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|| News Item: Posted 2003-05-31

It's been a week of lessons
By Randy Vanderveen, Grande Prairie Daily Herald-Trib

Flying by the seat of your pants is a pain in the butt.

While good newspaper people make their own luck, sometimes luck, like a big story, just happens. The busier you are the busier you'll be. A few hours sleep after a long day of frustration can do wonders for a person's outlook on life. And last but not least, no matter how bad my day was, chances are the subjects of my news photos are having a worse one.

The week started fairly normally. Tuesday, May 20, was a morning filled with a variety of photos from training horses at the local track, to setting up for a trade fair and a junior high track meet. Just before noon I headed to the office to download the morning's photos. One of our reporters Doug Brown arrived at the same time and asked me if I was ready for a road trip. A cow that had a confirmed case of mad cow disease (BSE -Bovine spongiform encephalopathy) had been on a Peace Country (a large section of northwest Alberta and northeast B.C.) farm.

There the lessons began starting with number one on the list.
The province and federal government were not going to release the location of the farm and the first rumours had the animal coming from a Fairview-area farm about an hour and 15 minutes north of Grande Prairie. We headed up there at noon having no idea where we were going or even very many contacts.

Entering the town we saw a TV colleague on a farm just at the outskirts so we decided to head up to a local veterinary clinic. There Doug managed to get some information on how people were dealing with the news from the vet and a local rancher, who I also photographed. We then hit the MD (county) office to talk to the administrator. The rancher we had talked to early had mentioned she was already getting calls from irate farmers right around town that were getting peeved with media coming onto their property without permission. We decided to spread things a little farther a field looking for sources as well as some cattle to shoot.

We ended up approximately 20 miles northwest near Hines Creek. I had shot some cattle - tough to find one with out an identifying ear tag (sort of a cow license plate.) But it seemed every farm we stopped at to ask questions people were either not home or didn't raise cattle.

While Doug went into a local parts store, I grabbed the driver of a pickup and asked him if he knew any local cattle producers.

He ended up giving us the name and directions to Irwin Konrad, a local farmer who raised Simmental-Angus cross. There we got lucky. While Doug interviewed Irwin we walked to the corrals he kept his animals. The cows themselves were curious enough to come and investigate what was going on, making a story-telling photo.

We left Konrad's farm and headed back to Fairview for another stab at finding people willing to talk before heading back to Grande Prairie to file photos and stories.

Back at the office everything was fine until I tried sending the photos to our sister paper in Edmonton, the Sun, which was to forward photos to various agencies. I sent the photos to the usual address and nothing happened, Tom Braid, the chief photographer gave me a second address, again nothing happened.

While he checked things out on his end, one of our computer gurus came down to check out what was happening. The photos had left our servers so the problem was in Edmonton. Tom suggested I send the photos to his personal e-mail account. BINGO! It always pays to have a variety of options available - a back door of some kind.

I finished up captioning the photos I had taken earlier in the day and got home around 10 p.m. and after a late supper went to bed.

Just before my alarm went off at 6 a.m. Wednesday, the fire tones sounded on the scanner. I headed out to the fire, mostly smoke, at a local tavern that has apartments above it. Since there were no reporters on at that time of the morning I did some interviews for a story and returned to the office to download.

With the location of the farm where the infected cow was from still up in the air, we decided that at noon we would take in a 4-H show and sale in Rycroft 45 minutes north of town. I already had a previous commitment to shoot a mock accident 10 minutes north of Grande Prairie before heading to the 4-H show. As we were ready to head out on the road to get to the exercise on time, we were told to stop in Clairmont, about five minutes away to grab some photos of a little girl attacked by a dog.

Most days that wouldn't have fazed me, however, running behind schedule while still trying to track down the biggest story we have had around here in years was a little frustrating. I took the photos and we started our 4-H assignment. While Doug interviewed some of the parents I took some photos of the kids - who ended up in a cruel situation. Who would have thought that 24 hours before the kids were to finally see a payoff for six months or more of raising a steer the entire beef industry in the province would be shaken up so severely?

After an hour and a half of interviews and photos we grabbed a bite of lunch and decided to take a round about way back to Grande Prairie in hopes of seeing some indication of activity of cattle movement. We stopped in the small community of Wanham, one of the closest to the actual location of the ranch, and asked at the store if they had heard anything - Nope.

We wound our way back to the city with no signs of any cattle liner convoys. As we got within a few minutes of Grande Prairie, the cell phone rang with a tip - the ranch was south east of Wanham. We quickly turned around and began an hour drive to the site.

Both Doug and I were excited about finally finding the place that was dampened by our arrival on the scene to see every media outlet from Edmonton and beyond camped out on the road. One television crew from CFRN, a CTV station, had managed to pull off a scoop and get footage of the animals being loaded into liners and shipped out in the morning.

Photo by Randy Vanderveen, Daily Herald-Tribune

Photo by Randy Vanderveen, Daily Herald-Tribune

A sign sits near the driveway of Marwyn Peaster’s yard, the unfortunate cattle producer who had the cow diagnosed with mad cow disease.
Meanwhile, Doug and I, the most local of the media, were the last to arrive. Humbling and depressing. Nothing to shoot, or rather nothing exciting. The rancher, Marwyn Peaster, a former Mississippi catfish farmer who had married an area woman and started farming in the area, had taken off. He was upset that the TV crew had shown up his land.

I grabbed some shots of the empty corrals and while other media members were standing around talking, downloading photos, or waiting for their live shot from the road near the corrals, Doug and I decided to try and find some other photos and interviews. When we began to move, so did everyone else with the exception of the satellite trucks.

We drove past Peaster's house grabbed a photo of it and a hand made No Trespassing sign. As we turned around to find some neighbours to talk to, the other photographers and reporters pulled up in front of the house.
Doug and I managed to talk to a couple of neighbours including Larry Frape and his wife Lorraine, who were disgusted with the media circus and talked to us solely because we were the local media - at last some reward for being local. However, they still didn't want their photos taken.

After gathering as much as we could Doug and I disgustedly headed back to Grande Prairie to finish off the photos and stories. Getting home I felt more than a little frustrated by the way things had gone and vented to my wife and via e-mail to Bert (Hanashiro).

However after a few hours sleep - despite dreaming of cows - I woke refreshed and more positive. It also helped to see the other papers that had been there for hours before us who had nothing more than we did.
I do believe the lessons, which like the thickheaded man I am will have to be relearned, are valuable for all photographers.

First come up with some sort of plan, you don't have to a preconceived notion of what you are shooting but at least try and come up with several ideas.

Second, while the biggest story in years crashed onto the Peace Country and we came out with very little different than the Edmonton media, we were at least lucky we weren't scooped to horribly. And grudgingly I have to admire CFRN researchers, photojournalists and reporters who beat out everyone else in the nation.

Third, I have seen this happen time and time again, when we are at our busiest, the world doesn't stop turning and events seem to pile up adding to our frustration.

Fourth, have someone to safely vent to but remember time and sleep do work wonders. When I thought about Thursday I was kind of regretting having vented the night before.

And finally remember our subjects are often having a worse day. I really feel bad for Marwyn Peaster and his family. They are one of the biggest victims in this whole story. He had the cow for less than a year and the disease takes three to eight years to present itself. Meanwhile his name will forever be associated to the mad cow disease outbreak that shut down the Alberta beef industry and yet he did nothing wrong. And to add insult to injury his entire 150-head herd of cow-calf pairs had to be slaughtered and tested.

There are many others that this story is going to impact, despite the focus moving away from the Peace Country now.

Farmers who raise cattle, the young 4-H members who probably lost money on the cattle they sold at auction, area merchants who service farmers. The entire beef industry. While things may be wrapped up with in weeks it will take months and years to gain back the confidence of the export markets and the quality reputation the Alberta producers once had is lost forever.

(Randy Vanderveen is a staff photographer with the Grande Prairie Daily Herald-Tribune in Grand Prairie, Alberta Canada. This is first contribution for the Sports Shooter Newsletter.)

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