Phillip Graham recalls trying to “save everything” before flooding occurred on his Sumas Prairie dairy farm.
But when the main dike broke a stone’s throw from his land, he saw a wave of water rushing towards him. At that point he had moved 240 cows from his 500+ herd and at that moment he knew he needed to make a quick selection.
“As soon as the wind blows, I’m out here in the yard and I see the waves. It’s like — awesome! — right here,” he said. “We drive trucks all day.”
Along with a worker and a trapped couple, he moved the calf to a heifer barn on slightly higher ground. The water keeps filling up under the barn and will eventually fill to a depth of several feet – he shows the water marks on the side of the barn with the top line near his shoulder.
Thankfully, on the Thursday of the flood (November 18th), they were able to get a small jet boat to the farm and begin rescuing the calves. Just a few at a time are transferred to trailers on the road, where they are trucked to the farm in Chilliwack with open arms. Volunteers and veterinarians have hot towels and hair dryers at the ready.
“They were a few weeks old when they left,” he said. “They’re really small.”
Some of them had little success.
But a year later, those rescued cows are giving birth to a new generation of calves. On a cold November morning, from the safety of the bunker in Heifer’s barn, Phillips’ interview about flood recovery was interrupted by an all-too-familiar farm voice.
Just a few feet away, a rescued cow is calmly giving birth to her calf.
Graham jumped up and helped pull the calf out and onto its mother’s head, where she quickly began bathing it. They don’t always need help, Graham explained, but this man was born at the door of the cubicle, so he wanted to help them.
Labor was over in a minute or two, and the farmer quickly checked on the calf.
“It’s a boy,” he said, his smile widening a mile.
The birth of a calf is always a special moment on the farm, but these cows have been through so much that it’s hard not to see the miracle.
Graham was not alone that day. Farmers in Sumas Prairie are doing everything they can to move their animals to safety, using every method possible, despite warnings and concerns from officials like the RCMP and BC SPCA.
Graham lost about 200 of his roughly 500 cows. Dairy farmers in the region lost a total of 420 cows. On average, there are around 23,000 cows on local farms.
Some 630,000 chickens and 12,000 pigs also died in the floods.
At the height of the floods, more than 1,100 farms were under evacuation orders or alerts, and 150 square kilometers of farmland were inundated. More than 6,000 cows were temporarily moved to different farms to keep them safe.
Outside Graham’s Heifer Barn on November 8, 2022, the prairie is sunny with winter winds. But on rainy days, Graham and other farmers returned to their flood days: the preparation and worry, the constant monitoring of the levees and the Sumas River, the instant flooding when the levees breached, and the weeks of cleanup that followed.
It took a month to clear the farm and get Graham’s dairy herd home again, and even longer to get the Grahams home.
While the disaster financial assistance program hasn’t worked out for Graham the way others have, he said it was the initial outpouring of volunteer help that really got them on the road to recovery.
He said that if he had to list them all, it would take several pages, but noted that the local church was very helpful, as was a large group of about 50 hunters and a group of students from Yale High School.
At one point, there were about 100 volunteers on his farm, and he watched in awe as they shoveled mud and repaired things quickly and efficiently.
He and his neighbors do worry about where the next breakthrough might be, the next time heavy rain fills the levee system, or if the Sumas River swells to high water again.
“We found the weakest link,” he said. “But it’s the rest that worries me.”
On November 8, Agriculture Minister Lana Popham visited some farms in the region. Most dairy and poultry farmers are now “back to normal” operations, with most annual crops planted as usual, but the sector is still “praying” for better weather this year, she told the publication.
Meanwhile, life at Graham’s Dairy goes on, new calves and more.
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