By Connor Lynch
OTTAWA — Peter Ruiter’s life was governed by routine. Every day for the last 25 years, he went out to the barn at 5:30 a.m. There, he milked, cleaned, and fed his Holsteins. He went in for breakfast at about 8 a.m. His kids were usually gone to school.
At 3:30 p.m., he went back in for the evening milking. Supper was 4:45 p.m. sharp. He didn’t miss it. “If my wife was good enough to make it, I’m good enough to eat on time,” Ruiter said. In between milkings, he “filled in the middle with miscellaneous.” Holidays are rare for dairy farmers and Ruiter was no exception, though it wasn’t something he longed for. “I loved my work. I didn’t crave for a holiday.”
That routine was destroyed after a devastating barn fire tore through Blackrapids Farm on Prince of Wales Drive, just south of urban Ottawa. The Sept. 8 blaze tore down three interconnected barns, causing an estimated $1 million in damages and killing 80 of his 97 cows.
The community rallied around Ruiter. A fundraiser for the family, which Ruiter only agreed to so that the family could thank the community for their support, will be held at the North Gower Community Centre at 2300 Community Way on Oct. 14 at 6 p.m. Attendance is free. Donations will be accepted at the door.
Even before the event, both farmers and urbanites alike turned out in droves to support one of Ontario’s few urban farms. It felt like “the whole village of Ottawa,” said Ruiter, as neighbours swung by with piles of food and well wishes, and total strangers turned up to shake hands and offer condolences. “It’s been unbelievable.” An online crowd-sourcing fundraiser was started the day after the fire. It had raised $12,000 by the end of the day. By Sept. 28, 549 people had donated $51,470.
Many people were at the farm the day after the fire, though not everyone came out in support. A small group of animal activist protestors turned up at the farm the day after the fire. Ruiter had little to say about them. “A group of people who maybe disagree with how I farm, but it wasn’t the best time to protest. I don’t agree with that. But they stayed on the road. They know what they’re doing,” Ruiter said.
The day of the fire had started on a good note. One of his cows had given birth to a bull calf. Otherwise, it had been routine, a morning in the barn and in for lunch at about 12:30 p.m. But at 1 p.m., as he was finishing lunch, Ruiter heard a frantic ringing on his doorbell. He answered it. The man standing there said
“Peter, your barn’s on fire. You gotta go.”
He saw the fire, and his first thought was to see how he could get his cows out. After two attempts, he realized that he would die trying. “I’m sorry, cows, I don’t want to die,” he recalled saying to himself.
But the bulk of the herd, carrying 60 years of genetic improvements, is gone.
Fortunately, the fire spared the family home, even though it stands less than 100 feet from the barns.
Life has been a whirlwind for Ruiter and his family since. “Farming doesn’t stop for anyone,” said Ruiter. Or, for that matter, anything. Plenty of details need to be figured out; insurance responded quickly, said Ruiter, but the specifics and logistics were still a work in progress two weeks after the blaze.
The land he farms is rented from the National Capital Commission, which has said it will do what it can to help the family recover. Manure from his lagoon still needs to be spread; he’s still going to harvest corn silage for a neighbour Ruiter has been helping for years. The time since the fire has been almost totally eaten up with making hay. By Sept. 20 he’d made 8,000 small square bales and still had about 3,000 to go.
Staying in the present has kept away the pressure of decisions to make about the farm. “I don’t think it’s hit us all. So far, I know what I’m doing for the next week. When we don’t know what we’re doing, it’ll hit us,” Ruiter said.
When this reporter went out to the farm three days after the fire, Ruiter asked me not to take photos of his dead cows. “They’re my cows,” he shrugged. We spoke briefly about what had happened and how he was doing. We shook hands, and he went off, directing people here and there, coordinating the cleanup of his life and livelihood.
As for the future of his herd and his farm, it’s all too fresh to say, he said. “I’ve been told by farmers who’ve had this happen to them: Don’t rush. That’s what I’m doing. At the end of the day, this has to be a business decision. When it comes time, there’ll be a lot of days and nights figuring out the next move.
“The next two or three weeks I’ll be super busy. And it’ll be good for me.” He said he was looking forward to having the hay done, and getting the land level and smooth. “It’s rewarding, seeing what you’ve done.”