In a daring Canadian AgVenture, Carl Hiebert loaded his wheelchair on the back of a 1949 vintage tractor and drove it 6000 kilometers across Canada.
Along the way, he photographed and captured the richness and diversity of Canada’s farmland and took an intimate accounting of the joys and challenges of families who farm these lands.
As the writer, photographer who joined Carl on this journey and as someone who has spent countless hours in barns and farm fields, identifying a food hero for our region of Waterloo, Ontario and for Canada, isn’t a challenge.
All through-out Canada, our farmland is stewarded by food heroes and I salute them, as I do Carl Hiebert. For his story, is also one of tenacity and triumph over adversity, and one that makes you feel proud to be Canadian.
“A Food Hero” is dedicated to farmers across Canada and is part of a collective of stories exploring Canadian regional food. We hope you enjoy this story and the others at A Canadian Foodie: (participants)
A FOOD HERO
On one sunny afternoon, Carl Hiebert – a young Mennonite boy of 12 years old, finally had his dad agree that he was old enough to run the “big” tractor and he would be responsible for ploughing on the 67-acre family farm.
At 18, he left that tractor and farm behind, and set out to carve a different kind of life, one that meant exploring the world around him with an open mind and heart.
In 1981, at the young age of 32, Carl suffered a freak hang-gliding accident that made him a paraplegic and put him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
But during that hospital stay, only two months into recovery, he placed a ‘Gone Flying’ sign on his hospital door and, with the help of a friend, made his way to a farmer’s field, where a single-seat ultralight aircraft was waiting.
“As I buzzed the field and saw my empty wheelchair, I was overcome by this serendipitous moment. Even if I couldn’t ever walk again, I could still fly!”
Five years later, Carl made aviation history and astounded Canadians by being the first person ever to fly an open-cockpit ultralight aircraft 5,000 miles across Canada and achieved what many people said was impossible. He transformed an agonizing obstacle into an inspirational achievement and published his photographs and chronicles of this event in a best-selling book, “Gift of Wings.”
As the years and miles between Carl and the farm grew, so did the memories of the farm and his appreciation for the importance of food and its production.
These strong emotions and his respect for the tenacity and heart of farmers was the catalyst for a huge “ah-ha” moment in his life. That’s when Carl came to me with an idea. He said he would like to show his appreciation for Canada’s bounty and pay homage to farmers.
I recall his excitement and the intense look of determination when he said, “I know exactly what has to be done. I’ll cross Canada to meet with as many farmers as possible, and celebrate their work by sharing their stories in a book. The proceeds from the book will be donated to charity.
“AND, I’ll do it by driving a 1949 W4 McCormick tractor just like my dad’s!”
That afternoon, Carl asked if I would go along and do the interviewing, writing and drive the motor-home.
So together we set out. No team, no support, no media entourage.
Just one woman, one man, one wheelchair, a 1949 tractor, a motor-home and a ton of ambition.
Excerpt from Carl’s diary of his cross-Canada trip on a vintage tractor:
“Embarking on a 6,000 kilometre cross-Canada-trek on a 57 year-old tractor is not without surprises and challenges. First I need to modify my unlikely steed. A 1949 tractor was never designed for such a trip – nor was I.
The tractor’s old steel seat is replaced with an air-ride model with adequate back support and a rack mounted behind me that would carry my wheelchair. The Agventure was about to begin.”
“On June 1st, 6 a.m., in WhiterockBeach, B.C., on a warm but overcast day, a sense of foreboding nagged at my public optimism. As I started at the very edge of the country, carefully dipping ‘Ol’ Red’s’ tires into the Pacific, and eased out the clutch to begin my eastward-bound adventure, it started to rain. And for the first three weeks of our trip, it rained, and continued to rain. Well into Manitoba, we experience only four days of sunshine….”
“On a typical day, I face six or seven hours of driving. I am wind-beaten, cold and stiff.”
“It’s only week one of our west-coast departure, and I realize our schedule is brutally over-ambitious. A pounding tractor ride, followed up with meetings with farmers, rushed photo sessions, meeting up with Deb—who too, is beyond tired—along with the daily regimen of housekeeping, meals, and maintenance for both a motor-home and an antique tractor… What was I thinking?”
“On July 6th and 6,800 kilometres later, I finally back Ol’ Red into the salt waters of the Atlantic in Dartmouth and am relieved the ride is over. I am physically spent and emotionally drained. MacKenzie King once said that the problem of Canada is that we have too little history and too much geography. I have to agree. Those are long miles between our two oceans.
“But we did it. We dug deep and somehow unearthed the resources – internal and external – to keep up with our schedule and completed this incredible challenge.
“Deb and I drove the motor-home together to St. John’s, Newfoundland, but after two and a half months, we are tired beyond words.
“Yet we are also exhilarated, in a strange and quiet way. Over the course of years, a simple idea had grown into a “Why not?” From there, to months of planning, and finally, the journey itself.”
“And now, the book— ‘Keepers of the Land… a Celebration of Canadian Farmers’—with its proceeds helping charitable organizations to make a difference.”
“Having been raised on a farm, I have always been aware of the effort and dedication required to begin the food cycle. And I’m even more conscious of that now, having crossed this great land of ours and met farmers coast to coast.”
“Was it worth it? Thousands of kilometres, a thousand cows, hundreds of smiling faces later? You bet!”
For more information about Carl Hiebert’s adventures and the book “Keepers of the Land … a Celebration of Canadian Farmers” please visit www.giftofwings.ca