GORMLEY — Crop farmer, elevator operator, industry advocate and inheritor of a farming tradition from 1806, Gormley’s John Doner died on Feb. 4 after battling ALS. Doner’s ailment, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, gradually paralyzes people because the brain can no longer communicate with the muscles. Doner was 75 years old.
Doner was well-known among farmers and in the local community north of Richmond Hill, and at the edge of Toronto’s urban sprawl. With COVID-19 restrictions still in place, farmers and urbanites alike turned out last month for a drive-by tribute to the late and great Doner, said son Paul.
Farmers, as far as two hours away, joined the enormous procession of at least 200 vehicles that included tractors, tractor-trailers, pickup trucks and cars. The family spent at least an hour waving and soaking up the goodwill as the train went by. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there were 300 people, maybe more,” Paul Doner said. “It was something.”
The seventh-generation on his family farm, John Doner grew up on a mixed farm that turned to cash cropping and beef farming in his day before shifting to cash cropping in the late 1980s. He was “sick of beef prices,” Paul said.
At around the same time, the farm got into the elevator business now operated by Doner’s three sons — Paul, Glen and Mark.
An elevator is a good way to meet people and, when prices are flat, it’s where you hear all the complaints about crop prices. The farm itself went through a few lean years “where prices weren’t where they should’ve been,” Paul said. Doner, who’d been an agent for the Ontario Wheat Marketing Board, began to speak out against it. “He was trying to get more favourable prices for farmers,” Paul said. “It was always a primary concern of his. He wanted to see the industry thrive.”
Close friend Bruce Pearse said that Doner made some of the most articulate and effective arguments against the wheat board in 2002, and that act alone warrants him a spot in the Ontario Agricultural Hall of Fame.
“We met with the wheat board and John was spokesman that day and he sat in front of the board and he said you guys don’t believe in marketing grain from a cost of production point of view but you have monopoly control over our product,” Pearse recalled. Doner went on to say, “‘So, therefore, you work directly for us and in our interest. You are selling this wheat at less than the cost of production. Wheat and corn are very similar in a ration. Why are you selling this food grade wheat that goes into biscuits and bakeries at the same price or less than corn in pig food and dog food? Do none of you believe that wheat is worth more?’ They all sat there with dumb looks on their faces but it was after that we wrestled monopoly control away from the board.”
Soon after, Ontario Ag minister Helen Johns offered 10 exemptions to market around the wheat board, Pearse said. “Six were given to wheat board members.”
The chair of the board got the second exemption, Pearse said. “Didn’t that prove that the board needed changes?”
He said that Doner “had a wonderful way of cutting to a minimum number of words to express a very profound fact.”
Doner was a grassroots farm activist. He was involved in the 2005 tractor protests at Queen’s Park and joined in the protests at Ottawa as well. Yet Paul said his father wasn’t particularly outspoken, politically. “I think he wanted to be treated fairly. That’s all anybody can ask for really.”
A farmer first, Doner remained very active on the farm well into his seventies. Even after he was diagnosed with ALS last May, he stayed active, and ran a tractor last November, working the fields, Paul said. Many people lose their mobility and independence but Doner did not, remaining active until he died in his sleep.