INVERARY, Ont. - In many parts of the country, the plight of the trucking industry is indelibly linked to the rise and fall of the local farming community.Nowhere is this more true than in the dairy h...
HANGING ON: Tim Cumpson says the industry goes in peaks and valleys – it’s currently on a down swing.
SPOTLESS : Millions of people literally eat right off Deltagro’s equipment – talk about maintenance.
INVERARY, Ont. – In many parts of the country, the plight of the trucking industry is indelibly linked to the rise and fall of the local farming community.
Nowhere is this more true than in the dairy hauling operations of eastern Ontario.
Tim Cumpson and Orrie Hogeboom, the owner/operators of four-truck Deltagro Inc., say the milk business is currently experiencing a time of turmoil thanks to the evaporation of many family-owned dairy farms.
“It gets scary when all of the farms start drying up,” says Cumpson. “(Your customer base) can erode pretty quickly … New farms don’t start up very often.”
Last year milk quota prices shot way up and a lot of farmers who were considering retirement sold out leading to further consolidation within the sector.
In other areas of the trucking industry, losing customers is bad, but you can go out and win new ones over with slick presentations and lower rates. This is not the case with milk fleets.
“The routes have been locked up for years,” he explains. All milk carriers act as agents of the Dairy Farmers of Ontario (DFO), which sets transportation and milk rates for truckers and farmers respectively.
“It’s similar to the Wheat Board,” explains Cumpson, “all of the milk is pooled together.”
The industry is so heavily regulated by the DFO the only way to get into the business is to buy an existing milk fleet. And with price tags that can run anywhere from about $400,000 to well into the millions, they don’t come cheap.
Cumpson admits realistically, the way most folk land in dairy hauling is through a family tie to the business.
He himself was driving for Hogeboom – the two happen to be cousins – when Deltagro went up for sale.
“Between he, I and the in-laws, we bought it back in 1987,” he says. Later in ’95, it was merged with C.W. Hogeboom and Son (the company Cumpson had previously driven for while cutting his teeth in the business).
The business typifies the way many milk haulers have evolved over the years.
In the ’40s, Hogeboom’s father bought a milk route from Cumpson’s grandfather.
At that time the milk was hauled in those cans that are such collectibles nowadays and the arrival of a modest 8,000-litre tanker truck was still some 20 years away
While Cumpson says his daughters, 13-year-old Tanya and 11-year-old Bailey, haven’t shown any interest in the business as of yet, there is a younger Hogeboom on the scene; Orrie’s son Corey has been involved for about nine years and is now a driver. So is Tim Edger, Hogeboom’s son-in-law.
Cumpson explains his drivers, who number six including him, are all certified milk graders, which is an important part of the job.
The Deltagro crew has been trained and tested on their ability to judge the sight and smell of unpasturized milk to help minimize health issues. Every five years, they also face a stringent refresher course.
“They inspect for foreign objects and off odors,” he says. “In the old days they used to drink it, but that’s a serious health hazard.”
As consolidation has impacted the farms, it has also moved through the rest of the business, too. The result is the DFO has pushed for fewer – yet larger – processing plants. This has impacted the drivers’ days, making trips to the drop-off points longer.
“We’re lucky, we haven’t been sent to Toronto yet,” says Cumpson. “We generally pick up in the Gananoque-Smiths Falls area and drop off anywhere from Belleville and Trenton in the west to Ingleside and Winchester in the east.”
Pushing the drivers to cover what amounts to approximately a 160-km radius hasn’t been a big problem.
“I see the over-the-road, highway guys out fighting tooth and nail,” he adds. “You won’t get rich doing this, but it’s steady and keeps the bills paid.”
Maybe one of the earliest forms of just-in-time delivery, the milk moves daily. He says working Christmas is tough but, “Until someone invents a five-day-a-week dairy cow,” it’s part of the job.
Unfortunately, the time sensitive nature of the business means you’re also driving in conditions not for the faint of heart.
During the ice storm of ’98, Deltagro trucks rolled on – accompanied by mobile generator trucks to power on-board Jabsco, rubber impeller-equipped pumps that were unable to tap into farm power due to downed powerlines.
“Everybody drove around with chainsaws in their cabs,” says Cumpson. “There were a number of roads where our drivers were the first to open them up after the storm – clearing fallen trees along the way.”
Despite these conditions, driver turnover with the Inverary, Ont.-based company is quite low. Delos Gipson, for example, has been with Hogeboom for approximately 30 years now.
Tough as nails
Milk haulers have to be tough to absorb the daily knocks of making 12 to 15 stops per day – no matter what the weather – and the equipment they rely on can be no less robust.
Deltagro’s fleet includes a trio of Sterling daycabs as well as one remaining Ford.
Maneuverability is a key concern when your shippers are all dairy farms. Cumpson explains he and his drivers never know what they’re going to be forced to back up around.
Visibility is also critical, he says because of the high level of activity at the pick up points.
“With everything from farm tractors and four-wheelers to horses and chickens trying to get in the way,” Cumpson says a cab with loads of visibility is critical to safe operation.
The company has begun spec’ing Tremcar tanks; the divided design allows the truckers to concentrate weight over the drive axles.
“It’s more nerve wracking than anything else,” he says
“Farm and side roads can be the last to get plowed, you can’t lose your footing on the first bit of ‘grease’ you hit.”
On the advice of their dealer, Deltagro has also started making the switch to Caterpillar C-10 engines. Power, efficiency and reliability topped the list of pros that precipitated their migration.
As for maintaining the company’s gear, Cumpson says everything is greased and tires are adjusted in-house on Monday nights.
Once every six weeks, Billy Smith, an independent, Kingston-based mechanic, comes out to the terminal and goes over everything – especially the brakes – with a fine-toothed comb.
“He’s excellent,” confirms Cumpson, “he catches anything we may have missed and he keeps our brakes in top running condition. Hauling liquid loads, our brakes are critical.”
Long future ahead
While Deltagro’s future appears to be a long way from written just yet, Cumpson stresses much of it hinges on the farmers so it’s hard to say what is around the next bend.
“Canadian farmers need our strong support,” he says.
With tightening regulations and shrinking profits sprouting up on the farm, he insists truckers need to be empathetic to their predicament.
After all, surviving these types of conditions are nothing new to professional truck drivers. n