A cold rain was falling on the afternoon of April 26, 1969 when nine farmers gathered in front of the Canadian National Railway station in Fergus.
Passenger service still existed on the line, and would for another 18 months. But these men were not waiting for that train, which in any case, was not due for another five or six hours.
Rather, the men were waiting for a freight train. Soon a headlight to the west indicated its arrival. For 1969 it was an unusual sight. The train consisted of three flatcars and a caboose. The load was a shipment of nine tractors, completing the last leg of their journey from England.
For the past century-and-a-half, North American farmers have struggled against constantly rising input costs and stagnant or falling commodity prices. To stay afloat they have had to constantly struggle to keep their costs down and to improve efficiency.
This shipment of tractors was one measure local farmers took to cut their costs. Machinery prices had risen steadily through the 1960s, far faster than increases in the prices for their crops and livestock.
The tractors brought in that day came from England. The Ontario Federation of Agriculture was behind the program.
Directors of that organization estimated that farmers could save some $2,000 per tractor by bringing them from England, even after all the transportation and other costs were factored into the equation. A North American tractor sold for an average of $5,800 at that time, so the saving represented a significant amount of money.
The man behind the importation scheme was Ken Graham of the Hillsburgh area. He had already organized a shipment of seven tractors to Ontario. Those arriving in Fergus that day were the second batch.
Graham had lined up the orders and then went to Great Britain to arrange the shipment through a dealer in Ireland. British makers sent the tractors to this dealer.
There were seven tractors from British Ford, and one each from Nuffield and David Brown. The Irish dealer arranged for shipment by ship to Halifax, and then by rail to Fergus.
The shipment of tractors left Ireland on April 9. The original plan had been to send the shipment by ship all the way to Toronto, but a threatened strike on the Seaway resulted in the decision to off-load the tractors in Halifax.
Even with the change, the voyage for the tractors had been a quick one, taking only 17 days.
The importation of the tractors was not an Ontario Federation of Agriculture program, but one that had been set up by Graham himself. Several OFA members approached him with the idea, and many more wanted to be included when he worked out the details of the importation scheme.
The argument used by Graham in support of the scheme was an old one, first propounded more than a century earlier by free trade advocates among farmers.
“If farmers were expected to sell their products on world markets at prevailing prices, they should be able to purchase their inputs on the same world market.”
The farmers who had tractors in that shipment lived over a fairly wide area. Only two were close to the Fergus station: Len Jefferson of RR3 Fergus and Murray Cox of RR4 Rockwood. Both picked up their tractors on the day they arrived at Fergus. Others had been purchased by farmers in the Palmerston, Shelburne and Orangeville districts.
To minimize rail transportation costs, it was most economical to have the entire shipment consigned to Fergus.
There were a few problems with the delivery. The tractors arrived with no oil in their crankcases, though there was fuel in the fuel tanks. The buyers had to get some engine oil before they could attempt to start the tractors.
There was no sign of ignition keys for any of the tractors. As well, some of the tractors had sustained damage during shipment, and some had some missing parts.
Len Jefferson was disappointed to discover that his tractor had smaller wheels than he had specified, and that the cab was a canvas one, rather than the metal he had wanted.
Nevertheless, the farmers seemed pleased with their purchases, and the fact that they had received them at the start of the planting season.
Ken Graham, the OFA man, was pleased with the arrival of the tractors. He predicted that many more farmers would take advantage of the savings in importing tractors from Great Britain.
There were some obvious potential problems with the importation scheme. Farmers could not rely on local dealers for parts or for service. That could be a major problem at times when the tractors needed quick repair at planting and harvest time.
Very little further information on the tractor importation plan seems to have survived in the public record. Later in the 1970s several offshore manufacturers entered the Canadian market, and set up dealer networks. But little seems to have been recorded about the experiences of the direct imports of tractors by local farmers in the spring of 1969.
The major Canadian manufacturer of the time, Massey-Ferguson, was beginning to encounter problems by the time of the importations into Wellington County.
The demise of that firm, and problems at other North American manufacturers, left a huge vacuum in the Canadian farm implement industry that was soon filled by several offshore manufacturers.
The subject of tractors and implements over the past half century is a most interesting one.
There have been some written works on the manufacturers themselves, but the experience of individual farmers, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, and implement dealers in coping with the changes deserves more attention.
It would be most useful to historians if some of them would commit their experiences to paper.