Remembering the drought of 1965
Might not be drier but more is at stake, some farmers say
By Brandy Harrison
KINBURN — In June 1965, Jack Shaw took a long, hard look at his corn and decided to sell his cows.
"It looked just the way it looks now. The stalks were dry and it didn’t have the height," says the retired Kinburn dairy farmer, who was 31 back in 1965. "I couldn’t afford to buy feed. I was also wanting to pay off my mortgage and didn’t think I’d be able to do both."
Shaw kept the heifers and his wife Audrey looked after the farm and their three children while he went to work for the United Co-operatives of Ontario. When the heifers were ready to milk in 1966, he was back on the farm full-time. He took a hit when supply management came in — quota distribution was based on 1965 production — but it was the simplest way to survive the drought.
The cows were sold in 2007 and Shaw’s son John now crops 500 acres of corn and soybeans. They’re scouting the fields every day to get a handle on the damage.
He says 2012 doesn’t seem much drier than 1965, but today’s larger operations might see the disaster magnified.
"If you got a scratch back in 1965, it’s an open wound now," says Shaw.
Gerald Laplante agrees.
"The crops are surviving better than then, but we’re asking a lot more out of a field with the money we put in," says the 68-year-old Sarsfield chicken farmer, who grows corn for feed and sells soybeans to buy back meal.
In 1965, he had a small dairy herd and remembers well the trouble he had cutting hay for winter feed.
"No rain all summer and then in the fall it started to rain. We couldn’t get in the field with any machine. We ended up cutting our corn by hand with a sickle," says Laplante.
By the end of the fall, Laplante had only 800 bales of the usual 2,500 in the barn and was forced to buy hay from Barrie.
"It was very poor quality but we had no choice. It was either that or nothing," says Laplante, adding that they may be in the same situation this year. In 1965 the conservative government of the day gave farmers tickets for each head of livestock that helped buy feed. "But the feed store played a game with us and mixed in really cheap grain so the cows wouldn’t milk."
Cobden farmer Colin Fletcher has also heard the stories. His father told him when he ran out of feed in 1965, he drove the tractor right into the dry swamp to harvest weeds and grasses for his livestock.
Here’s how 1965 and 2012 stack up so far:
May, June and July were all hotter in 2012, even if it was just by a degree or two.
For the Ottawa region, 1965 had a drier beginning, with only 36.1 millimetres of rain falling in May 1965 compared to 82.7 millimetres this year. It didn’t get much better in 1965 — there was only 18.3 millimetres of rain in June, while 2012 saw 68.9.
July made the difference between dry and drought for 2012. In Ottawa there was only 15.1 millimetres of rain this year — breaking a record set in 1931 — while the summer of ’65 had 62.5 millimetres.
For both Shaw and Laplante there’s plenty of time left before the crop is in the bin, so the jury is still out on whether 2012 and 1965 will provoke the same stories of hardship.