at ninety percent in the mid 1970s and then steadily declined to about fifty percent by 1990.
During the relatively prosperous period of the mid 1970's, many farmers were influenced to go heavily into debt for additional land and larger machinery. The resulting increased demand for land caused land prices to rise sharply. Then when farm revenues fell, after the short period of relative prosperity, the real market value of farm land dropped by approximately thirty percent, in some areas, with the result that, for the first time in fifty years, North American farm debts exceeded farm land values.
This, coupled with rising interest rates, put many farmers in the position of not being able to service their mortgage payments. The resulting foreclosures put many farmers out of business, and, incidentally, some farm community banks as well.
It is difficult to pin down what a typical farm is, because of the large variety of farms. They range from small labor intensive specialty farms; to large wheat farms with huge fields of grain; to vast cattle ranches stretching from horizon to horizon. But they all have a number of things in common. They are all competing for a finite amount of arable land. They are all subject to widely fluctuating commodity prices. They are all very susceptible to the vagaries of nature…to varying degrees.
The distinction between farmers income and their wealth can be misleading. While farm incomes typically lag behind those in urban areas, the average farm owner is wealthier than the average non-farmer. On the other hand, larger farms account for a disproportionate share of total farm wealth, leaving many farmers quite poor in comparison to average urban families. The old cliché, "Farming is a way to live poor and die rich", sums it up very well.
It would seem that persistently low farm income should cause the market value of farm land to be relatively low. But the competition for available farm land tends to keep the market value disproportionately high.
Rapid growth in agricultural productivity has led to overproduction of many farm commodities. Modern machinery, improved strains of seed, selective animal breeding, increased use of chemicals and extensive irrigation are among the technological advances that have expanded agricultural yields while reducing labor requirements. But increased production does not greatly increase farm revenues because food consumption is relatively unresponsive to either lower food prices or increased consumer income. Total demand for farm goods is roughly proportional to populations.
Artificially high farm produce prices, because of various governmental subsidy programs, have created incentives for expansion, which further contributes to excessive production of some commodities—which, in turn, necessitates more governmental interference to help dispose of the resulting glut on the market.
Farm products, like all other goods, are subject to the basic economic law of demand—quantity demand is lower at higher prices and vise versa. Demand for food, in total, fluctuates little when prices change since, being necessities, the total quantities that people consume remains relatively constant. However, quantities of specific foods consumed (apples, oranges, bananas for example) may change significantly with price fluctuation because one commodity can readily be substituted for another.
An overly simplified definition of "The Problem" is that farmers have, in effect, become wards of the state. Over a period of time, the farm has evolved from the nostalgic independent labor intensive family operation to the present day mechanized capital intensive subsidy dependent political nightmare. Efficiency has been stressed to the detriment of conservation. Return on investment is the benchmark of management. Money has become the ultimate goal.
Some feel that farmers are a bunch of complainers. They complain about the weather, interest rates, commodity prices, labor strikes, and a thousand other things. It seems that nothing can please them. It's either too much rain or too little, too many subsidies or not enough, too much government interference or not enough government help.
Admittedly, this reputation is partially deserved. There are farmers who are chronic bellyachers, but their ratio is probably no higher than in any other group. On the whole, farmers are a reasonable bunch and most of them have some measure of common sense.
To be fair, it must be pointed out that farmers as a group must take their due share of blame for their present predicament. Many farmers who are in trouble now are in that position because of their own bad management practices.
However, blaming ones troubles on someone else is just as popular with farmers as with any other group. Pointing the finger at the bankers and politicians is a handy alibi for those of us who are not willing to admit to our own faults. Bad luck can be a factor, but I suspect that the majority of farmers who are in severe financial difficulty are the victims of at least some if their own bad decisions.
Having said all of that, it does not seem reasonable that farmers are responsible for all of the problems of agriculture. On the contrary, we farmers can only be held accountable for a small part of the current crisis in agriculture. We have learned to solve our own problems, if given a chance, and have learned to deal with adversities. Tracing the blame to those responsible will serve no good purpose, but it may put things in perspective and help us to understand what must be done to resolve our "Problem".
There are hundreds of experts giving advice, making rules and scheming for a piece of the action. The farmer must compete with lawyers and school teachers, and such, for available land. They must pay the high wages of factory workers for their machines. They must borrow money to operate their farms and pay high interest rates for the privilege
Granted, most business have their negative aspects. There are certain risks and uncertainties associated with just about any way of making a living. But very few, if any, business enterprises have to contend with the risks and uncertainties of the farmer. Take the weather, for example. The weather effects just about everyone, and every occupation, to some degree. Tourist and sports oriented industries can be just as dependent on the weather as farmers. Obviously the weather is favorable most of the time, otherwise there would be no farmers. But the fact is… farmers are constantly at the mercy of the weather.
There is little point in making comparisons between farmers and factory workers or trades people, because they have very little in common. It is just as pointless to compare farmers with professional people, such as school teachers and bankers. Farmer can only be compared on an equal basis with other business entrepenures.
Most businesses are able to set the price of the product or service they provide. Sure, they all must contend with the effects of supply and demand, but most at least have some control and some bargaining leverage with regard to selling price.
Farmers, on the other hand, do not have this advantage. Almost without exception, farmers make their plans, invest their time and money without benefit of knowing what they will receive in return. To make matters worse, many farmers only have one payday per year. And, to further complicate things, most farmers must make decisions and commitments months, or even years, before any hope of a payoff. Once the seed is in the ground, the cow is bred or the new machine is purchased, there is no turning back. The commitment has been made and the farmer's future is on the line.
So…Let's Fix It…
Stating the problem is easy…solving it ain't. But, as you've probably guessed…I have some thoughts on that too.
As I see it, if part of the problem is that farmers are producing too much, then the obvious solution is to produce less…reduce production to match consumption, or consume more…increase consumption to match production. There are a number of ways of doing this…most of which have been tried at one time or another. I'll briefly list some…you pick and choose.
Restrict production by legislation. Establish quotas. Use price controls. Create disincentives for over production. Drastic price reductions on over production. Limit use of chemicals. Take land out of production. License and regulate land usage. Pay farmers for non-production. Return land to nature…reforestation, wildlife sanctuaries, parks, recreational areas. Reduce the number of farmers…buy them out, pension them off, randomly shoot them. Increase consumption. Distribute surpluses to the needy…famine relief. Put surpluses in storage for emergency use…make use of the vast refrigerators of the polar regions. Burn the surpluses…make fuel from grain crops.
But, as I said, most of these ideas have already been tried. The principal aim of past government agricultural policies has been to restrict farm production to raise prices and farm revenues. Those farm programs can be classified into three general categories: crop restriction programs, purchase-loan price-support programs to boost farm prices, and purchase-and-resale subsidy programs. Unfortunately, most policies, which were intended to preserve the family farm, have principally benefited the larger farming operations, many of which are corporate. The bulk of farm subsidies have been paid to fewer than one fifth of all farmers.
Parity pricing, another idea that has been bandied about, is based on the idea that the prices of farm products should not change relative to the prices farmers pay. In other words, a bushel of wheat should always buy certain amount of whatever. Unfortunately, a policy of 100 percent parity would tend to enrich farmers who experience productivity gains and—no pun intended—that's counter productive…the idea is not to encourage increased production.
Well, obviously this dummy doesn't have the answers either. But, hopefully, by defining some of the problems, and reviewing some of the solutions that have been tried and failed, the reader will have a better understanding of the dilemma faced by the producers of their daily bread.
We Had Fun…Sorry About the Mess, Kids…
Somehow, in this age of greed and self indulgence, we have lost our sense of what is important and what is not. Our standard of living is the highest in human history, but at an unconscionable cost to the environment and natural resources. We capriciously consume and waste the resources of our descendants at an obscene rate. We are more concerned about our present comfort and amusement than we are about the future of our progeny.
It's taken us a couple hundred years to screw up the environment to its present condition. Repairing the damage will take a lot longer, if indeed it is even possible at this eleventh hour. What we have done to our descendants planet is amoral, if not criminal. We have looted and spoiled natures perfection in our selfish pursuit of "the good life". We not only owe our progeny and apology…we should beg their forgiveness. But, forgiven or not, the very least we should do is start repairing the damage we have done.
But I seriously doubt that we will do much because it's our nature to procrastinate and we're having too much fun.. It's our nature, as well, to assume that the unidentified "they" are responsible…therefore "they" must fix it. Wrong!—We let it happen therefore We should fix it!
It's also our nature to assume that the bright boys—scientists, engineers, politicians, inventors—will save our bacon somehow. These smart guys will find alternate energy sources before we burn that last barrel of oil. They will develop a chemical-resistant microbe that will make our burned out soil well again and maybe even permit us to use more chemicals to produce even more surplus commodities. They will invent a water purification system that will allow us to continue dumping the shit of civilization into our rivers and oceans and get away with it. And, they will pass new legislation to correct the unforeseen consequences of their past self-serving legislative fiascos—retroactively, one would hope.
Dream on! That's the kind of reasoning that got us into our present mess and it ain't likely to get us out. One of the signs of insanity is, "doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results each time".
I don't pretend to know much about the scientific, technological or political worlds, but from personal experience and observations, I have some ideas about what needs to be done. For what they may be worth…here they are.
Agriculture must move toward more diversification. No, I'm not suggesting that we go back to the small family farms of the past—the nostalgic little storybook farm with a few chickens, a cow and a pig or two—that is obviously ridiculous. What I do suggest is a gradual move away from the large factory-type farming operations—the huge hog and chicken production plants and the enormous cattle feedlots—that have that have proven to be environmentally harmful.
We should limit the concentration of animal populations to a size that the manure they produce can be absorbed beneficially by the farms in the nearby surrounding area. Smaller operations scattered throughout the country will not only make a more tolerable impact on nature but will also generate local auxiliary employment. It would encourage the construction of mid-sized meat processing facilities, which would also be a market outlet for the smaller local farmers. Locate mid-sized feed lots and farm factories only where their waste byproducts can be absorbed efficiently and beneficially.
"But", some might protest, "that would be counter to the principle of efficiency of scale and would tend to reduce profitability!" Probably…but the single-minded pursuit of profit—the almighty bottom line—at the expense of the environment, is exactly what got us into our present predicament. A greedy few have made fortunes at the expense of the environment, but only because of the complacency of the rest of us.
To quote Forest Gump, "That's all I've got to say about that.", but I do have a few ideas on some other things I think we ought to think about. Briefly, they are:
Produce as much of our electrical energy as possible by concentrating generating equipment in areas best suited for harnessing the wind and collecting solar power.
Put our human shit back on the land where it will do some good rather than flushing it into our rivers and oceans.
Eliminate land fills altogether, there is no justifiable reason for them. Almost all of our consumer waste is recyclable if we are willing to pay the cost in money rather than operating on a deficit to the environment. The small amount of waste that is not recyclable, some toxic materials for example, may have to be destroyed in high temperature incinerators et cetera, but this kind of disposal should be kept to an absolute minimum.
Convert to hydrogen fuel for all land-transportation vehicles. Relatively small hydrogen deposits on the moon are viewed as priceless sources of fuel for space exploration, yet the surface of our planet is seventy percent water. Hydrogen would have been the logical source of fuel here on earth had not wood, coal and petroleum been cheaper to develop.
Stop frigging around with nature. The problems we are having with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy in cattle, Chronic Waste Disease in domesticated game animals and the emerging problems associated with "Farmed-Salmon" are all examples of the price we can expect to pay for taking risks with Mother Nature.
Being a realist, I really don't expect anyone to pay the slightest attention to these suggestions, but, aside from the guilt I feel for my personal part in creating this legacy of problems we are leaving for our kids to clean up, at my age I'll likely not live to experience the real cost of our crimes against nature.
Have a nice day !
With that, I end the posting of my books. For those that stumble upon my blog for the first time, you may read the books in their entirety by clicking back on the previous postings.
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