Twelve hours after Regional meeting, Marv Junkin hit the fields
BY SAMUEL PICCOLO The VOICE
A little over 12 hours after being applauded in Niagara Regional Council chambers in mid-November—and receiving a forced apology from Mayor Dave Augustyn—the resigned Pelham Town Councillor Marvin Junkin was standing in a muddy field in North Pelham, pulling dirt from the teeth of his soy combine. Junkin’s farm, where he once had dairy cows and now farms cash crops, is in North Pelham too, but on this day he was a few kilometers away, working someone else’s field.
“These are not good combining conditions,” he said as he pulled clumps of mud and soy stalk from the jagged metal.
Junkin, who would undergo a knee replacement a week later, limped back around the cutter bar to the ladder on the side of the machine, and climbed the six or so feet up to the cabin, bits of dirt falling off his boots and smearing on the rungs.
Junkin settled in the driver’s seat and wiped his hands on a rag that was white and relatively clean, a curious choice considering that his coat was old and torn and generously splattered with mud. He adjusted his toque to sit above his ears, pulled a two-litre bottle of Coca-Cola from beside the chair, took a drink, and then started the harvester moving again.
As it lurched forward, Junkin kept one hand on the wheel and the other a lever that moved the cutter up and down.
“It’s this mud,” he said. “If I didn’t have four-wheel drive, I wouldn’t even be able to move. I have to make sure that the blade doesn’t pick up too much dirt, or else I’ll have to get out and unclog it again.”
The field, which looked from a distance to be relatively smooth, was full of small undulations. When Junkin descended one of them, he could lower the blade closer to the ground, and cut more of the soy plants, but when the ground sloped up again he raised the cutter sharply to keep it from biting into the earth. When he hit one of these inclines, the RPMs on the engine dropped and a blaring alarm sounded inside of the cabin.
Junkin was on the lookout out for rocks, too.
“There’s a trap on this combine that keeps them out, but it doesn’t always work,” he said. “Worse are the pieces of wood. The rocks are the right shape to fit in the trap, but the wood isn’t, so it goes all in the machine and really messes things up.”
Junkin saw a piece of fence post amid the soy.
“He’s taken out a lot of the fences, which is fine, but in the spring when the planting machines are out here, they drag the wood out into the field. And then it’s here when it’s combining time.”
The harvester kept plodding forward.
On a good day, when the ground is dry and a field is relatively clear of rocks and wood, Junkin can cover ten acres in an hour. “Today, I’ll only be able to do five,” he said.
Most farmers like to have soy harvested by the end of October, but Junkin had been busy and now he was running out of time. The first heavy snowfall will crush the tops of the beans and compact them down, making it difficult to combine them at all.
Junkin turned his head to look in the back of the combine, where the grain tank was nearly overflowing.
“It’s time to go unload this,” he said, steering the harvester onto a path that led out of the field and off around a line of trees. “Too bad that the bin can’t be closer to the field, so I wouldn’t have to spend so much time driving around. But a big truck has to come pick up that bin, and when the ground’s soft it wouldn’t even be able to come back here.”
After several minutes, he pulled next to a long, wide metal shipping container covered by a roll-top. An ATV came speeding down the adjacent street, and a man in coveralls got off, climbed up on the bin, and unrolled the top. Junkin pressed another control inside the cabin. A spout extended from the top of the combine and stretched over the bin. He released a switch, and a great flow of soy beans started up.
The man in coveralls beckoned him to move back and forth, alternating the location of the flow so that it didn’t override the bin’s edges. Then, suddenly, there was a clang and the beans stopped.
“Damn,” said Junkin, turning off the combine and reaching to open the cabin’s door. “I think I broke something.”
“Oh, Marv, you broke something!” called the coveralled man, still standing on the side of the bin, his weathered face at eye-level with the cab. Junkin climbed carefully down the ladder and opened a flap on the side of the combine. Underneath was a box with its lid half-open, a crowbar sticking out of one end. Junkin rummaged around and pulled out a wrench, which he used to unscrew a gear in the machine’s guts above him.
He lay the gear nearby and, seeing that the something he had broken was a small pin, reached again into the box in search of a replacement. He tried fitting several small cylinders of steel in to the gap, which was about two inches long and a quarter inch wide. Each time that a cylinder didn’t fit, he dropped it back in the box and tried another, until he had found one sufficiently snug.
Junkin banged it in with a hammer, and then tapped the gear back into place. He produced the wrench again and pulled on the nut until it was tight. Within five minutes, he had returned all of the tools to the box, lowered the open flap, and clambered back into the cab.
“Now, let’s see if that’ll work,” he said, hitting the button again. It did.
Once the last of the combine’s four-ton tank had been emptied into the nearly full 20-ton bin, Junkin waved to the coveralled farm hand and drove back to the field where he had been before.
He passed by many acres that he had already harvested, acres that were lightly littered with the stalks and refuse that the machine spits out the back.
“It’s interesting to think,” said Junkin, “that a combine generally wastes about three percent of its intake out the back. Everything that we produce in Ontario, that’s what combines in the US piss out the back. That’s how big that country is. All of that grain along the 401—from Windsor to Cornwall—is what the US wastes.”
Though Junkin was combining this field as a custom job, and still grows hay and cash crops at his farm, at 64 he is mostly retired. Several years ago, he sold his cows and the 35 dairy tags that he had, the last of the dairy farmers in Pelham.
“I didn’t want to be one of those guys who died in the barn,” he said. “Some people want to do that, and that’s fine, but I did not want that to be me.”
None of his four children were interested in taking over the business.
“They all worked on the farm growing up, and they all liked it,” he said. “But when you’re a dairy farmer, when it’s five o’clock—it doesn't matter if you're on the beach, at a party, or at a bar—it’s time to milk the cows. So I don’t blame them for wanting to do something else.”
He launched into a detailed explanation about dairy farming, about the months when cows can be milked, and when they must again calve in order to keep producing.
“It’s like most things,” he said. “It seems very simple…and then once you start looking at it closely you realize just how complicated it is.”
Junkin said too that ever-greater regulations were making it more and more difficult to farm efficiently.
“Everyone wants to live forever, and they want to find a reason why they’re not,” he said.
Before he retired, he said that new changes being implemented would have necessitated at least $100,000 in upgrades to his operation.
“Now they’re talking about parts per billion in the milk, and that gets a little bit ridiculous,” he said.
After less than an hour, he had again filled up the combine’s grain tank. Pulling back down the laneway, he saw that the bin in which he had deposited his earlier stock had been towed away, and so he turned and drove in towards the barn, where another bin was waiting. He gnashed the gears, the combine grunting as he drove up next to the empty bin, switching on the unloader and starting a steady flow.
Somewhere deep inside the machine the pin that he had bent in place an hour earlier rattled away. But it held in place, and the grain kept coming. ◆