27 March 1998

1000-mile trek to highlight farmers plight

When governments wont listen, farmers have to

demonstrate to make themselves heard. The lesson wasnt

lost on Nick Parsons, who emigrated from the UK to Canada in 1991.

He drove his combine 1000 miles over the Rocky Mountains to highlight

the plight of farmers in his area of British Columbia after two failed harvests

AFTER a splendid harvest in 1995, the spring of 1996 turned out wet, cold and slow with 3.6m (12ft) of snow accumulating as well. May – our normal drilling month – turned out wet so most crops went into the ground in June, hardly enough time to mature before winter set in again.

Most crops here need 90-110 frost-free days to get to harvest, though many old-time farmers have seeded late and still completed harvest. But this wasnt to be the case for us. The summer of 1996 continued wet, many crops could not be sprayed and an early frost in September knocked some crops down badly.

The worst thing of all was not being able to travel on the ground to harvest. The swathers and even combines with dual wheels and four-wheel-drive just got bogged down. So little harvest was taken off, even though most farmers managed to get a large proportion swathed by early November, ready to pick up in the spring.

In our area of Farmington only 25% of the 6000ha (15,000 acres) of grain and oilseeds was harvested in the autumn. Everyone hoped for an early spring in 1997 to get harvest out of the way by early May. But there were new problems. Mice had bred fast in the swaths over winter and deer had ravaged many acres. The result was contaminated grain with very low bushel weight that was largely unmarketable.

Many crops could not be insured the previous spring because of late seeding (June 5 is our deadline for later crops such as spring rape and barley), so farmers tried to get what they could. But another wet spring with 4.3m (14ft) of measured snowfall (our normal is approx 1.8-2.4m (6-8ft)) came. In the end farmers gave up harvesting and many thousands of acres of grain went up in smoke, both to get rid of the crop and to make the land black to dry quicker.

Seed had to be brought in from Saskatchewan and southern Alberta, as we had virtually none here that would germinate. It all proved very costly.

But farmers in this part of Canada are stoic. "This is next-year country" is one phrase you often hear. "Well be all right this year – there are never two bad years back to back" is another.

But we did have two bad years back to back. Many fields were never drilled in spring 1997, because farmers could not risk going past the deadline for crop insurance in another soggy seeding time. We did at least have 130 frost-free days during 1997, but harvesting was near-impossible again, even with dual wheels. Most grain had to be taken to the road or gateway because grain trucks just sank in anywhere in the field.

The grain that was harvested was of better quality but harvest dragged on and on. A foot of snow fell in early October and harvest didnt finish until Dec 16, when there was a week of spring-like weather. Winter set in again just before Christmas and no harvesting has been done since.

I drilled 340ha (850 acres) last spring. A total of 20ha (50 acres) of spring rape was sprayed off with Roundup in early August; it had been impossible to get to it with the sprayer and the crop was filthy with wild oats, weeds and thistles.

Nightmare harvest

Some 100ha (240 acres) of barley was harvested but only yielded 3.7t/ha (1.5t/acre). It was a nightmare to harvest on the wet ground but the grain was 14% as I had applied Roundup pre-harvest. Another 40ha (100 acres) of barley was harvested in mid-November but was so lodged with the earlier snow that it only yielded 1t/ha (8cwt/acre).

The 65ha (160 acres) of oats was taken off in mid-December It was lying flat on rock-hard ground with small stones half-in and half-out of the ground. Header breakages were frequent, including more than 50 knife-guards, many sections and retractable fingers. There was still snow in places, which furred up the inside of the combine and gummed up the sieves.

Working at night in colder temperatures proved better but was harder on the combine. The field yielded 1.5t/ha (12cwt/acre) but produced a good quality oat.

So that leaves me with 34ha (85 acres) of spring rape, 20ha (50 acres) of oats and 60ha (145 acres) of barley to harvest next spring. As you can imagine our finances are very tight, the profits of the good harvest of 1995 are long gone and I have taken an off-farm job for several month to put groceries on the table.

All of this prompted me to run my combine into Dawson Creek (the local town) on Oct 6 to show the town we had another disaster looming. The sign on it read "Disaster in the country, another harvest lost". The phrase is true for most farmers around here, though some areas have fared slightly better.

I said to the local Press that if nothing was done by the government in the wake of a farm crisis, I would drive my combine to Victoria to seek aid. I canvassed around Dawson Creek businesses during October and raised £6000 for the combine trip and to get other farmers to Victoria too.

A farm crisis committee was formed and I was voted in as chairman,though I later stood down. Auction dances were held in Farmington and neighbouring Rolla, 20 miles (32km) east and another £6000 was raised by the goodwill of businesses, the general public and farmers.

I set the date for my trip to Victoria for Nov 17. Two days beforehand, our agricultural minister announced he was coming to Dawson Creek on Nov 20 with details of an aid package. In the event it proved no help whatsoever to farmers and then British Columbias premier Glen Clarke rubbed salt in the wound by saying he would not support a "non-viable" agricultural industry in our region of British Columbia.

The trek begins

Angered beyond words, I set a new date of Jan 10 for my combine trip to Victoria. Many people – including farmers – disagreed with my actions but I said that I would leave on that date, -40C (-40F) or not.

My combine was winterised with a heater in the cab, a water-jacket heater in the engine, special oil and windscreen wiper and more. The support vehicle pulled out at the last minute, so I was on my own.

The morning I set off the temperature was -41C (-42F). I was unprepared, as -25C (-13F) was the coldest it has been and this sort of temperature had not been forecast. It took from 5.30am to 10.30am – five hours – to get the combine running and I had to run the diesel space heater on petrol because of the extreme cold. Even the mains-powered water jacket heater had little impact.

Eventually I got off but once moving my hydraulic oil thickened and I had no steering. This meant stopping on the highway, draining out the oil and refilling with automatic transmission fluid; that seemed to do the trick. I eventually arrived in Dawson Creek at 12.30 to fill up with diesel for my 800-mile (1287km) journey.

The grain tank on my combine had had its unloading cross auger removed and was then filled half full of barley for ballast. This was then covered with plyboard sheeting and two 450-litre (100gal) tanks with electric pumps and a mobile workshop installed. The latter included a welder and generator, air compressor, tyre tools and spanners. I even had a vice fitted to the combine to give a third hand.

Over the Rocky Mountains

I kept in touch daily with the local radio and TV station in Dawson Creek and the Peace River Block Newspaper, as well as with my wife Jane and daughters Catherine (12) and Emily (11).

The journey took me over the Rocky Mountains and through the interior of British Columbia up to an elevation of 1200m (4000ft) near 100 mile House. Then to Lillooet in the Frazer Canyon, over the coastal mountains to Pemberton and Whistler (climbing to nearly 2130m (6988ft)) and down to Horseshoe Bay in North Vancouver. From there I caught the ferry to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island and travelled down the Trans Canada highway to Victoria.

I drove back to Clinton just south of 100 mile House and was then trucked by low-bed truck back to Farmington some 500 miles (805km). My journey on the road was near 1100 miles (3575km). The combine went on display in Dawson Creek for a week and then back to Farmington.

Nick Parsons has already appeared in farmers weekly twice. Once in Sept 1982 when he and his brother, Tom, built the worlds largest straw stack. And then again in March 1994, two years after he packed in farming in the UK to move to Canada. Right: The 1000-mile route.

Harvest 1997: Even with 4WD and dual tyres on each drive wheel, Nick Parsons MF860 combine struggled to get along in waterlogged harvesting conditions. The extreme conditions took their toll on men and machines – here a broken inner wheel is replaced.

This photograph from the Dec 4 issue of The Western Producer says it all. Lawrence Smithson, another farmer from the Peace River region, tries to harvest wheat in wintry conditions. What ended up in the hopper was a mixture of two-thirds grain and one-third snow, which wouldnt run through the unloading auger and had to be poked out with a branch. Back at the yard the snow was sieved out and the grain run over the drier twice. Mr Smithson combined 160ha (400 acres) of wheat this way.

Jan 15. Mechanical problems begin to take their toll beyond Williams Lake, roughly half way along the journey. First a drive tyre went flat, but Mr Parsons was able to replace it with the spare carried on the front of the combine even before the local tyre firm could arrive. Then the police picked him up, made him leave the combine and fined him £50 for travelling after dark. The next day the reinforced wheel centre, which had been gusseted to take dual wheels, broke up with a bang. Prairie Belle had to be towed into a layby again and half the axle taken off to disentangle the tube from the transmission.. On the morning of Jan 18 he discovered more tyre problems – someone had slashed both rear tyres during the night.

Nick Parsons inspects overwintered crops on his 360ha (900-acre) farm near Dawson Creek in north-eastern British Columbia. The short growing season in this part of Canada means that farmers swath all cereal crops to allow them to reduce moisture contents and then pick them up with the combine. Sometimes farmers will leave 25% of these swathed crops over winter and combine them in the better weather in the spring. However in the 96 and 97 harvests many farmers were forced to leave 75% of swathed crops over winter.

Nick Parsons 17-year-old MF860 combine – named Prairie Belle – was prepared over Christmas ready for the start of its 1000-mile trip on Jan 10. The unloading auger was removed and the tank filled with 2t of barley. On top of that went plywood sheeting, giving room for a generator, welder, oil heater, spare belts, a 22t bottle jack, alternator, tyre levers, endless tools and two tanks containing 900 litres (200gal) of diesel. A spare drive wheel was strapped to the front of the machine. But even the mains-powered water jacket heater on the engine wasnt enough to cope with the -40C (-40F) temperature on day 1. It took five hours to de-gel the diesel and then the hydraulic oil was too stiff to work the power steering. Temperatures stayed ultra-low for several days.

At Cache Creek, police impounded Prairie Belle overnight for not having the correct permit. But Nick Parsons secretly drove the combine out again at 5.30 the next morning having sorted out another eight days insurance for the combine for £175.

Jan 19. A scenic break while crossing the Fraser Canyon near Lillooet. Prairie Belle coped well with mountain roads up to 2100m (7000ft) elevation. Along the 1000-mile route 100s of cars and trucks hooted their horns in support of the Peace River farmers cause.

Drive belts nearly shot. Speedy replacement necessary. A mobile workshop allowed on-the-road repairs.

Jan 21. Trouble ahead. Police advised Nick Parsons that the route from Whistler to Vancouver was a death-trap, with ski-resort traffic commonly travelling at 100mph. They feared an accident, so Prairie Belle had to be trucked to the ferry terminal at Horseshoe Bay. The journey took 3hrs and cost £370, but in the event the road didnt look nearly as dangerous as the police made it out to be. Film crews greeted Prairie Belle off the ferry. On the drive from Nanaimo to Duncan on Vancouver Island the windscreen wiper packed up in heavy rain.

Jan 24. Journeys end. Prairie Belle was washed down for the arrival in Victoria. Nick Parsons met up with the bus load of 80 farmers who had also come to lobby the legislators and the combine was guided by the police to a car park outside the parliament buildings. Large numbers of cameras and TV crews were there. On Jan 27 he headed back on return trip; however the insurance and travel permits ran out on Jan 31 and the combine had to be trucked the rest of the way back. Nick Parsons had driven it 1000 miles in three weeks, a gruelling journey but one that gathered huge amounts of press publicity for the Peace River farmers cause.

Jan 20. Negotiating a 4.3m (14ft) bridge in a 4.3m combine! The people of Lillooet said it wasnt possible to get a combine through to Pemberton, 80 miles away, but Nick Parsons proved them wrong. The inhabitants of Pemberton had never seen a combine before. Before the town were descents of 20% (1 in 5).

HAPPY ENDING?

AS this article went to press (Mar 12), British Columbias provincial government declared the Peace River a "disaster area". It also announced an aid package that involves payments based on farmers tax returns for the previous four years, as well as changes to the crop insurance programme.

Nick Parsons is too modest to admit that his combine trek was solely responsible for the legislators change of heart. But theres little doubt that his action, which generated masses of publicity and sympathy, did much to help.

What of 1998? Snowfall rates a quarter of what theyd normally be at this time of the year auger well for a good 98 drilling season. And Nick Parsons, like other farmers in the area, reckons hes due for a bit of good luck.