Drifting and Dreaming

By David Turner in Places, Events, & History

“What are you going to be when you grow up?” How many times do we get asked that question throughout our adolescent years! Being a descendant of generations of farmers, agriculture was a natural, but other choices surfaced from time to time. An elementary school teacher; something about “little red schoolhouse” experience attracted me.  However by the time I would have entered teacher’s college in the mid 1960’s, the one-room school institution had gone down the same road as fender skirts and fly-stickers.

A fire ranger; I even showed up at High school “career day” to pursue that idea. Being a loner, the isolationism of a smoke tower sounded appealing. I even showed up at high school “career day” to pursue that idea. Driving trucks, driving buses and selling cars were recurring themes, but farming always seemed at the forefront.

Maybe it was the fact Dad subscribed to a mailbox-full of farm magazines that kept agriculture as a career choice front-runner. But what aspect of farming? I grew up with dairying. A beef feedlot was a consideration. Chickens? I actually purchased a year’s subscription to the Canadian Poultryman. Cash crop farming was intriguing, as I could spend my time operating machinery, the part of farming that excited me most.

During the winter of 1968, I engaged in a half-hearted attempt in the veal business, but even with Dad offering support, I barely broke even and by April had called it quits.

That veal experiment had been the end result of a squabble between Dad and me. The episode began in February when I answered a newspaper advertisement for a truck driver/salesman for the Wittich’s Bakery Co., in Ayton Ontario.  Dad and I had gotten into an argument about farming practices (we had several at that point) and I mentioned that if I had to farm his way perhaps I’d do something else for a living. Dad, who’d grown tired of my attitude, responded that he didn’t believe I had the ambition to apply for a job, let alone find one.

Long story short…the company contacted me on a Wednesday, I drove the twenty miles to the village in a snowstorm for an interview Friday and was told I could start work the following Monday. Dad’s look of surprise made the announcement worth it! However, I never really wanted the job, taking it only for spite, so when Dad offered me a small wage to remain and help him for the remainder of the winter in return for supplying a few calves to start my new venture, it was probably the “out” for which I was searching.  As far as the Wittich’s Bakery Company…they never recovered from the potential loss of my services and were soon swallowed by the Weston’s conglomerate.

When the veal project disintegrated, I continued to milk cows while Dad began setting the stage for retiring from the farm, leaving me to handle the daily operation of our dairy herd.

Although never enthused about milking cows, I did commission a sales agent from a stable equipment company for a quote on a complete remodelling of our old barn. Following a host of questions and an hour of scribbling, figuring, adding and subtracting, underlining and erasing, the salesman came up with a proposal that piqued my interest. The thought of milking cows in an environment where milking, cleaning and feeding duties were handled automatically, quickly shifted my perspective. We were used to a stable where calves randomly jumped out of their pens or a cow would wander from her stall with a chain and perhaps even a two-by-four dangling from its neck.

Despite being anxious to transfer ownership of the farm, Dad didn’t prove to be as enthusiastic about the proposition as I presumed. After reading what the salesman had suggested, Dad turned to me;

“First…there’s no way a person can afford all this fancy gadgetry when you’re just starting. They never work the way these salesmen promise. Besides, you’re always ranting about being tied to the routine of milking cows. Do you think these gadgets are going to change that?”

I searched for some blazing retort but came up empty; for as much as I disliked admitting it, Dad was right; I was never been enthralled with the twice a day, seven days a week schedule dairying demanded.

That I agreed with Dad was a milestone in itself; I was at that stage where I knew everything, and was unable to comprehend how my father had travelled this far with so little knowledge. In retrospect I’m reminded of Mark Twain who wrote… “I couldn’t believe how ignorant my parents were when I was fourteen, however by the time I was twenty-one I was astounded how much they’d learned in just seven years.”

So although numerous avenues had been explored, discussed and considered, it had been a wasted year and career-wise I was no further ahead. However I’d been drifting without focus long enough and that oft-asked question of my youth deserved a definite answer.

Ultimately the decision proved to be swine, although I’m still not sure why; more than likely, one aspect was the highly mechanized environment in which pigs could be raised. For someone not overly-endowed with ambition at the time, an occupation requiring a minimum amount of physical labour was important. Despite Dad’s opinions to the contrary, electronic gadgetry was what stirred my emotions.

Whatever the reasons, at least now I had a clear directive; I hired a local contractor to perform all the structural aspects of remodelling our old barn while l concentrated on watering, feeding, ventilation and wiring issues.

When I threw the switch for the initial start-up of the stable cleaner, I was like a kid with a new Christmas toy. I tossed a few scraps of wood into the gutter and watched with fascination as the paddles dragged them around the circumference of the stable and up the elevator to the barnyard. It would be almost fun cleaning stables with this marvel of engineering!

As a youth, I remember when a stable cleaner salesman would show up at our place; Dad would curtail his sales pitch before it began. Nodding at me and my brothers, Dad would answer simply… “I have all the stable cleaners I need.”

By December of 1970, the barn was filled to capacity…about 320 pigs. Originally I’d hoped for a minimum of fifty dollars gross per pig; as the winter dragged on and the bills mounted, I realized I would need at least that amount. However it wasn’t just snowbirds heading south that winter…the pork price was going in the same direction.

I shipped my first pigs in March and over the next three or four weeks until the barn was empty, the price remained mired in the depths of a surplus market. The dismal return meant a $6,000 shortfall in my projections…a lot of money in 1970’s dollars!

Conditions appeared brighter during the next cycle when the price of pork edged upward. That was the good news; input costs increased dramatically as I was forced to purchase barley and corn to get me through to harvest as my own supply was exhausted. It must have been about that point I was reminded of a neighbour’s assessment of pig farming. “All I ever had was an empty wallet and an empty granary.”

Meanwhile, agricultural “experts” of the day were promoting the advantages of growing corn. I read the articles with fascination; who in their right mind, I thought, would grow old-fashioned oats and barley when one could double their per-bushel acreage with corn? …and a crop far superior for raising swine anyway! Not surprisingly, Dad and I differed in opinion.

“Corn takes twice as much fertilizer,” Dad began, “and the seed is three times more expensive, not to mention the chemicals for weed control. You’ll have to buy a planter or hire someone. You’ll also have to buy a corn picker as there’s nobody around here with one. Pay to have the crop hauled to the elevator, pay an exorbitant drying rate and pay to have it hauled back home. What kind of sense does that make? That’s even if you get a crop. Corn silage is fine, but anyone promoting the idea of growing grain corn in our heat unit range is just plain stupid!”

Well…what did a leftover relic from the horse-era know about modern farming anyway?

Something the old relic said struck a chord however; to forgo trucking and drying expenses I hit upon the idea of constructing a corn crib, thus allowing the crop to dry naturally. Brilliant!

To keep costs in line, I decided that a roof and cement floor could wait until the second season…not a good idea. While the blackbirds ate their way down from the top, the local rat population did likewise from the bottom. A concrete floor would not only have reduced the rodent potential, but provided a smooth surface from which to shovel cobs. Also, corn has to be shelled for pigs which turned out to be a tedious and time-consuming task, especially during winter. So although sound in theory, my concept of “natural drying” proved to be poorly thought out; It’s interesting how much easier it is to admit that fact, four or five decades later!

Any hope for an improvement in my economic bottom line was dashed the following year; 1972 consisted of a long drought-ridden spring, a severe mid-June frost, followed by a wet, cooler than normal summer. The corn simply never matured; I’d sold my corn picker (the payments were overdue anyway) and hired a combine operator to harvest the crop. We only managed to haul one load to the elevator and the moisture content was so high the corn wouldn’t flow through the dryer. I was forced to sell the load to a farmer with a Harvestore silo at a fire-sale price. The alternative was dumping the contents in the manure pile.

I managed to salvage a small percentage of the crop in the spring, but due to mildew issues it was unsuitable for pigs. The operator of a local feed mill…one who wasn’t overly concerned about quality…took it off my hands. Needless to say, he wasn’t overly concerned about paying much either. Crop insurance would have been a wise investment, but I don’t think I was even aware of the program at that point.

I’d spend many hours during the next few months reflecting on where my agricultural dreams had derailed. Nature’s elements and disappointing commodity prices had certainly contributed to my downfall, but equally to blame were a multitude of managerial missteps.

Perhaps I should have simply paid more attention to the advice and experience offered by certain leftover relics from the horse-era.