Oh, what a beautiful mornin’! Oh, what a beautiful day!: An overview of the first decade of the flying farmer movement in Canada

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Eldon Douglas McEarchern working on his agricultural Piper PA-18 Super Cub as one of his sons watched on, Carman, Manitoba. Anon., “Les fermiers volants de l’ouest canadien.” Le Samedi, 22 October 1960, 25.

With fall and the end of a growing season upon us, in the northern hemisphere of our embattled planet at least, it occurred to yours truly that an agricultural topic might be a good idea, especially if it could be linked to the one true and great topic, aviation. I shall be brief, and… Who’s laughing? Who?! Just for that, there will be a test.

The first half of the 1950s saw the birth of an important player in the aerial application industry in Canada, the flying farmer movement. This powerful movement was born in Oklahoma, in the United States, in 1944, with a meeting of 40 or so flying farmers, the founding members of the Oklahoma Flying Farmers Association. The interest this gathering caused was such that the National Flying Farmers Association Incorporated (NFFA) was incorporated in December 1945. Representatives from no less than 16 states took part in the first national convention, held in August 1946. By the fall of 1956, 36 American states and 3 Canadian provinces had chapters in the NFFA. Close to 6 000 men, women and, in some cases, children belonged to the association. This number had reached 7 000 by 1963. In 1966, International Flying Farmers Incorporated (IFF), a new name adopted in 1961, had no less than 47 chapters, including 4 in Canada.

Despite this change, which reflected the growth of the association, the main goals of NFFA / IFF remained the same: to promote the use of aircraft in agriculture and sponsor both education and research in agricultural aviation. The members were still people, farmers, ranchers and the like, who got at least 51 % of their earnings from agriculture-related work on the one hand, and flew for either business and / or pleasure on the other.

The Canadian side of the movement owed its origins to an invitation the NFFA sent to a small number of Alberta farmers in 1954. Only 7 people from that province took part in the tour of Florida and Cuba the association had organised. Four of them were farmers: Arthur Henry “Art” Frankish and William “Bill” Heninger from Foremost, Ray T. Heninger from Wrentham, and Hans Reich from Lethbridge. There were also 3 non-farmers in the Alberta team: Robert “Bob” Charlton, a transport manager from Fort Macleod, S. “Mel” Fengstad, a former cowboy and rancher who owned a motel in Lethbridge, and Blake Rothel, a welder from Lethbridge.

This small group left Lethbridge in November 1954. It flew south for 3 days and joined the American groups in Florida. All in all, there were approximately 115 aircraft carrying 300 or so hundred people. During the tour, Fengstad acted as an ambassador of good will. He gave speeches and invited the American flying farmers to visit Alberta in 1955, the year of that province’s Golden Jubilee. Fengstad proved very convincing. In fact, the executive of the NFFA agreed to hold its next official tour in Alberta, in October 1955.

The Americans also formulated plans to organise a new chapter of their organization in Alberta – the first in Canada. This group, the Alberta Flying Farmers, was formed in Lethbridge in February 1955. Thirty-five pilots took part in the founding meeting. Roy T. Heninger was seemingly elected president.

Incidentally, another chapter of NFFA / IFF, the Saskatchewan Flying Farmers, was formed, in Estevan, in 1955. It soon had no less than 300 members.

Further developments were to improve the flying farmers’ lot in Canada. As early as 1947 or so, for example, the Department of Transport had allowed farmers who wanted to treat their own land with their own light / private airplanes to do so, within a 40 kilometre (25 mile) radius from their farms, without having to worry about any special license. They could also help their neighbours, as long as they operated free of charge and remained within the 40 kilometre (25 mile) limit. In 1957, the Department of Transport agreed to allow flying farmers to work on their neighbours’ farms for a fee, under certain conditions. These flying farmers would eventually be known as exempted operators. It was said at the time that the new rules would lead to a tremendous increase in aerial application in Canada.

As of 1957, though, there were only 29 privately-operated aerial application aircraft in Canada, all of them located in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. The figures for the 27 private owners of these aircraft showed that, of the 48 260 hectares (119 270 acres) they had treated, close to 30 % had been treated free of charge, possibly by farmers helping themselves or a neighbour.

By late March of 1962, 265 or so aircraft were used for agricultural purposes, either partially or else exclusively, in Canada. Slightly less than 51 % of their flying hours had been spent dealing with agricultural missions. Personal and pleasure flights, on the other hand, represented no less than 35 % of the total number of flying hours. These percentages tend to suggest that many of the 265 or so agricultural aircraft present in Canada were in fact converted light / private airplanes belonging to farmers.

One of these flying farmers was Eldon Douglas McEarchern of Carman, Manitoba, Mr. Manitoba Farmer of 1972 – the very gentleman we saw in the photograph at the beginning of this article.

Said photograph was one of the images found within Photostory 267 – Canada’s Flying Farmers Flying High, which was dated 6 September 1960. It had been produced by the National Film Board (NFB), a world famous federal institution mentioned in July 2018, November 2018 and July 2019 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee.

More than 800 photostories were produced between 1955 and 1971, on a bewildering variety of topics, by the Still Photography Division of the NFB. Each of these combined some text and some photographs to tell a story, a Canadian story to be more precise. The photostories were published by an equally bewildering variety of Canadian French and English language newspapers and magazines, but back to our story.

Are we ready for a digression, my reading friend? The vice president of IFF in 1962 was none other than Walter Rodney “Stubbs” Ross, and… The name does not ring a bell, you say? Seriously? He, George Graham Ross, Junior, and John Campbell “Jack” Ross, all 3 of them flying farmers from Manyberries, Alberta, were the sons of George Graham Ross, Senior, a First World War pilot who did not see combat and a farmer who flew for more than 40 years. Owner of Lost River Ranches Limited, the Ross family was one of the most important ranching families in southern Alberta, with 6 000 heads of cattle and about 115 000 hectares (about 285 000 acres) of land – a total larger than the total areas of Montréal, Québec, and Toronto, Ontario, in 2020.

“Stubbs” Ross later became chairperson of the Air Transport Association of Canada. He got the position as a result of his significant involvement in commercial aviation. Having obtained his commercial pilot license, Ross acquired Lethbridge Air Services Limited, in 1963, which became Time Airways Limited, in 1969, then Time Air Limited, a successful Canadian regional airline. Partly owned by Pacific Western Airlines Limited (PWA), another successful Canadian regional airline, from 1986 on, Time Air was one of the airlines caught in the restructuring of the Canadian airline industry which began around that time. Even though its name officially disappeared around 1998, Time Air arguably lives on within Jazz Aviation Limited Partnership, one of the most important regional airlines in Canada, and back to our story. Really.

A farmer who wanted to treat his own land or that of his neighbours, free of charge, with his own light / private airplane and within the 40 kilometre (25 mile) limit, could still do so in the early 1960s, without any special license. No test or examination, for using toxic chemicals for example, was required. The only things a farmer needed were a private pilot license for himself and a certificate of airworthiness for the aircraft. In other words, our farmer friend could fly without having to meet any of the conditions imposed on commercial operators. As may well be imagined, this competition reduced the amount of work available for small aerial application companies in Western Canada who thoroughly resented the farmers’ blanket exemption.

Even so, Western flying farmers were not entirely happy. Indeed, they claimed that the amount of aerial work they could perform was limited by Department of Transport regulations which limited their operations to the 40 kilometre (25 mile) limit. This was a serious restriction, claimed the Alberta Flying Farmers in the spring of 1963. As a result, the fleet of light / private airplanes they owned was not used as logically or as economically as it could be. This meant that, of the 21 000 000 hectares (52 000 000 acres) of land under cultivation in Western Canada in 1962, less than 1 % was being treated from the air.

That very same year, the Manitoba Flying Farmers requested that the Air Transport Board, an organisation which fulfilled licensing and regulatory functions in Canada, eliminate the 40 kilometre (25 mile) limit. In their answer, the board and the Department of Transport indicated that this was not possible. Furthermore, they pointed out that there was a great deal of pressure coming from commercial aerial applicators who wanted tighter restrictions on the flying farmers’ activities. At their 1964 annual convention in Portage-la-Prairie, Manitoba, the Manitoba Flying Farmers passed another resolution, which was no more successful than the previous one.

Further details on this question came to the fore during the annual meeting of the Air Transport Association of Canada in Victoria, British Columbia, later that year. Mervyn Matthew “Merv” Fleming, controller of civil air operations and regulations at the Department of Transport, and A.S. MacDonald, a senior advisor at the Air Transport Board, both expressed concern at the activities of the flying farmers. The former worried about potential safety problems while the latter wondered whether or not the rights of commercial operators were violated. This whole problem, they said, was being studied to see if modifications to the existing rules were necessary.

By the summer of 1965, the effort put in both crop dusting and spraying had greatly increased in Canada. More than 400 000 hectares (1 000 000 acres) of land was treated, for example – more than twice the area treated in 1962. Unfortunately, the number of mishaps had gone up as well. Because of this, the Department of Transport suggested that it might be a good idea to increase the level of qualification required of pilots involved in this type of business. Flying farmers groups in Canada opposed the suggestion.

An amendment to the Commercial Air Services Regulations, which became effective in February 1967, forced all flying farmers with a special exemption to keep the Air Transport Board informed of all their activities, and this on a continuing basis. From then on, each and every one of them would also have to apply for an annual renewal of his exemption from the regulations dealing with the commercial operation of an aerial application service.

These restrictions did not go down too well in the flying farmer community. Indeed, they were one of the main topics of discussions at a meeting of the Canadian branches of IFF, in Brandon, Manitoba, in May 1967, which was held in parallel with the annual convention of the Manitoba Flying Farmers. The flying farmers’ frustration was also clearly visible at the 1967 annual meeting of the Saskatchewan Flying Farmers held in Regina, Saskatchewan, in November.

Delegates complained that, among other things, the new rules did not exempt weed-spraying. They criticised them for not excluding farmers who used their aircraft for both transportation and spraying, and for not permitting collective ownership of a single agricultural aircraft. The latter point could even be contrary to the spirit of the co-operatives act dealing with machinery, they said. As well, some flying farmers suggested that the change would prevent them from flying the larger and more modern purpose-built agricultural aircraft, like the Piper PA-25 Pawnee or the Cessna Agwagon, which could be used for both spraying and dusting.

A subversive thought if I may. The incomparable Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, Ontario, may want to consider the possibility of acquiring a purpose-built agricultural aircraft like the Pawnee or the Agwagon. One with a cool career, of course. Just sayin’. (Hello, boss lady!)

If one was to believe Varno Cedric Westersund of Blackie, Alberta, long-time executive secretary of the Canadian Flying Farmers, an organisation (?) whose nature I know nothing about, and executive secretary of IFF for some time during the 1960s, the main force behind the new regulations was a small group of commercial operators from Saskatchewan who owned less than 30 aircraft, many of them conversions built in the 1940s. Their hope was that, by grounding a number of farmers, they would increase their share of the market. This was utterly false, said Westersund. In fact, the commercial operators’ main competitors were not the flying farmers, but cheaper ground-based spraying rigs.

Even though representatives of the flying farmer movement and the Canadian Transport Commission, the organisation which oversaw transport activities in Canada, met on more than one occasion, the new rules appear not to have been substantially modified.

All this talk about activities in Western Canada did not mean that nothing whatsoever was happening in other parts of the country. A fair amount of flying took place in Ontario, for example. Indeed, the Ontario Flying Farmers, formed in 1963, was the very first chapter in this movement to be created in Eastern Canada. It remained the only one until January 1973, when the St. Lawrence & Ottawa Valley Flying Farmers chapter, the fifth in Canada but no longer in existence as of 2020, was created. The other 4 were, from West to East, in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario.

A very different type of association made its appearance in early 1966, in March to be precise. Unlike that of the Ontario Agricultural Aviation Association or the Western Agricultural Pilots Association, two associations which no longer existed as of 2020, the membership of the Manitoba Aerial Applicators Association (MAAA) was primarily made up of flying farmers. Its organising meeting was held in parallel with a one-day aerial spraying course at the Agricultural Extension Centre of Brandon, Manitoba. The MAAA was still going strong as of 2020.

Another agricultural aviation training course was held, for the second time, in Regina, in March 1966. Almost 90 people registered for the event, which was co-sponsored by the Saskatchewan Flying Farmers and the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture. A similar course was offered a hotel in Regina, in March 1967. Incidentally, at that time, the Saskatchewan Flying Farmers were the largest chapter of the aforementioned IFF.

The flying farmer movement continued to evolve over the following years and decades, but that’s another story, for another day / century.

You will undoubtedly be pleased to hear (read?) that IFF still existed as of 2020. It counted about 7 000 members, sometimes rather old. Four of IFF’s many chapters were located in Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Saskatchewan. Would you believe that the 3 Prairie Provinces made up one of the 9 regions of IFF?

Better yet, would you believe that the president of the Alberta flying Farmers as of 2020 was none other than Rosella Bjornson, the first female first officer hired by a North American scheduled airline and the first female jet airliner pilot in Canada? You may be pleased to hear (read?) that yours truly may produce a text on this remarkable individual at some point in the future.

And now for the test. True or false, nicotine powder was sprayed from aircraft to kill insects no later than the 1930s?

The answer to that question is… True, which is sort of scary and sad given the number of smokers on planet Earth.

See ya later.

And yes, the title of this article was inspired by the opening song of the spectacularly successful American musical Oklahoma!, which opened in March 1943, slightly more than a year before the birth of the flying farmer movement, in, you will remember, Oklahoma!

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Rénald Fortier