10 April 1998

STRUGGLE TO SURVIVE

ONTARIO DEEP-FREEZE

SLEEP was as rare as generators on the farms hit by the ice storm and for beef farmer Kim Weedmark it offered little respite from the stress of trying to keep his stock safe and watered.

"Six inches of ice were followed by 6in of snow and the buildings were squeaking under the weight. I dreamt that the roof caved in on our animals so I got up and started prising the ice off," says Kim who farms at Merrickville with his parents Gerald and Mary, and wife Irene who is an accountant.

Despite taking care he punctured the roof but stopped it collapsing. The solid weight of the ice raised all the nails in the roof and wouldnt slide off. Since the thaw the nails have stood out like bristles.

Compared to most beef farms in Eastern Ontario, the Weedmarks operation is big. The average beef farm is run part-time and has 25-30 animals. The Weedmarks have around 140 cows and raise all progeny. Finished beef goes to Cookstown, Ontario, stockyards at 14-months-old.

The power on the farm was knocked out for 14 days and no power meant no water from the well, no feed from the silo and no ventilation in the barn. As temperatures dropped to -20C, round bales of hay froze solid, humidity in the barns rose and cows came down with pneumonia, while the family struggled to keep on top of jobs without hot food and adequate rest.

During the first day of the power cut they had no water at all. Then a neighbour brought round a small generator, which he was sharing with six other neighbours, to pump some. Two days later through Irenes sister they managed to track down a generator in Quebec, but it would take five days to get to the farm.

Kim felt it was time to ring the emergency aid number on the cell phone in his truck. "They said we didnt qualify for a generator as we were not dairy farmers!" says Kim. "My dairy farmer neighbour said I should have lied." He tried the aid line again the next day – gave his name and said he had 400 head needing water but it still made no difference.

"The thirsty animals would fight to get water, but because they were not getting enough to drink they wouldnt eat properly. They need half their body weight in water a day," explains Irene, who has been married to Kim for 10 years.

The local fire department – manned mostly by volunteers – was a lifeline for many farmers, making 33 stops a day in the area to water cattle. "Cattle dont like different water and the noise of the truck backing up with its beeper going, scared them," explains Gerald, "but after a couple of days when they heard that beeper they came out to it."

&#42 Small generator

Eventually, the Weedmarks got a small generator through a friends son who made the 12-hour journey from Baltimore, USA, with it. It was wired up to run 24 hours a day and was shut off only to have the oil changed.

"The noise," says Gerald, "Another two days of it and my head would have busted."

Kim was becoming paranoid that the generator would be stolen while he was sleeping. "I told Irene, if that generator stops you wake me up quick," he recalls. The crisis was bringing out the best and worst in people. While most were helping each other out and road and electricity workers were giving their all, in some shops prices were being hiked up and the Bell Telephone Company had to hire security guards to protect its generators.

"One chap was working up a pole and found his power going off. When he looked down someone was disconnecting the generator below him," says Kim.

He is president of the Grenville Cattlemans Association and a township councillor and people were calling at the farm at all hours for information and help. "I dont know if the chores took so long because of the ice or because so many people called – everyone was so tired," he recalls.

Kim was the man contacted when the local MP and the minister of agriculture arranged to visit the area to see the effects of the storm. "They asked me to get some farmers together at a dairy farm and we waited and waited but the minister, Lyle Vanclief, never showed. Then in walked the minister of defence. He looked at the cows, didnt ask any questions and we were not allowed too. Ten minutes after they left that farmers generator died and that farm milks 140 cows three times a day," says Kim, who was furious at such contemptuous treatment of farmers under stress. He complained but it brought no official response.

&#42 Local paper

Next he tried the local radio station. "But they said they were taking only positive stories so I contacted the local newspaper and they were here in an hour," says Kim. The story made its mark. Two days later the Minister of Agriculture made his visit, talked to farmers and apologised to Kim in front of everybody.

The apology will stick in the memory along with the tiredness and weeks of cold. But the lasting impression of the storm is one of blackness – miles upon miles of town and countryside without a glimmer of light. "If the ice storm had happened 50 years ago it wouldnt have amounted to anything – we didnt rely on power then," says Gerald. "An 80-year-old farmer up the road only got hydro five years ago. He still has his old wood cook stove that heats his house, and it didnt bother him too much."

On the smaller scale Mary remembers the kindness of the vet who brought her a cheering box of doughnuts when he called unasked, to check on the stock, and her sadness at the loss of so many trees, particularly the maple that has grown with her only child but is now broken by the ice. "Kim planted it in front of the house when he was just a little boy," she says.

Kims wife jokes that the romance of candlelight has gone "and we wont mention the BO," she says laughing, "it was lovely to have a long soak in a bath at the end of it all."

Kim worries that it has finished some farmers for good, like the middle-aged man who is selling off his cattle because he just has too many fences to repair. And he worries where the money will come from to cover all the damage.

"If farmers insurers wont pay then we can apply to the disaster relief fund but there are more people than money – there wont be enough to go round," he predicts.

Beef farmers Gerald (foreground) and Kim Weedmark were without electricity for 14 days but soon found that unlike dairy farmers, they did not qualify for an emergency generator to pump water for their stock.

Kim predicts there wont be enough compensation to go round.

Glad to see some sun – Irene, Mary, Kim and Gerald Weedmark – but with the thaw comes mud and the work of repairing fences and buildings .

Mary is upset that the ice felled the maple tree her son Kim planted when he was just a little boy.

The weight of the ice brought down thousands of trees in Eastern Ontario and Quebec.