By Connor Lynch
IROQUOIS — Along the road heading to Gordon Empey’s dairy farm, one concession north of the St. Lawrence River, a house stands, surrounded by fields thick and tall with wild grass. The house is fresh and clean, and shines white in the sunlight. Behind it, a small red shack sags. Its walls are bent inwards and its roof droops. Age and disregard has deformed it, like a great hand applying steady pressure. A grain silo stands behind it. Though the silo is intact, nature has sought to reclaim it and has done so unchecked. Vines trail all over its body.
Empey’s farm, Maple Dale Farms, is tucked between Iroquois and Morrisburg. His 45-head dairy herd chews its cud and is milked by a DeLaval robot on land that, as of this year, has been in his family for 200 years.
The property started as a gift from the Crown, to Capt. George Thompson, in 1797, the same year that Emperor Napoleon conquered Venice. Though Empey’s property now is rich, green, and beautiful, it started as 200 acres of bush. It runs along the Highway 401, the busiest highway in North America.
Unattractive to a man without the patience, tenacity and temerity to clear 200 acres of trees, shrubs, bushes and detritus, one half of the farm was sold to David Teron, Empey’s ancestor, 20 years later, in 1817. At some point, when sowing seeds was more valuable than spelling, Teron became Zeron. Empey’s grandfather had daughters, one of whom married an Empey.
The farm grew to 1,100 acres despite many hardships. A fire in 1950 destroyed the family home, the one Empey grew up in. The family moved into a second house on the property that had been recently vacated. The next year, the dairy barn burned down. What’s now called the old dairy barn is the barn that went up to replace the burnt-out shell of their former barn. Beside it stands the new barn, home to the robot and the milking herd. The old barn hosts the younger heifers and a stuffed-full hayloft.
Though fate has sometimes been unkind, the land has been good to them, and this year, because of all the rain, has been the hardest for crops in the family’s memory. Empey recalls one year where, shortly after starting to run the farm, they got a lot of rain. “Got the tractor and baler stuck in the hay field. Took two more tractors to get it out.” That’s about as harsh as the earth and seasons have ever been to them. “We’ve been awfully lucky with crops. Just seem to get the right amount of moisture and rain,” said Empey.
Growing up, Empey remembered a mixed farm with chickens and pigs alongside dairy cows and crops. The chickens were the first to go, and the pigs lasted until the barn was replaced in 1951. Tile-drainage went in the same year. “We had little clay tiles,” he said, which had to be put in by hand. It was tedious, back-breaking work, and not nearly so slick as modern tile-drainage. Back then, tiles weren’t systematic. They followed any natural dips in the land that could be found.
He recalled when they were first to try new technology. Empey was about eight years old when they bought a black and white television. He recalled walking up the laneway after school, watching for the aerial on the roof that would tell him and his sisters that it had arrived. The first ones on the road to get a television, they hosted the neighbourhood to watch a Stanley Cup game. “The living room was full, and you couldn’t even see the damn puck, there was so much snow (on the screen). It was very fuzzy and there were black spots all over the screen. Occasionally, someone would shout, ‘I think I saw the puck!’”
Though running any farm is a demanding proposition, Empey’s father never forced him to help. “If you decide that you like it instead of being forced, it works better.”
Empey’s father was a believer in education, as is Empey. Once he’d finished high school, Empey went off to university, studying animal science at the University of Guelph. He taught high school for four years in Alexandria, then came back to work on the farm.
His two sons, both in their 30s, are now back on the farm. Paul studied computer science and Peter has a psychology degree. Paul handles the crops and Peter manages the cows. “They own the farm now and I work for them,” Empey said with a chuckle. At 72, he helps out where he can.
The robotic milker, which went in in 2014, has changed what were once some basic tenets of running a dairy farm. “When I was starting to run the farm, cows had to be milked at six in the morning, and five-thirty at night. Everybody had to be on deck.” Now, Empey can keep an eye on the cows while his sons stay in the field. They also get the occasional weekend off, something unheard of way back when.
The farm, now grown over five times its original size, is a small farm these days, said Empey. Though the agricultural community is still family-focused, the growth of modern farms is changing that, he said. “My grandchildren and children are always around here. Everyone’s in walking distance. I can think of others with three generations on the farm. It used to always be like that. With less farms, people are moving away.”
But he could never have imagined how much things would change, or how they will change again. “Thirty years ago, they would’ve thought you were crazy if you thought you could milk a cow by having it walk into a box.
“I’d just love to have my grandfather here to show him around, how things have changed.”