By Brandy Harrison
GANANOQUE — Matt Calver moved from Alberta to take over a Gananoque dairy farm, only to get the call, one month in, that his barn was engulfed in flames.
“He had to come back here that night and walk up the laneway, knowing everything he purchased the farm for was gone. He was just devastated. He could hardly talk,” says Mel McLean, who handed over the reins of the farm on May 1 and stayed on to help Calver and his wife, Jill, get started.
McLean was almost home when he got the call just after 7 p.m. on June 7.
“I actually saw smoke about the same time my cell phone went off,” he says. “You couldn’t get within 100 ft. of the barn. There was no saving it. The minute a barn with hay has a fire, you could dump the St. Lawrence River on it and you wouldn’t be able to put it out.”
The 110 by 40 ft. barn, milk house, and additions were destroyed along with about 40 milk cows, dry cows and calves, as well as the cement silo and possibly both blue Harvestore silos. McLean managed to get tractors and equipment out of a nearby Cover-All and luckily the wind was blowing away from a heifer barn 150 ft. away.
Damages are estimated at more than $1 million.
Ontario Provincial Police have charged 18-year-old John Smid of Leeds and the Thousand Islands Township with arson.
The loss of the cows and 40 years of genetics hit McLean hardest. The Master Breeder had bred a few reserve all-Canadians and all-Americans and Stoneden Holsteins was also the home of the variant red gene, which made red and white Holsteins — a recessive trait — from cattle without red heritage. One of his red Goldwyn-sired cows, which had made $100,000 in embryo sales in the last two years, died in the fire.
“You’ll never replace what he lost in the cows,” says McLean, who still owned a handful of calves in the barn.
Within days of the fire, neighbours gathered around Sandy Thomson’s kitchen table to plan a benefit.
Thomson, who runs Sunrest Farm with her husband, Glen, lives only a mile down the road and tore out of the hayloft the moment she saw smoke.
“It’s every farmer’s worst nightmare. It’s tugged at everyone’s heartstrings. I don’t think many of us know Matt or Jill but we want to show them we’re here for them. This is a pull-together kind of community,” says Thomson, who is co-chairing the July 25 fundraiser with Charlene O’Connor of McCann Farm Automation.
The Gordanier family donated their Saturday night revenue at the Colonnade Golf and Country Club, in Joyceville, to host the old-fashioned barn dance, including a buffet. McCann is paying for the DJ.
Get $20 tickets by calling Thomson at 613-382-7965.
McLean isn’t surprised by the community turnout.
“I broke my kneecap right in half in an accident two days before we started haying. I didn’t do a thing for six weeks but people came and cut hay. It’s the way it’s always been. You couldn’t pay me to live in the city.”