A couple years back we were commissioned by a good sized publisher to do a piece on the subject of farming. It was to be a grand article about the people and machinery that make things happen, covering the complete “A to Z”, so seeding to harvest and everything else. They wanted us to catch all the action, an envisioned “year in the life” or “fly on the wall” type article. We so love those, so it was a nice fit.
We jumped at the chance and took on the gig with gusto, arranging to hang with some farmers friends over an entire growing season. We committed a lot of time, were a pain in the behind to all those who so kindly accommodated us and the end result, the pics, the story was in our opinion some of our best work ever. This was the one that would put us on the map, a real piece of Canadiana. The stuff to make us legends!
Early 2017, we submitted it for a planned spring publication date. It all felt good.
Then, as you know, things happen. A problem. New editors at the publisher wanted to take things in a different direction and they felt the article didn’t work anymore (prior people loved the rough copies). Not that the write up or pics were bad in their view…they just didn’t fit now. Needs a “Reality TV vibe”, they barked. Needs some “click-bait”, they whispered. Serious? How about a Kardashian angle? It almost felt like it was going that way. This is a piece about farming for God’s sake! Damn, that was something surreal.
Resist the urge to gag.
Okay…we suggested a rewrite or some such thing, at a reasonable cost, but they kind of balked. In hindsight I think it wouldn’t have worked anyway – they wanted something this article could never be no matter how we spun it. A back and forth ensued. A threat to call in the suits ‘n’ briefcase team was made. Yes, take our mansion and yacht.
Enough! End this! An agreement born of sheer frustration is quickly hammered-out and we move on, middle finger secretly extended. Sold our souls on this one, but we had little choice. At least it’s behind us now. It’s likely the piece will never see the light of day. Forever, we believe, will it dwell in limbo.
Resist the urge to cry.
But wait we have a ton of “leftover” pics, lots of them in fact and we can write something new. Hey, we can kinda salvage this. So here, a variety of pictures taken over the spring and summer and fall of 2016 (Yikes!). Just a little look at farming through our lens. Even if it’s not the piece originally planned. But enough about our woes…
We’re not terribly far from Fort MacLeod Alberta, at a massive operation, the Vandervalk Farm. They have to do it big, no other way. It’s not like the old days where a quarter section would do. You need land holdings so large that you could form a break-away country. Vandervalkistan has a nice ring to it.
Huge investments have to be made in equipment – big tractors, big sprayers, lots of grain trucks, huge grain storage bins the size of apartment blocks. Farmer’s of old would be blow away by it all. There’s a mix of new and old machinery. Use what works and continue to use it till it fails to do the job then replace it with something new. Rinse and repeat. And get handy with a wrench – you’ll need it. Add a shop big enough to hold all the tools and parts and the machines themselves. Lots of hats to wear. And in this biz, you rarely get to retire, so prepare to work into your senior years. Sigh me up!
The schedule works like this…
Come spring use your physic abilities (and experience and technology) to guess when to plant. Then GO – GO – GO! Plow and seed for weeks on end. Work sunrise to sunset and even around the clock if needed. Live in your tractor. Forget relationships for a time. Hope it doesn’t get too cold or it’s all for naught. Was the melted snow pack, gone only a few weeks prior, enough moisture? Move on to the next section and do it again. Get used to it. Full throttle all the time.
Then there’s a lull of sorts. There still always something to do, or fix, but it might allow you to get away for a weekend. Pray not just to one God for rain, but all. Best to cover your bases. Spay the fields as needed. Water those equipped with pivots, and not all have these. Always on call.
If it all falls into place, in a few months, it’s fields of gold. Some Wheat, Canola, Barley, whatever. Plant a few different crops so you’re not gambling on one alone. The market requires a farmer to roll the dice all too often. Nerve of steel are a must and fingers crossed when no one’s looking.
All too soon it’s fall and harvest time. It’s back to that mad schedule. An army of machinery descends on the fields and attacks. No mercy is shown. On the front line are the combines. A half dozen of them or so. They ride like Cadillacs and have just as many bells and whistles. I could get used to this.
A grain wagon is always on the move. It takes what the combines have harvested out to waiting trucks, which then head to the farm where the grain is put into storage pending a the right market conditions. Yes, more to think about. When to sell your grain and when to sit on it waiting for the price to rise.
The high-tech machinery makes short work of a field, but there’s lots more of them to do. It’s all done with military-like precision.
Grain is stored in bins back at the farm. Some makes its way into their old wood grain elevator (see: Prairie Sentinels – Woodhouse Alberta – Vandervalk Farm). This here building, “the last Bawlf”, near a century old, was moved in from a nearby village in the 1970s where it sat next to the rail line. It’s still used and the well seasoned wood in the bins helps dry grain that may be a bit too moist.
Image that, modern and vintage in complete harmony.
Back at the field being worked, an ex-US Military Oshkosh 8×8 “LVS” (nickname “Dragon Wagon”) is at the ready. Outfitted with a large tank and pump, it acts as a firefighting truck. Fields are dry as a bone and this helps protect them. Burned crops, yours or that of neighbour, could spell disaster. This is one very cool beast, which we hope to see a little more up close and personal sometime. If you’re listening there Daniel. Back at the farm another ex-Military vehicle, a Michigan Dozer/Scraper Combo from the 1960s is used for odd jobs about the property. There’s another in the shop. Heard these were used in Vietnam.
Dinner is served in the field – machines and humans both get a moment of rest. Time for some fine class photos. They parked them perfectly for us.
Late fall it’s time to take a load to market. It’s Canola this day, headed to a crushing plant in the the nearby city of Lethbridge. The Super-B is loaded in no time – that bin is huge – we didn’t even make a dent in it – oh, that truck is amazing. Admired it before, now we get a ride. This fine machine, an overpowered Kenworth Grain Hauler (W900L series), is all done up and customized. Damn, that’s nice.
Off to the Richardson Oil Seed Plant. Easy going on the highway. Lots of bad drivers – up high they’re more obvious. Don’t cut off a big truck! Enter the plant, we take a place in line and sit till it’s our turn. Hurry up and wait. Lots of customized grain haulers here – guess it’s a thing, even with Hutterites*. One after another the trucks unload and leave. In the meantime, we chat a lot, about the struggles of farming, the costs, the gambit, the future. Wow, how does one sleep at night?
Up to bat. The truck is weighed, quickly emptied, reweighed and we’re done. Most of it was done with out seeming any employees. A “Shuttlewagon”, an odd road/track vehicle is used to move rail cars about the plant. Tankers haul away Canola Oil, the same stuff you might use in your deep fryer and covered hoppers carry the meal left over after pressing, which is shipped out and used for animal feed. Nothing’s wasted here. Given all the trucks seen waiting to unload, the sheer number of rail cars at the plant, and the overall size of the place, they do a big business. Think of this plant next time you order fries.
Back at the farm, some random shots. Old stuff grabs our attention. That’s an early Versatile Combine. Nothing like the ones used during this year’s harvest. So basic and zero creature comforts! Back to those trucks, and the elevator, and some other cool machinery. Click, click, click. Gotta go and soon on, we’re back at our dive motel in Fort MacLeod, then it’s dinner and a night’s rest. Felt good about this one, so sleep came easy. If only we knew that in the future, this post, or rather the original one no one is ever likely to ever see, would be such a royal pain in the behind. About that, we’re so damn POed, saddened, hurt and a bit ashamed. It was supposed to work guys…
Taking loads to various elevators continues throughout the fall and winter and next year’s spring, depending on market and demand and other things far beyond our understanding. It’s a relatively quiet period at the farm.
And then next year they’ll do it all over again.
Postscript: the person who rejected our work is leaving the publisher. Does this mean the original piece might get resurrected? I guess it’s possible but we won’t hold our breath. This is the first and only time we’ve had anything like this happen, by the way. We’ve done other work for the publisher since this nasty debacle, but the relationship has never been the same since.
*Hutterites, for those who don’t already know, an ethno-religious group who live and farm communally across the prairies and who generally lead plain and simple lives. A customized truck seems oddly out of place with that philosophy.
We did a piece on the grain elevator seen…
Prairie Sentinels – Woodhouse Alberta – Vandervalk Farm.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: Spring and Fall 2016.
Location: Southern AB.
Article references and thanks: The Vandervalks, Richardson Oil Seeds.
BIGDoer.com was on site with permission.