When the pandemic shut down Victoria’s tourist industry, B.C. farmer Bryce Rashleigh lost the bulk of his hay customers: carriage horses that carted tourists around the coastal city.
This summer, as Prairie cattle producers languished in drought, Rashleigh — who farms in Saanichton on Vancouver Island — was near broke and “swimming in round bales.” He knew he had to do something.
He thought of his farming friends in Acadia Valley, Alberta. In April 2020, as the first throes of the pandemic rocked Canada, shelves in his town had gone bare. Rashleigh has a flour mill on his farm but had nothing to grind.
Friends in Acadia Valley loaded up a semi and sent it west. The driver had precious few truck stop restaurants to rely on (they were closed), so friends of Rashleigh’s organized meals and met the driver at the side of the road.
“They thought nothing out there of loading a b-train up of lentils and wheat and shipping it out to Victoria,” Rashleigh said. “They’re in need there and this time we need to (send help) back the other way.”
Legacy of a movement
Rashleigh’s “Hay East” program is one of three carrying on the legacy of farmers helping farmers through hay aid.
Though not the first of its kind, ‘Hay West’ of 2002 is the campaign that coined the memorable title.
The impetus began with Willard McWilliams and his son Wyatt, farmers from Navan, Ontario. They saw the devastating effects of drought on nightly newscasts, writes Bob Plamondon in his 2004 book Hay West: A Story of Canadians Helping Canadians.
Drought maps from the time, reproduced in Plamondon’s book, show low to record-dry precipitation across the Prairies between September 2001 to August 2002. The most severe drought scorched a swath from Dauphin, across Saskatoon and the Battlefords and past Edmonton.
Dennis Laycraft, executive vice-president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, recalled that much of that area had already had a dry 2001. Reserves of soil moisture — and reserve hay — had already been depleted.
“The crop failure in Western Canada was so profound that the Canadian Wheat Board dropped out of world markets because there was not enough wheat to sell to new customers,” Plamondon wrote.
The McWilliams were experienced hay brokers with a history of ag activism.
“They had no hay, and our sheds were full,” Wyatt McWilliams told Plamondon. “People were talking about helping, but nobody was doing anything. We felt that if we contacted local politicians, and they made some calls to see if they could get trains, then we could start something.”
That was exactly what they did. They pulled together a small group (including Plamondon — an accountant with public policy and administration background) and set to work.
The group drew incredible media attention and political notice. Farmers from across the East stepped up to donate hay. The Chretien government spent $3.8 million to pay for 376 rail cars to ship it, and to fumigate the hay for pests, etc. Railways and other parties also donated towards transport.
All told, Hay West moved 30,000 tonnes of hay and distributed it by lottery to 1,400 people.
The campaign, while it offered a modicum of food relief, is likely remembered more for the goodwill and sense of solidarity it produced for beleaguered farmers.
“For us it was the psychological lift that it provided that was every bit as valuable, or even more valuable, then (sic) the hay itself,” farmer and hay recipient Rob Somerville told the Western Producer in August 2021.
A note from a farm in Quebec, which said simply “Bonne chance,” came stuck in the hay. Somerville still has it.
In 2021, as many western farmers found themselves strapped for hay and water, the memory of Hay West was revived on both coasts.
Midsummer, Rashleigh began to organize loads of hay to send east. He put out ads to find the need and got requests from across B.C.’s interior, Alberta and Saskatchewan.
He told the Co-operator he knew this was no time to mark up prices. He priced the hay to cover his cost of production, but he knew the cost of freight would be a barrier. He started asking friends and neighbours for donations and cash began to come through.
“It’s gathering momentum of people helping people,” Rashleigh said.
Customers at his farm stand chipped in envelopes of cash. A fuel company gave fuel. When CTV News picked up his story, over $30,000 of donations rolled in. Rashleigh said he expects shipping for all his bales will cost $80,000, and he’s raised $55,000 in private funds so far.
Local trucking firm Penta Transport has taken over logistics, said Rashleigh.
“This sort of thing is close to my heart. My grandfather was in ranching,” said Kendra Slawson, who is in charge of sales and logistics at Penta Transport.
They’ve donated freight costs for one load, said Slawson. Otherwise, they’re working to keep freight as economical as possible for Rashleigh’s crew.
As of September 16-17 Rashleigh and his crew had shipped 21 loads of hay.
Meanwhile, in early August, P.E.I.’s Ag Minister Bloyce Thompson tweeted that farmers on the Island had an excess of hay and wanted to help western farmers. Shortly thereafter, the Canadian Federation of Agriculture announced it would be organizing the effort.
As of September 17, the CFA was taking applications for hay, along with applications for producers to sell hay to the project. According to their website, hay will be purchased from eastern farmers at 10 cents per pound and resold for the same rate to western farmers.
“Due to high demand, Hay West 2021 cannot and does not guarantee the provision of hay,” the website said. “Best efforts will be made, given available supply to make hay available.”
A spokesperson for the CFA said Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada would be funding transport, but was not able to indicate how much the federal government had pledged. She indicated more details would soon be released.
“Canadian farmers keenly feel each other’s need and are quick to respond to one another. I don’t think any other industry has as much community spirit as farming,” said Lester Weber, secretary for MDS Canada’s Ontario unit.
As of September 14, MDS planned to ship 50 truckloads of donated hay west throughout the fall. The first two loads had already arrived in Osler, Saskatchewan.
“We will try and co-ordinate the donations with the demand in the West, but we are hoping possibly a few loads a week ongoing through this fall,” Weber said.
“The hay will be made available to family farms in Saskatchewan at a current competitive cost of 10 cents per pound for dairy grade and seven cents per pound for beef grade,” an MDS press release said. “Funds collected by the sale of the hay will be used to offset any transportation costs.”
— With files from Piper Whelan
For more content related to drought management visit The Dry Times, where you can find a collection of stories from our family of publications as well as links to external resources to support your decisions through these difficult times.