Remembering Emerson McLay

Emerson McLay passed away on Thursday. He was the farmer that I lease land from for the Ferndale wind turbines. He taught me a lot about how a farmer thinks about his land.

I remember the first meeting I had with him in 2001. It was a bright sunny day, and we met at the picnic table. We had been introduced by a friend of mine who also knew Emerson and Isobel. I had called him earlier, and told him that I wanted to measure the winds for a year, and then, if viable, build a wind turbine on his property.

Now in the summer of 2001, there was exactly 1 commercial scale wind turbine operating in the province. Emerson was in his early 80’s. But despite knowing nothing about wind energy, and not knowing me at all, he readily agreed to the meeting. Emerson was clearly a man open to new ideas. We discussed the wind measurement – we would need to install a 50 m guyed tower. We would need access to it if there was a problem. It would take up a little bit of land, and a bit of hassle. He already had a site scoped out. It was near an existing farm road, was free from livestock interference on a hay field, and had a good clear view in most directions.

Today, when you are looking to build a wind farm, you sign option agreements. You pay some rent to measure the winds. You have a predefined lease rate that will be paid if a wind turbine is built. The lawyers are deep into it. But I was perhaps naive – as was everyone in the business at the time – and of course had no idea if the business would work. So we had no paperwork. We had no rent while we measured winds. We had no option agreement or pre-defined lease amount or lease wording. We had a handshake. And with Emerson, that was all you needed.

We measured the winds and started plans to build the first turbine. Emerson suggested the first turbine should go in the south field. We did geotech studies on the soils, and found that they were silty sand in the middle of the field – not good at load bearing. So we moved the turbine location out to a bedrock outcrop at the back of the property. This meant we needed a longer road. Plans were drawn up to put the road in the middle of the property. Emerson said the field would be better for farming if the road was on the side. So we moved the road to the side, which increased its length and cost even more. But did it cost more? No. Emerson’s family has a quarry nearby that had accumulated some scrap rock. The scrap is basically a problem in the quarrying operation. It is expensive and impractical to bring in a crusher for a fairly small amount of waste rock. So we made a deal to haul the scrap rock to build the base of the road, helping the quarry with a problem, and reducing the cost of the road. Emerson was all about practical solutions.

He knew that the field the turbine was in would be tile drained one day. So he asked for 6-7 feet depth for the buried cables. You just couldn’t say no to Emerson – he was way too nice. But it meant that the tiles went in a few years later with no problems. Practical solutions.

In 2007, I had a person search for bird carcasses (none were found), as required by Natural Resources Canada. He approached her to ask what she was doing. When she told him, he was surprised that this was needed. He was almost indignant. He knew that the wind turbines weren’t killing birds. After all, the original turbine had operated for 5 years by then. He trimmed grass, and graded laneways near the turbine many times – he would have known if there were bird strikes. He was proud of his wind turbines.

The first turbine was built in the fall of 2002. On a blustery snowy November 30, we held a grand opening at the turbine, with kites, turbine tours, a ribbon cutting, followed by a gathering at Rotary Hall. The place was packed. I had friends and family from the south, and colleagues in the renewable energy and environmental sectors, and suppliers. BPEG members were there, and even volunteered for traffic control which was no small feat, as the traffic backed up the full 1 km distance to the road. The community was invited, so there were neighbours, family and friends of the McLays and just interested people. We had a few speeches from politicians, then I spoke, and gave a few gifts of appreciation. I thanked some suppliers. I thanked the Matheson family, who had offered me accommodation and hospitality during my many trips to the Bruce during the project. But I saved the best for last. I thanked Emerson for working with me on the project. The crowd erupted into sustained applause. He got up to speak. He was in the limelight, a role in which I think he was quite uncomfortable. And in typical Emerson fashion, he first thanked the “ladies in the kitchen”. That was Emerson. It wasn’t about him. It was about others.

I had an email from Liz Gibson, who knew Emerson from his latter years in the Hayes apartments. She said simply, “Wasn’t he a fine gentleman.”

Yes he was. The world will miss him.

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