Volume 12 Number 3
Averting a Flare-Up on the Farm
01 June 1999

John Bocock is a dairy and grain farmer in the Canadian prairies to the north of Edmonton, Alberta.

In 1912 my paternal grandfather took a gamble. He, his wife and their five children left Bury St Edmonds in England and sailed for the wider horizons of Edmonton, Alberta. While waiting in Liverpool to board the old Lake Manitoba they heard the shocking news of the sinking of the Titanic. Their voyage took two weeks--longer than normal--because of ice floes.

My mother's family, who were Protestants, emigrated from County Cork, Ireland, in 1921 because of 'the troubles'. It is ironic that they settled on a farm that was surrounded by Catholic neighbours. My brother Bill and I are still on that same farm.

In 1929 my father bore the full force of another tragedy, the great Depression. He and my mother had just married and had borrowed money to buy their own farm. In a situation where the cost of shipping an animal to market was often greater than its value, they were forced to give up the farm. Dad then worked for his father-in-law to pay off the loan. Eventually he bought that farm.

Some 40 years ago we hosted a group of farmers from Africa and Scotland on our farm. They were travelling with an African MRA film called Freedom. I was intrigued by their experiences of finding change in their lives, and of how this could lead to changes in their families and in the wider community. I experimented with their approach of listening to the still small voice, asking God to show me where my life fell short of his absolute standards of honesty, purity, unselfishness and love.

What came into focus was my relationship with my brother. I needed to have a good relationship with him because my ambition was to have the most efficient dairy farm in Alberta and a one-man dairy farm is self-inflicted slavery. (My father went for nearly 10 years without missing a milking and I had no desire to break his record.) It came to me that when I made a mistake I was inclined to sweep it under the carpet. But if Bill made a mistake, I gave him hell with great indignation. I decided to apologize to him for my self-righteous attitude and to ask for his help to be different.

One fruit of that experience is that Bill and I and our wives are still farming together today. Another is that our three full-time employees have worked with us for an average of 18 years. This is unusual in Canada where many consider a farm job a fill-in till they can find something better.

I have an Alberta Wheat Pool sweatshirt which proudly proclaims their motto: 'Helping farmers feed the world'. To achieve this we need better relationships with each other and also with technology.

Biotechnology promises both greater production efficiency in agriculture and exciting breakthroughs in medicine. I am not opposed to biotechnology, but believe that it should be rigorously tested for long-term environmental and economic viability before being licensed.

In January Canada's Health Protection Agency refused to license rBST, the synthetic growth hormone. Monsanto had spent millions on developing the product, to increase milk production. Sadly, they refused to accept evidence of a link with increased mastitis, infertility and lameness in cattle, which no dairyman can afford. It is interesting to note that US buyers are now coming to Canada for heifers to replenish a shortage in the US, where they have been using rBST for several years.

We have had to face a more immediate threat on our farm. Ten years ago a sour gas plant was built two miles east of us to remove poisonous hydrogen sulphide from natural gas. A sour gas well less than a mile south of our farmyard was test-flared to see if it was worth building a pipeline to the plant. For part of the test week a south wind put us in the fallout zone. We lost four animals that week, had the first case of mid-lactation milk fever in the history of our herd and suffered other health problems. During the following two years our twinning rate rose from the normal one per cent to six and seven per cent, which, according to UK research, is an indication of environmental pollution.

The petroleum industry and government regulatory agencies have been reluctant to admit the possibility that the flaring could endanger livestock and human health. In an effort to address the situation we invited the Vice-President of the oil company to our home to meet our neighbours. Later we met the President of the company in a hotel. Our stand convinced our local politicians to force the company to install a scrubber in the plant. This extracts over a tonne of sulphur a day which would otherwise go up the flare stack. We are now treated as a 'sensitive area' and wells that used to flare have been updated so they no longer do so.

Sadly, further north, government and industry intransigence has resulted in oilfield facilities being bombed. And a southern Alberta farmer is in jail for shooting an oil company executive while he was checking a pollution site.

Farmers, too, have made environmental mistakes. During the drought of the 1930s devastating dust storms blackened the sky with precious topsoil because farmers used repetitive cultivation in their zeal to eradicate every weed and obtain maximum yields. Then, when rain did come, the unprotected soil was washed away. Today farmers are investing heavily in 'minimum tillage' equipment to ensure the long-term viability of the soil.

When I was younger, I was convinced that if only the rest of the world would follow Alberta's example, the hungry would be fed and all people would be happy neighbours. Today I hope I am less self-righteous and more humble. My Millennium vision is that all our industries may be motivated not by the quick and easy dollar but by the long-term health of people and our environment.
John Bocock