Skip to main content

Canada A dairy farmer’s dire year: First a tornado, then a trade deal

Jim Flewellyn stands in front of the damaged farmhouse on his property west of Ottawa, which he had just recently bought before a tornado hit the area in September. The Flewellyns work three properties, two near Kinburn, Ont., and one in nearby Stittsville that was once his parents’ farm.

James Park/The Globe and Mail

Jim Flewellyn knew something was up – but it would take most of the day to find out how much would end up down.

It was Friday afternoon, Sept. 21. The 47-year-old dairy farmer knew about the “severe weather warning” for his rural area northwest of Ottawa. He noticed that Harley, his constant companion on the farm, was getting skittish, which was most uncommon for the friendly five-year-old Australian shepherd.

With the wind coming up, he began making sure his cows and calves were all under cover and began moving machinery into the sheds. It was then that he noticed a long string of cars and trucks turning in his laneway and heading back down Kinburn Side Road. Someone shouted that there were hydro poles down over the road and no one was getting through to the highway.

Story continues below advertisement

And then the winds really picked up.

The telephone rang and he answered. It was a neighbour, Randy, from down the way. “Leonard White’s farm,” the neighbour was yelling. “It’s completely gone!”

Gone? How could that be? The Flewellyns, Jim and Lisa, had just purchased the farm down on Mohr’s Road after the passing of long-time farmer Mr. White.

But that was far from all that was gone. The EF-3 (Enhanced Fujita scale) tornado, which first touched down at 4:40 p.m., ripped through communities in Eastern Ontario and western Quebec for the better part of an hour. Thirty homes in nearby Dunrobin were either destroyed or had to be demolished. Hundreds of housing units were damaged in Gatineau, across the Ottawa River. Nearly 150,000 lost power to their homes.

Sept. 22, 2018: Damaged homes in Dunrobin, Ont., after the tornado passed through.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

In all, six tornadoes struck that day, injuring 30 but miraculously killing none. They left behind nearly $300-million in insurance claims on both sides of the river.

Unfortunately, Mr. Flewellyn had none on the farm on Mohr’s Road.

When he reached his newly purchased property, he was stunned by the devastation. He had lost two machine sheds, two 30-metre-tall silos. His barn was ripped from its foundation. New doors that he had purchased for one of the sheds were found more than a kilometre away – “and they were in perfect shape!” The porch of the red brick house was nowhere to be seen. In all, 16 structures had been destroyed. The Flewellyns’ plan had been to fix things up – the house had faulty wiring, to begin with – and then see about insurance. But now, what was the point? “There’s not much to renovate now,” he said.

Story continues below advertisement

His cellphone rang again. Someone else calling who knew nothing about the tornado but wanted to talk about the renegotiations on the North American free-trade agreement, with strong suggestions that Canada was prepared to make concessions on dairy if it would close the deal with the United States.

“You know,” he told the caller, “I’m kind of busy. Pardon the pun – but it’s been kind of a whirlwind around here.”

Jim Flewellyn's herd of dairy cows was safe when the tornado came, but weeks later another calamity arrived: Canada agreed to open up part of its protected dairy market in a trade deal with the United States and Mexico.

James Park/The Globe and Mail

As American humorist Will Rogers once said, “The farmer has to be an optimist – or he wouldn’t still be a farmer.”

Weeks after the tornado struck, Mr. Flewellyn walked through his fields with Harley wagging along by his side and declared, “It could always be worse.”

True enough. There were no animals at the farm that was hardest hit. The Flewellyns’ dairy herd of 110 – 50 of them at any one time being milked – was safe, as were the two dozen or so barn cats and, of course, happy Harley. The idea was to use the newly purchased farm for pasture and crops anyway, and the land itself had survived quite well.

However, the rumours about dairy farmers being sacrificed to gain a trade pact came true barely a week after the tornado struck when the new deal – now to be known as USMCA (United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement) – was reached.

In order to get Canada and the United States to sign on (Mexico and the United States had earlier reached an agreement), the Canadian negotiators had given concessions on dairy. American producers would have greater access to the Canadian dairy market – they had lobbied for that for years – worth approximately 3.6 per cent of the total market. The agreement also brings an end to what is known as “Class 7,” a trade arrangement that has controlled prices on such matters as skim-milk powder, a control Canadian producers wished to keep in place.

In addition, the United States gains the right to be consulted on any changes to Canada’s classification system for dairy, something farmers say they were told would not happen.

David Wiens, a vice-president of the Dairy Farmers of Canada, says this amounts to Canada giving up sovereignty in its own domestic industry. The organization called the deal “truly a dark day in the history of dairy farming in Canada.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said that there would be compensation for losses, but dairy spokespeople shot back that this wasn’t so much an issue of money as it was one of livelihood. The family farm was again under siege.

Nov. 18, 2018: People attend a Montreal march in support of the Canadian dairy sector and other farmers, a few weeks after the USMCA breakthrough was announced.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

According to the Canadian Dairy Information Centre, there are 10,951 dairy farms in the country, with close to a million dairy cows and approximately half as many heifers (female that has yet to give birth). The Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council says that the industry employed nearly 40,000 workers in 2014, 11 per cent of the total agricultural labour force. Dairy Farmers of Canada says 220,000 Canadian families are dependent on dairy, if related jobs such as transportation, processing and retail are taken into consideration.

Regardless, three-quarters of the dairy work force is located in two provinces, Ontario and Quebec, and more in Quebec than in Ontario, which is why protecting dairy farmers became a key issue in the recent Quebec provincial election and the federal Conservative leadership vote.

Story continues below advertisement

At the core of dairy concerns is the quota system, introduced in the early 1970s with the intention of “saving the family farm” by guaranteeing a stable market for producers. Quota is a government-mandated cap, which varies from province to province, on how much dairy product a farmer can sell to a marketing board. The value of quota is per kilogram of butterfat, which works out roughly to an amount per milk cow. An Ontario dairy producer’s quota is worth $24,000 a cow.

While the original intent somewhat worked – by bringing stability to the family dairy farm – in recent years, there has been growing criticism. The price of quota is often seen as a barrier for young farmers keen to have the rural lifestyle quota was created to protect. An average-sized herd, somewhat smaller than what Mr. Flewellyn has, would cost around $2-million to establish in Quebec and Ontario.

Ian Lee, an associate professor of management at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business, has long been a critic of the Canadian supply-management system. Prof. Lee maintains, and many agree, that the system designed long ago to save the family farm has contributed mightily to its shrinkage. In 1967, the country had 174,139 dairy farms. Fifty years later, that number had shrunk to 10,951.

“They never did save the family farm,” says Mr. Lee, who grew up on one himself in Eastern Ontario’s Lanark County. “They are declining annually. I don’t see how you can say ‘We saved the family farm.’”

The very argument in favour of supply management, he maintains, is actually an argument against it. “There’s no incentive when the price is fixed,” he says. “Supply management killed the very thing that makes other markets vital, and that’s innovation.

“It’s hard work. I will never take that away from them. But I’m skeptical about the value of supply management.”

Story continues below advertisement

Jim Flewellyn feeds his dairy cows. The cows are milked twice a day.

James Park/The Globe and Mail

“Beef farming is hard,” Mr. Flewellyn says. “Cash cropping is hard, too. But in dairy, you have to be here all the time. You have to be here in the morning to milk them and then again in the evening. You have to be here to feed them, to take care of them. Every day, twice a day.”

In the spring, between milkings, he will also plant – corn, soya, wheat – and work as late as midnight. In fall, he combines until dark. Son Colby, 16, helps before and after school. Daughter Maggie, 19, is studying agriculture at the University of Guelph’s Ridgetown campus.

The Flewellyns work three properties, the two near Kinburn and one in nearby Stittsville that was once his parents’ farm. When his father passed away in 1981, his mother sold off their cows and quota but kept the farm. After he graduated from the Kemptville Agricultural College – another affiliate of the University of Guelph, since closed – in 1991, he began working the farm within six months.

“My assets came from my mom and dad,” he says. Had he not begun with an advantage, he doubts he could have built his holdings into today’s 800 acres.

The barn is highly automated, from feeding to milking. The temperature is kept in a constant range through heaters and fans. “The more comfortable and well-fed a cow is,” Mr. Flewellyn says, “the more money she’ll make for you.”

The automated system allows Mr. Flewellyn to milk eight cows at a time. If a cow is not cleaned properly before milking, alarms will go off. Any problems are recorded by computer, and the milk inspector, who comes at least once a year, has full access to all the gathered data.

Story continues below advertisement

The waste from the milking cows is quickly cleared from the gutters and mechanically moved out to a manure pit some distance from the barn.

“Any time I can put manure on a field,” he says, “it means I don’t have to buy fertilizer.”

Breeding is all done artificially. Male offspring are auctioned off as calves, usually for veal production. They use DNA testing to determine which calves are likely to be the most productive.

As Mr. Flewellyn likes to say, “There’s more to milking cows than milking cows.”

Not surprisingly, Mr. Flewellyn is a big fan of marketing boards and the milk-quota system. In his opinion, it is what has allowed him and his family to “have a decent life and do what I love doing. I don’t know what I’d do if I wasn’t doing this.”

The system ensures, he says, that dairy farmers “are all treated the same. We’re all pooled together. We all get the same information at the same time.”

Story continues below advertisement

He knows there has been much criticism of supply management in recent years, from academics such as Prof. Lee to Martha Hall Findlay of the Canada West Foundation to Max Bernier, former minister in the cabinet of Stephen Harper and now Leader of the People’s Party of Canada.

Once U.S President Donald Trump began targeting dairy in the early talks to renegotiate NAFTA, dairy farmers knew they would be taking a hit. “I’m not surprised they gave something away,” Mr. Flewellyn says.

Nov. 30, 2018: U.S. President Donald Trump, middle, looks over at Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's document at the USMCA official signing in Buenos Aires. At left is Mexico's then-president, Enrique Pena Nieto.

Martin Mejia/The Associated Press

He says that the USMCA and other recent agreements with European and Pacific trading partners have chipped away at Canadian dairy producers to a point where, in his estimate, he could lose at least 10 per cent of his business to foreign competition, which would in effect lower the amount of milk products he could sell.

“If I have 50 cows,” he maintains, “I’d have to take five cows away. I take five cows out of my barn but my hydro is still going to be the same. I still have to turn on the lights. But that income I got from those five animals is now gone.”

He has little confidence in any promised “compensation” from the government and is convinced that it will have far too many strings attached for him to bother pursuing.

“I don’t have any hair left,” he laughs. “But if I did, I’d be bald from pulling it out.”

There are days when he wonders if the family farm will continue on in the Flewellyn family once Maggie and Colby are finished with their schooling.

“I always say I will continue on and I will keep farming and do everything until they’re 30,” he says. “And if they’re not home or not showing any interest by the time they’re 30, they’re not coming back.

“I’ve seen too many people quit farming when their kids are 20 and showing no interest, and seven years later, their kids would want to come back – but there’s nothing to come back to.”

Jim Flewellyn feeds the dairy cows at his farm.

James Park/The Globe and Mail

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...