by Tom Van Dusen
AgriNews Staff Writer

OTTAWA – Leading up to the holidays, Peter Ruiter got a gift a lot of dairy farmers would appreciate… a new barn up and running.

While it wasn’t exactly gift-wrapped, the barn is clad in a seasonal bright red siding that would be right at home covering Santa’s workshop.

“All that’s missing is the ribbon,” Ruiter observed, explaining his new free-stall barn became operational just before Christmas.

The new structure at the Ruiter family’s suburban Blackrapids Farm replaces three old interconnected barns destroyed by fire in September, 2017, with damage estimated at $1-million. Replacement costs were $1-million for the building and another $1-million to equip and stock it.

What came following the fire was an outpouring of support and fundraising at a level rarely seen in the Ottawa agricultural community.

That’s because Ruiter made a lot of friends among farmers and city folk alike, serving as the face of agriculture in Ottawa; a face sitting on top of a six foot, nine inch. frame is a hard one to miss. His many fans maintain that Ruiter has always been there in a pinch and deserved the help.

A Go Fund Me campaign, a dinner/auction, and other donations brought in more than $200,000 to help the Ruiter family through the transition period: “Without it, I would have needed to work off-farm which would have delayed the new barn.” During construction, Ruiter served as his own general contractor, allowing him to maintain control of the project.

The new barn is housing – for now – 50 Holsteins… eight of which survived the fire in which 80 perished, and the rest acquired from a neighbouring farm; four cows were donated. To help cover barn financing costs, Ruiter is boarding 50 heifers and has capacity for 150 head in all: “I’ve never been that big before but I might be going there to help make it cost-effective.”

While Ruiter had milking in his former profitable operation down pat, there’s a learning curve in the new barn both for himself and the cows as they adapt to all the bells and whistles: “It sounds a little strange to say this, but I still miss the simplicity of the old setup.”  

Ruiter did a lot of soul searching with family members before deciding to rebuild. Eventually, he felt he wasn’t ready to retire at age 50 and the new barn took shape. The addition of Lely milking and Vector feeding robots in the new facility should help him stay in the business he loves – in which he started at age 13 – until he’s 75-80: “The robots really are useful in keeping stress off the knees, a dairy farmer’s most vulnerable point.”

Ruiter had to deal with a specific issue that most farmers don’t face when erecting a new barn. The building sits on leased property, in this case owned by the federal National Capital Commission which holds most of Ottawa’s Greenbelt land. 

The NCC has been supportive all the way, Ruiter maintained, and a “partnership” was struck whereby the agency owns the barn and the farmer everything in it; in conjunction with the partnership is a 25-year lease. The NCC has also committed to improvements in the brick house the family rents from it.

Back when the old structure was in place, Ruiter would go out every night at 10 p.m. to check on the cows and the equipment, feeling satisfied when everything was humming nicely. After the fire, it took him two weeks to kick the habit, a depressing one with only ruins to inspect. He’s still going out at 10 at night and, with a spanking new barn to walk through, some of that old satisfaction is creeping in once again.