Ice storms changed farm folks attitudes in Canada

10 April 1998

Ice storms changed farm folks attitudes in Canada

Canadians cope well with winter weather, they expect snow

and are prepared for it but the freak ice storm that hit

eastern Ontario and south-western Quebec in January

brought conditions never before experienced. Rural

communities were hardest hit and are still dealing with its

effects as Tessa Gates reports after visiting Ontario

THE Canadian ice storm has changed the landscape. It has changed peoples expectations of utilities and appreciation of neighbours and it has changed dairy farmer Scott Connell in a way that has even surprised his wife.

Stressed and exhausted, pushed literally to the edge with trying to keep his cows milked and healthy without power and water, the realisation of how unaware people in authority were of the needs of farmers, has made a mild man militant.

"We need farming folk on the councils because it seemed to me rural Ontario was on its own," says Scott whose name might well be on the ballot list at the next local elections.

Scott (34) and his wife Debbie have four children aged from four to 10 years and farm in partnership with his father and two brothers. At Locus Farms, Brockville, they have 122ha (300 acres) of worked land, 81ha (200 acres) pasture and 122ha (300 acres) of bush. The dairy herd, 90 pedigree Holsteins, is Scotts pride and joy. Virtually all homebred, their lineage carefully documented, the cows were Scotts main priority when the effects of the storm took hold. It knocked out the hydro (electricity) that has been so reliable in Ontario in the past that few farmers had any back-up generators.

"If we ever had a power cut it would usually be restored in two hours. This power line was a major one – running to the Dupont chemical company – so we were always a priority," explains Scott. "We didnt even see adverts for generators round here. We never had anyone try to sell us one. We have never needed one so didnt know much about them. Now we shake ourselves and say why didnt we? One thing I soon learned was that we should have had one. In Quebec 90% of farmers had generators, here it was only 10%."

The ice storm started on Jan 5. "We had four straight days of freezing rain, no snow. Normally we would have 4ft of snow at this time of year," says Debbie, whose children had just returned to school following the Christmas holidays only to have it closed again after one day.

&#42 Freezing rain

The rain was freezing as it fell, loading trees, buildings and power lines with a tremendous coating of ice. Some trees were estimated to be covered in 2t of ice – young ones were left bent double, limbs on older trees cracked off under the weight and trunks split. Electricity pylons doubled over as if made from plasticine and 10,000 hydro poles were brought down in eastern Ontario alone. The loss of power brought a state of emergency lasting until the end of January in many areas, but initially, for most people, there was no information as to the extent of the storm.

At the Connells home at Locus Farms, Brockville, all communications were cut. "It took three months to build this hydro line six years ago but eight miles of poles just went down – with no phones, no hydro and no radio you wondered how big is this?" recalls Scott. Around 2500 of his fellow dairy farmers in the region, where the average herd size is 50, were no doubt wondering the same. Scotts electricity was restored in about six days and he counted himself lucky – his neighbour was without it for two weeks and for others nearby it was off 17 days.

Scott milks twice a day and calves year round to keep the constant milk supply the milk board insists on. Power or not, cows need to be milked. "We have purebred animals and we do a lot of showing, so we had a little portable milker, but it took us seven-and-a-half hours to milk our herd with it," says Scott. "On some farms the cows went two-and-a-half days without milking and people said they were just roaring."

When Scott finished milking on his farm he went to help his neighbours – it took 16 hours to milk 140 head – and then it just had to be thrown away. "Snow ploughs had to shove trees and hydro poles off the road as well as ice," says Scott, who knows of one farmer who had the frustration of seeing a tanker turn up just after he had dumped all his milk – following milk board advice.

&#42 Lack of sleep

He had half-an-hours sleep the first night and one hour the next. "I had just 10 hours sleep in the first five days and didnt know how long I could keep it up and you dont know what stress you put the cows under – I had to take them down to one milking a day although I didnt want to. We had to pump water to our cows and our neighbour came here to get water," he says.

Milking and chores such as clearing manure went on round the clock. Vaccinations, AI and other routine jobs were put on hold. "For three weeks in October we wont have any cows calving, usually we have eight to 10 a month," says Scott.

Indoors Debbie and the children were "camping" in the living room – the only one with a wood fire – and sleeping in there too because of the intense cold. She was cooking on a barbecue and the water pipes had to be cut and water blown back to the well to save them bursting. "Townships and rural areas were affected and the authorities wanted everyone to move into shelters but I dont know how many farmers did that," says Debbie, adding that people who had fires took in people who didnt.

"My mother-in-law ended up with 16 people in her house aged from four months to 91 and milk cans of water had to be hauled from the barn to the house for them. Other people didnt even have water."

Once the roads were passable people drove out to western Ontario in search of generators and Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) brought in generators – one to four farmers, which was not nearly enough. Eventually, Scott managed to get a used generator for $3200 (£1416).

People tried to help each other out but as power went back on in towns and employers called labour back to work most farmers were still struggling. "It was scary when the groups helping us had to go back to work. By now I had a generator and a phone that worked but I felt I had to do something for others. I got on the phone and began calling everyone," says Scott.

&#42 Calls for help

He called radio stations and newspapers and anyone else he could think of. The result was that plant managers said they would send men out and people from the shelters offered help and they were co-ordinated by the local vet. Scott still feels the military should have been called in, as it was in other localities. "But councils dont want that as military rule when they come in – but I dont think they realised how big this thing was," he says.

Personally Scott will be feeling the effects of the storm for a long while to come. His wife says he has had a real personality change. "I used to sit back and let things happen but now I think you have to be much more aggressive," says this formerly quiet, easy going man.

Debbie says that the storm caused enormous stress to people – to the point of collapse in some cases.

"Stress courses open to the public are being organised but these boys wont go," she says of Scott and his contemporaries, "they are too pig headed or too damn busy."

Financially the outlook is unclear. He received a $2000 (£885) emergency aid cheque from OMAFRA but lost 10,000 litres of milk in January alone and he expects it to take at least eight weeks to get production back up to the day of the storm. Two cows went down with mastitis, one losing a quarter, and a couple of calves got pneumonia after the ventilation fans stopped.

Now, as the ice melts – it was so thick that even trucks crossing in the yard could not break it – he has the worry of winter kill on his pastures.

"We will get compensation for milk dumped but not for production lost – that is counted as future profits. We used as much diesel fuel in 17 days as we do for the whole crop in the spring and there is all the clearing up outside to do – it is hard to keep track of the costs," he says. "The municipality is looking after disaster relief in towns – we look forward to being looked after by OMAFRA."

Debbie and Scott Connell felt

that urban people didnt understand what farmers were going through during the power cuts.

Ontario Hydro replaced 1750 miles of electricity wires felled by the ice storm.

When the power went down, this little portable milker was all Scott had to use on his 90 Holsteins. It took 71/2 hours to milk them then the milk had to be thrown away. Afterwards he went on to milk his neighbours cows.

It will take Scott eight weeks to get milk production back up to what it was before the storm and he will not be compensated for profit losses.

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