|Neil Monroe Jahnke|
Neil Jahnke has died
Over the years I have interviewed many people. Few were as colourful as rancher, Neil Jahnke. In my book Just a Matter of Time a chapter is devoted to Neil.
October 17, 2004Yesterday, the weather at home was mild as I set out on a journey to talk to cattlemen about how they’ve been affected by BSE and the closed border. I already have ten days worth of interviews done and wonder if the producers I’ve spoken to in Manitoba have a different perspective than those in the west.
This morning, I wake in Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan, to find three inches of wet snow covering everything in the valley.
Neil and Marilyn Jahnke are expecting me in the early afternoon. I met Neil briefly once back in the summer of 1999 at the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association (CCA) semi-annual meeting in Penticton, B.C. I was working as the Communications Coordinator for the Manitoba Cattle Producers Association (MCPA), and knew Neil by reputation. The following year, he was elected vice-president of the CCA, which meant that in two years time, he’d likely become president of this umbrella organization that represents more than 90,000 producers across Canada.
There are people in the industry who are known for the things they say, what they do or the place they run. Neil Jahnke is a real cowboy who is known on all three accounts.
The windshield wipers beat frantically as the roar of the defroster muffles the radio announcer’s voice. I pull onto the highway and head south, surprised that I’m alone on the normally busy road.
Halfway up the hill leading out of the valley, I see that a tractor-trailer has jackknifed and lays sprawled across both lanes. I churn up snow, creeping past men standing alongside the road wearing ball caps and thick-soled felt-lined boots. They are looking at the wreck, deciding how to clean it up.
A long line of cars waits at the top of the hill while a police officer stands in the middle of the road directing traffic. An empty cattle liner has slid into the ditch, too, and had it been full of cattle, this would have been a catastrophe.
Jackknife. To double or bend from the middle. That’s exactly what has happened to the cattle industry. Everything came to a crashing halt because of one cow, and since then, cattlemen have been navigating a slippery slope. Waiting. Getting by as best they can in a storm of uncertainty that just won’t let up.
I spend a few tense hours on the Trans Canada Highway, crawling along snow-packed, polished pavement, hoping a nudge of wind won’t cause the car to shimmy into the other lane. I turn off at Chaplin, opting to take the backroads the rest of the way to Gouldtown.
There are few provinces in Canada that elicit more sarcastic, good-natured barbs than Saskatchewan: Easy to draw but hard to spell. This province is considered by most as one gigantic grain field interrupted only by the occasional, odd-named town. But that perception is untrue. The northern part of the province is rich with lakes and forest. The south central region is some of the best cattle land in the country, home to 1.33 million cows and nearly 22,000 cattle producers. This is the second largest beef-producing province.
There is something unspoiled about Saskatchewan that seems to rub off on its inhabitants. The people here have a self-sufficiency that can best be described as resilience from having grown up on the prairies. They are straightforward and helpful. Teenagers here look you straight in the eye.
I’m told that you can travel anywhere in the world and you’ll meet someone from Saskatchewan. Drive along the grid roads between the towns Eyebrow and Gouldtown, and you won’t meet a soul.
Taking my eyes off the desolate, gravel road long enough to flip through a book I’ve brought, I read that the town I’m looking for was named for an early pioneer named Mr. Gould. Not a particularly fascinating story.
Flipping back a few pages I locate Eyebrow. It was “named for Eyebrow Lake nine miles from the village. It is southeast of Elbow and the center of one of Saskatchewan’s better hunting and fishing districts.”5
I grew up in southern Ontario in an area that was considered rural. After moving to the ranch, I came to understand what the word rural means. There were people who would ask why I wanted to live in such a remote place. I’d answer with platitudes about the clean air and absence of crime, but I’ve since come to realize it lies deeper than that. Somewhere out here, buried deep in the chest of the prairies, is an explanation why so many pioneers came west, and in spite of tremendous hardships, never left.
The Jahnke place is further back from the main road than expected, and just when I think I’ve missed the turnoff, my eyes are drawn to a line of hydro poles soldiering on to the last place on the road.
Coming up over a rise, I see the Big Coulee Ranch nestled along the shore of the South Saskatchewan River. An inch of new snow softens the look of the frost-withered prairie wool. The river winds through the homestead, deep and blue as the back of a peacock’s head. The simple, ranch-style house is on this side; the barn and corrals sit on the other side, with a wooden bridge connecting the two. Settled in 1879 by railway surveyors, the Big Coulee was established with Texas cattle and has been in the Jahnke family since the early 1900s.
The car rattles over a corrugated Texas gate that separates the yard and pasture. Movement in the distance causes me to slow down to watch as a dozen horses crest the hill, galloping playfully, kicking up snow and nodding at one another. They continue toward me until their chests rub against the split rail fence that surrounds the yard. They follow it until they are close enough to the house that a whinny can be heard inside.
As I get out of the car, I wonder about the size of this place. Long ago I discovered that you don’t ask a cattleman how many cows he’s got. The old-fashioned fellows (and you can never be sure who they are) are insulted by the question. They say this is similar to asking a man how much money he makes, so I never do. I wait for him to offer, or go home not knowing.
I step from the cold wind into a porch filled with warmth and the smell of coffee brewing. The wall is lined with jackets, coveralls and a row of cowboy boots. A gravelly voice hollers to come on in.
Neil is sitting at the kitchen table. His nose and cheeks are wind slapped from two days working cattle. His hair, the colour of ripe grain on a frosty morning, sits flat against his forehead, pressed that way by his cowboy hat. He massages the full moustache that hangs like quotation marks at the corners of his mouth. He takes a sip of scotch, then invites me to sit down. He doesn’t remember meeting me and looks troubled by the fact.
Marilyn is at the opposite end of the table. She nods a polite hello, then finishes sorting through a bundle of cattle files. She has striking blue eyes, a quick smile and easy-to-keep dark hair. I notice a gentle rasp in her voice when she offers me a cup of coffee. I accept a sandwich while the three of us make small talk. Marilyn doesn’t seem to mind that most of my questions are for her husband.
The Jahnkes aren’t ready to settle into conversation yet because their grown children, Shane and Jennifer, are getting ready to leave. They came home for the weekend to help brand and process cattle. Neil is concerned about the weather so he checks the road report on the telephone’s speed dial, relaying back that the highway is clear to the west. The kids wave goodbye and tell their parents not to worry.
Neil had no idea in March of 2002 when he became President of the CCA that his outgoing year would be spent battling the worst crisis the industry has ever seen. He remembers where he was on May 20. He and Marilyn were on their way to the CCA head office in Calgary when CBC called his cell phone looking for comments.
“On the 18th I knew there was a suspected case,” he says, taking another sip of scotch. “I couldn’t tell anyone and didn’t sell any animals either. Let me tell you though, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t cross my mind.”
Within hours of the announcement, the U.S. border slammed shut to Canadian beef. With the industry here depending so heavily on exports, sixty percent to the U.S., the closed border meant that it took only a few days for beef and live cattle to begin backing up. Beef is a multi-billion-dollar industry in Canada—daily losses were estimated at $11 million.
In those first few months everyone was looking for the answer to one question: When will the border re-open?
In other countries that have reported cases of BSE, it has taken up to seven years for international borders to re-open. Producers, especially feedlot operators, grew frantic. Some of the pressure was relieved on August 8, 2003, when the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that they would allow in boxed beef—boneless cuts from animals under 30 months of age. This relieved some of the pressure off the packing plants, which were now in the envious position of having a market to ship to and an oversupply of fat animals waiting for slaughter.
For the Jahnkes, these months were remembered as a blur of activity. Neil spent countless hours on the phone, in meetings, and travelling between home, Ottawa, Calgary and the U.S.. Because Marilyn was President of the Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association, they were often running in opposite directions.
“We wore out at least two phones,” Marilyn laughs. “I’d be on one in here and he’d be standing in the porch talking on the other.”
Neil’s ice blue eyes soften as he watches her light a cigarette. He opens the pack and lights one, too, saying that 98 percent of the calls they received were from cattle producers pleased with their efforts.
“I had people saying that Saskatchewan producers were getting updates faster than anyone else because the president of the SSGA was sleeping with the president of the CCA,” he laughs.
Now each of them sits as Past Presidents of their respective organizations. Not as busy, but still involved.
I ask what motivated them to take on such high-profile positions. They chuckle together and Marilyn shrugs, saying that they did what they had to do.
Neil’s grandfather, father and uncles were all active with the provincial cattle organization. He attended his first meeting when he was 30.
“I always say that a person has to take his turn in the barrel so others can shoot at him,” he chuckles, smoking his cigarette down to the butt, then lighting another. He doesn’t hesitate to voice his opinion about how the situation was handled by government.
With the exception of the CFIA, Neil believes that the politicians, some bureaucrats and industry officials on both sides of the border have worked diligently in the best interest of this industry. He praised Federal Agriculture Minister Lyle Vanclief and Vanclief’s successor, Bob Speller. It was level-headed comments by politicians and industry officials in those first few days after the announcement that kept the hysteria down as they stressed this was not an epidemic but just one cow.
“I started calling him ‘one cow Vanclief,’” Neil laughs.
Canada is the only country in the world that has seen their beef consumption rise after reporting a case of BSE, thanks to fair reporting by the media and common sense on the part of consumers. Many communities held barbeques and “eat beef” rallies all across the country that helped boost consumer confidence and brought out the competitive nature of prairie folk.
“Every time Alberta had a barbeque, we had a bigger one,” Neil smiles, adding that 5,600 people came to a cookout in Moose Jaw. Saskatchewan stood behind its producers the same way they support their football team—unconditionally.
I ask what would have happened if consumers had stopped eating beef.
Neil inhales sharply, shakes his head, then takes a drag from his cigarette. He exhales slowly, blinks hard, then his eyes go to a faraway place.
“It would have been the biggest wreck you’ve ever seen.”
Afternoon wears into evening. I’m offered a glass of rhubarb wine made by local Hutterites. It’s both stronger and better tasting than I expect.
The actions of the CFIA are weighing down Neil’s thoughts. He recently received calls from a small, producer-owned plant that is having difficulty with them. He cites a doorway being an inch too narrow and an employee wash basin set three inches too close to a door as reasons the CFIA has refused to pass the plant’s inspection. Officials at the agency are deliberately making life difficult under the guise of food safety, not because they need to, but simply because they can.
“Another plant could have been killing 700 to 800 cows a day by now, but the CFIA is dragging its feet.” He calls this harassment of the industry at a time when fast tracking is needed.
I’ve heard countless explanations why it is taking so long for the border to re-open to live cattle. I ask Neil if he understands the reason for the delay.
Neil explains that the Office Internationale des Epizooties (OIE) administers plant and animal sanitation rules for health and safety considerations under the World Trade Organization (WTO) agreements, developing a risk assessment code for member countries. It has five categories of BSE risk, ranging from BSE free to high risk.
With the support of the United States and Mexico, Canada began immediately petitioning the OIE to re-write the rules to take into account updated, scientific understanding of the disease. Countries that have taken steps to manage the risk of BSE should not be penalized by having their borders closed because of one or two cases. The guidelines recently changed so that a country deemed minimal risk can have one positive BSE case for every one million adult animals in the previous 12 months, and retain low-risk status. Canada is waiting to be officially declared a minimal risk country.
He is quick to say that the Canadian government does not hesitate to enforce these same rules against others, closing borders immediately upon the discovery of BSE. Some call this an artificial trade barrier, while others say it is a necessary step if a country considered BSE free wants to keep the confidence of other BSE-free trading partners. Neil believes the Canadian government is as guilty as anybody when it comes to playing politics with BSE and border restrictions.
“We did it to other countries and now they are doing it to us,” he says.
The fact that the U.S. border did open in September 2003 to boxed beef from animals under 30 months of age is both a credit to the USDA and a compliment to our industry.
“Canada is the only country to ever export to a BSE-free country after only three months of trade stoppage,” he says, adding that ranchers saw prices in the fall as high as $1.30 a pound. No other producers in the world have been that lucky. He wants producers to understand that things could have been a lot worse.
I ask where the U.S. producer group Ranchers Cattlemen Action Legal Fund (R-CALF) fits into the puzzle.
Again, Neil blames the CFIA. He explains that strict regulations imposed by the government make it difficult for American producers to do business here. There are two cattle diseases in the U.S.—Aniplasmosis and Blue Tongue—that do not exist in Canada. These diseases are transmitted by insects which cannot survive our harsh winters. Blue Tongue is the more serious of the two because it is considered untreatable and sometimes fatal. Aniplasmosis can be treated with antibiotics and animals usually recover. Neither disease is contagious or a threat to human health, but Canadian regulations mean American livestock accepted into Canada have to first go through rigorous testing and quarantine before they can touch Canadian soil. The CCA has been fighting against these restrictions for years. They want the diseases placed on the annual notifiable list just as they are in the U.S., which allows the industry to take responsibility for managing the risk. Neil believes that if it wasn’t for the rigid hand of the CFIA, R-CALF likely wouldn’t exist.
He says that for 17 years, cattlemen in the northern states have been watching thousands of trucks filled with our cattle passing through their states, and for the last 15 of those years knew there was no scientific basis for the restrictions toward them. Neil calls this Canada’s lesson to start basing decisions on science, too.
“They wanted to trade up here but the costs made it near impossible. So, they got mad and then got organized and now we have R-CALF.”
Suspecting R-CALF would find reasons to petition to keep the border closed, Neil shared this fear with the federal agriculture ministers and anyone else in government who’d listen. Again he recommended the relaxation of these import rules and even spoke to Brian Evans, one of the top men at the CFIA.
“I had him cornered on a plane, so he couldn’t get away from me,” he laughs. “But he still refused to move on it, even after having explained it to him in plain English. Unbelievable, really. I’d rather deal with Revenue Canada than the CFIA.”
Finally, with mounting pressure due to the prolonged border closure, the CFIA was forced to address the issue and relaxed the restrictions earlier this year, but the damage was already done.
While on the topic of the CFIA, I ask his opinion about how the McCreas were treated.
Neil scowls and shakes his head.
He explains that the CFIA came to him once, concerned that Mel wasn’t going to give up the animals. Neil phoned Mel and they had a long chat and, of course, Mel understood; he was just angry and frustrated. Afterward, Neil phoned the CFIA and told them that there would be no problems at the McCreas.
Neil looks past me, focusing on the wall over my shoulder, rubbing his moustache as he recalls that evening’s news broadcast.
Apparently, the CFIA arrived at the McCrea house shortly after they spoke, flanked by RCMP officers, with the media and film crew close behind. Neil hated watching Mel’s concern for his cattle being mocked.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if Mel never spoke to me again,” he says. “After the fact, it looked like I was conspiring with those bastards against him, which I sure in hell was not.”
As we settle into our chairs after supper, I ask if there is a business more complex than the cattle industry.
Marilyn raises her eyebrows as she ponders the question. Neil tilts his head slightly and thinks. It appears that nobody has ever asked this before. We debate the complexities of lumber and the auto industry, concluding that dealing in live animals adds a complexity otherwise missing from most big business. In Canada, the beef industry was worth $30 billion to the economy in 2002. Unlike chickens, eggs, hogs and milk, cattle production is not managed by a marketing board. In fact, those two words will quickly raise the ire of a true cattleman.
I need to understand why.
“We regulate ourselves,” he replies, explaining that supply management of beef would be the ruination of the industry, because orderly marketing is considered subsidization by trading partners, and huge duties would be imposed on our meat, making Canadian beef and live cattle less competitive. For supply management to work, quotas would have to be established, and that would shrink the industry to half the size in order to eliminate the reliance on exports. Many producers would be forced out of business, resulting in a waste of the natural prairie grasslands that are good for little else. Neil calls proponents of the idea selfish and stupid.
We debate this and other issues long into the night. Marilyn shows me the guest bedroom and it isn’t long before I’m tucked under a snug, homemade quilt, listening to the wind outside whistling through the coulee.
The next morning, I wake to the relentless wind and the glow of a sun halfway up. Its reflection has cast everything outside in a silver blue sheen. I emerge from the room to the quiet sounds of morning that begin in the kitchen. A light glows golden and the smell of fresh coffee adds to the cozy feeling of a warm house on a winter morning.
Neil stifles a cough to keep it from echoing throughout the still house. He is standing gazing out the window, enjoying his first smoke of the day.
“Some men have girlfriends or cabins at the lake,” he says, taking a sip of coffee. “That’s my vice right there. My horses.”
I peer out the window to see the animals looking back in at him. Knowing Neil a bit better today, I suspect that these are expensive purebreds. The stormy northwest wind whips pellets of freezing rain against the window. Two more inches of snow have fallen and it is starting to blow.
We talk about the prairies and why he lives here. He admits that the raw beauty of the place is something he’s gotten used to, but it isn’t something he ever takes for granted.
“Sure glad we did those cattle yesterday,” he says. Most of his life he’s made decisions based on gut feeling, and now confirms that once again his instincts were right.
We sit for awhile in silence, then I tell him how much I like their coffee. He brightens, saying that there is a natural flowing spring that supplies drinking water to the house.
Marilyn joins us and Neil offers to make breakfast. Once we’ve had our fill of coffee, we decide to take a tour of the ranch. As we climb into his diesel pick-up, Neil admits that BSE is not the first hardship that Canadian cattlemen have faced.
He tells me that in 1951 calves were bringing 33 cents a pound, and a year later there was a Foot and Mouth outbreak that caused prices to drop to 11 cents. It took until 1965 before they saw prices around 30 cents again.
Ploughing along prairie trails filled with snow, he shifts into four-wheel drive to climb a steep incline. I hold on as the truck bounces along the rough pasture.
“I went to the banker in 1972 when we wanted to buy the ranch and he told me that we’d never make it,” he says, slowing the truck to a stop. The trail ahead continues for another truck length, then the earth falls away. “This here is likely the prettiest spot on the ranch,” he says, nodding for me to go out and take a look. As soon as I’m out of the lee of the truck, the wind grabs ahold of me and whips ice pellets against my face. I go only as far out as necessary to glance over the edge. The water churns a few hundred feet below as the snow tries frantically to fill up the valley. I imagine how beautiful this spot would be in the summer.
I climb back into the truck and as Neil turns around and begins following our trail back toward the house, he finishes his story, saying that in the fall of 1973 he was offered 67 cents a pound for his steer calves and 75 cents for the light calves. He figured that price was too low, so he held on to them and wintered them. In February he was offered 38 cents, so he took it and ran, but there were lots of guys who wouldn’t. By May, calves were selling for 25 cents a pound.
“We had a couple of really good years, but then that wreck happened. We just dug in our heels and cut back. We didn’t hire any help and did all the work ourselves. Marilyn went five years without a new dress or a new pair of shoes.”
Neil takes me to the other side of the river where he suspects the cows might be. Sure enough, we find them sheltering in a bluff of trees along a stream that feeds into the river. We sit and watch the cows for a few minutes, beautiful black animals that stand quietly watching us back.
He explains he’s expanded numerous times since buying the place from his uncle, and now runs 1,200 cows, mainly Black Angus. A good portion are purebreds. Since he calves on the grass, he uses easy calving, longhorn bulls on the heifers. He claims to have a 95% calving rate and says that “my cows work for me, I don’t work for them.”
On the way back, I point to a set of four old wooden wagon wheels in the field near the barn. I’ve been looking for three years for a set to use as ornamentation in the large flower garden along the south side of my house. He smiles at the frivolity of this, but drives over so I can take a look. Once again, I step out into the storm, but am thrilled to find good oak wheels set snug in the rim, and about the size I’m looking for.
I ask if he’ll sell them to me as I climb back in, breathless from fighting the snow and wind.
He laughs, telling me I can have them. All I have to do is come back to pick them up. I can hardly believe my luck!
“If I had a dollar for every time I’ve given that set of wheels away. . .” he chuckles as he swings the truck back onto the trail.
Neil asks where I’m heading as I load my bag and camera into the car. He’s standing in the doorway of the garage, with his hands in his jean pockets, stocking feet on the cold cement floor.
I tell him there are people I’d like to see in Swift Current.
“Well, if you get the chance, go and stay at the old Commercial Hotel in Maple Creek. You can’t do a story about the cattle industry without going to old Cow Town,” he says.
I nod that I will, then wave a quick goodbye as I pull the car door shut and turn up the heat before backing away.
I drive for awhile along the unmarked roads, distracted by thoughts about cattlemen surviving hard times without asking for help. They wear their independence like a badge of honour and if BSE has done anything, it’s hurt pride as much as bank accounts.
Suddenly, the sights along the road look unfamiliar. I rifle through my bag and pull out a compass; that helps me get back on track before I drain the tank driving in the wrong direction. I fill up in Herbert, then pull onto the Trans-Canada Highway west.
The clerk at the motel in Swift Current gives me a quiet room along the back of the lot and I spend the rest of the afternoon writing. I make a few calls that evening.
A friend told me more than once that if I go to Saskatchewan, I have to call Bob Switzer. I flip through my book to the page with Switzer’s phone number and pick up the phone. A gruff voice on the other end agrees to meet with me the next morning, but says he only has a half hour to spare because he’s going to a cattle sale in Maple Creek afterward. I can’t believe my luck again! We agree to meet there instead and I hang up the phone, thankful for those moments when things seem to fall neatly into place.
NOTE: After the book was released, I sent a copy to Neil and Marilyn. He later called to say that those wagon wheels were still sitting in the field waiting for me. All I had to do was come with the truck and pick them up. I promised that I would, but never made it back.