Willy, left, and his brother Tom O’Rourke show off the hay donated to the Fitzroy farm from an elk farmer near Edmonton. Willy said there is so little hay in Valley, thanks to the drought, that he’s making sure the tarp stays over it. He can’t afford to lose any of the 32 bails he received.
It was a fine Christmas present they received at Harbour Hill Charolais farm this year.
Willy O’Rourke, president of Fitzroy Beef Farmers, was among the lucky few to have his name drawn for a truckload - 32 bails in all - of hay from out west.
“Christmas came early this year,” is what O’Rourke said when he got the call informing him that his remaining cows will make it through winter. There were 300 Ontario farmers who applied for relief, with 90 loads coming to the Valley.
His brother Tom came over to the Newtown Road farmer from his nearby farm, outside Fitzroy Harbour, to check out the load sitting in a field near cows, horses and other animals that will benefit.
“This should be your good news Christmas story of the season,” Tom said, laughing when his brother explained that a tarp was over the hay because it was “too valuable not to cover.”
Valuable is right. Valley farmers normally pay about 3 cents a pound for hay. This year, if it can be found at all thanks to last summer’s drought, hay is going for 12 cents. Although Harbour Hill is primarily a beef farm, O’Rourke’s first cut of 2011 yielded 440 bails. Last summer it was down to 330. Second cutting went from 170 to 22. So, yes, he appreciates the additional bails, even if it meant he had to contribute to the truck driver’s gasoline.
Like many Valley farmers caught in the drought line, a thin strip from up past Cobden through to West Carleton, the regular rains and timely September rains didn’t come last summer. North Gower is an example that fell outside the line, with milk producers in that area getting by with timely rains.
Here in Fitzroy, cracks formed in the ground that would have taken a month of rain to fill in. July saw two-and-a-quarter inches of rain; July saw less than an inch.
It forced him to feed winter hay to cows in July. After going through all eight sections of his fields, the first still hadn’t seen re-growth.
The upshot? He usually has 30 cows. Four were put down.
It isn’t an easy thing for him. O’Rourke’s spent more than 30 rarifying his herd’s genes. Having to give that up is a tough decision to make, especially when others are doing the same causing a drop in price by 10 cents a pound.
And yet it doesn’t take away from the joy the O’Rourke brothers found in getting hay sent all the way from Alberta. Hay East, as it is known, is about farmers such as Clint Landral donating hay to eastern farmers devastated by the drought. It is in part a about settling up a debt. Hay West took place exactly 10 years earlier, when drought ravaged the other side of Canada.
There was never a doubt that farmers across this vast land want to help on another in times of crisis. The problem then, and now, has been the distance. But that hasn’t stopped them. Canada has been called a country that doesn’t work in theory, only in practice. Many observing this back-and-forth donating between farmers thousands of kilometres would agree.
“The farmers out west are returning the favour,” said Coun. Eli El-Chantiry. “It’s a great thing to see people in Canada still cherish the support of one another.”
Contacted at his elk farm about an hour from Edmonton, Landral saw it as a good news story about Canada.
“Good for him. I’m glad it got to him,” Landral said, who explained they had a bumper crop this year and so he could afford to ship out seven loads, or 224 bails this year. It wasn’t far from his mind, either, that he benefitted from Hay West in 2002. It was about knowing what O’Rourke and others are going through, and returning the favour.
Asked why he didn’t simply ship the hay south where he could make a pretty penny, Landral cut off the question at the halfway point.
“We’re Canadians. These people, they are my neighbours. They helped us out tremendously. And when you get people so destitute and they have nowhere to turn – they’re our neighbours, I don’t care how far away.”
Every Canadian is Landral’s neighbour.
O’Rouke is pleased with the hay’s quality too, saying hay from an elk farm is high in protein. He doesn’t notice the cows showing any preference. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise down the road if Harbour Hill cows start cheering for the Oilers.