An Ontario farm couple’s cross-country tractor tour to show support for Canada’s dairy sector has ended in tragedy on a highway northwest of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
Henk & Bettina Schuurmans set off on the journey of a lifetime across Canada at the end of June. On Monday morning, it ended in tragedy, when their John Deere 6430 was struck by a semi-trailer at around 9 a.m. on a rural stretch of highway between Saskatoon and Langham, Sask. Bettina, 55, was killed in the crash. Henk was rushed to hospital in critical condition and was stabilized by doctors. The semi driver was not injured in the crash, and Northbound lanes of the highway were still closed as of noon Monday.
The Schuurmans were driving a John Deere 6430 tractor carrying a giant plastic cow and calf — nicknamed “Maple” and “Minnie” — from their farm to the West Coast as part of the “Canadian Milk Tour.” A sign on the back of the tractor encouraged drivers to “Honk to support quality milk produced by Canadian farm families.” The Schuurmans, who dairy farm with their family on Milk Wave Dairy in Elmira, ON, are making the trek across the country to promote the dairy supply management system in Canada and how it affects family farms like theirs. They strongly believe, along with many smaller dairy producers across the country, that removing the supply management system will effectively end family farms.
The tragic news on Monday stunned the Schuurmans’ friends and family, who had cheered the couple on when they left their Elmira dairy farm more than two weeks ago. It has also shocked the Canadian dairy community and people who had encountered and supported the Schuurmans on their trek. Many people were following their tour on social media, as the couple and others posted photos using the hashtag #CdnMilkTour. Their passion was evident as they shared their story and handed out milk, buttons and information in every town they stopped. People were excited to see their tractor, along with “Maple” the cow, roll down the road.
With almost 1800 people following their journey on Twitter and countless more on Facebook, Henk and Bettina were uniting a country on their journey, joining people who share a common passion – love of the dairy industry. They weren’t sponsored, they shared their story because it was one they believed in. And now, saying “thank you” just doesn’t seem like enough.
“It’s a massive loss,” said Murray Sherk, a Dairy Farmers of Ontario board member who worked with Henk Schuurmans on the Waterloo Dairy Producers committee.
“Dairy farming was their life. That is what they lived for, and they were very passionate about it.”
One of the last people to see the couple before the accident was Mark Schwaerzle, who works at Saskview Farm Solutions. They had parked their tractor at his company’s shop over the weekend.
“They were in very good spirits. They were talking about all the nice people they’d met in Saskatoon, and we’re excited for the rest of their journey,” said Schwaerzle, who posted a video of the smiling Schuurmans leaving on Monday morning, just a few hours before he learned of the crash.
“It’s very hard. To be one of the last people to see them before they pushed off, it’s hard to wrap your head around.”
Anita Medl of SaskMilk said the dairy community across the nation is feeling the loss, and Saskatchewan farmers who had been hosting the couple and celebrating the trip “are crushed.”
“We spent time with them in Regina on the weekend,” she said.
“This is a tragic accident. These folks were so passionate about their industry. It’s a loss for all of us.”
The Schuurmans planned to take over a month to drive their tractor to the West Coast, as part of a campaign to draw attention to the supply management system for Canadian dairy farmers. A big, white sign affixed to the front of their John Deere read, “Keep my milk 100 % Canadian,” and one on the back read, “Honk to support quality milk produced by Canadian farm families.” They fixed a giant plastic cow, nicknamed Maple, to the back of their tractor, and documented their trip on social media along the way. The couple said they would camp and stay with other farmers along the way. They took their tractor through Tim Hortons drive-throughs and drove on the highway as a street-legal vehicle.
Travelling by tractor was a natural choice for the trip, he said.
“We decided biking is not good for our bodies, at our age. The car is kind of boring and motorcycle is not our thing,” Henk explained. “So we said, ‘We’re farmers. Why not by tractor?'”
The couple, who moved to Canada from the Netherlands in the mid-1980s, have five adult children. The couple has always been proud of their dairy farming roots, friends say, with nine generations of the family making milk dating back to 17th-century Holland. The Schuurmans had talked about completing an east coast leg of the tour to Halifax after finishing the trip to Vancouver and returning home for a son’s wedding later this summer.
Our sincerest condolences go out to Henk and the rest of the Schuurman family at this time. A GoFundMe page has been created by SaskMilk and Dairy Farmers of Ontario to raise funds for and show support to the Schuurmans family.