Closeup/Agriculture

Bitter Harvest

Canada’s farmers are bloody-eyed mad. Justifiably

Roy MacGregor May 15 1978
Closeup/Agriculture

Bitter Harvest

Canada’s farmers are bloody-eyed mad. Justifiably

Roy MacGregor May 15 1978

Bitter Harvest

Closeup/Agriculture

Canada’s farmers are bloody-eyed mad. Justifiably

Roy MacGregor

Evans Thordarson had come so close that the amount of time by which he’d missed could be measured in the fading steam of the birth. He slugged his bulk over the side of the stall, reached down quickly, ran a concerned hand along the mouth and nostrils where the membrane lingered, brushed it away, then stood back and smiled proudly. A bull calf, large and healthy. Thordarson pulled off his cap and scratched in a reminder not to miss the next birth. It was always better to be there. The cow probably had been in full labor as he sat in the living room of his Mozart,

Saskatchewan, farmhouse with his hands folded over a cultivated belly, his big thumbs spinning like gears in his lament.

It ran in a sad serial from the death of his father more than five years ago. Evans, now 37, and his brother Robert, 30, had purchased the homestead from their mother for $50,000 and shortly, during the last good return on beef, had it entirely paid off.

That, however, was the only happy chapter. In the four years that came next—four years that cost Canadian beef producers at least $400 million—the Thordarsons’ farm has lost $90,000, leaving the brothers stumbling through 1978 with a brand-new $100,000 mortgage strapped to their backs. Another year like the others and the Thordarsons say they may no longer be on the land, bringing to an end a proud line of farmers which stretches back 101 years in North

America and a full 1,000 years before that in Iceland. It is the last thing a Thordarson would have expected, that one day the promised land just over the western horizon would become a burial ground.

But now Evans Thordarson smiles, blue eyes crinkling through thick glass. He smiles, not because beef prices are on the rise, which they are. but because the calf is not the only new birth. In the farmhouse a new son cries. And in the countryside surrounding, the first Prairie populist political movement since the CCF drafted its Regina Manifesto in 1933 has begun its own protest. This one dates from January 19, 1978, and is known as the Canadian Agriculture Movement(CAM). So far it has, with debatable success, set up roadblocks along the

Canadian-U.S. border to protest, among many other things, this country’s astonishingly feeble tariffs on agriculture (an average of seven per cent on nonagricultural products) and it has picketed and refused to supply cattle to meat-packing plants in both Manitoba and Saskatchewan, an action that resulted in the violent death of one CAM member in Regina on March 9.

It is a raggedy-assed organization that lacks titled leaders, dues, a head count of the rank and file (leaving estimates to waver blindly between several hundred and several thousand) or even a central phone number. What CAM does have, however, is a great many angry farmers in the same position as Evans Thordarson, mostly “mixed” farmers— beef and grain—who,

though they are individually small, supply some 80 per cent of Canadian beef. Those who share Thordarson’s thinking—a

process partly shaped by studying international law at the University of Paris— are already discussing the formation of a new political party to contest the upcoming federal election. To be tentatively known as the Independent Farmers (IF), they are hoping to field a minimum of 20 candidates. (The CCF had 114 in the 1935 election campaign: seven won.) Already Jim Stalwick of Big River in northwestern Saskatchewan has said he definitely will

stand as a candidate, probably against Cliff Mclsaac. who, although he is a Saskatchewan Liberal, has yet to be placed under the protection of the provincial

game laws.

But the likes of Thordarson and Stalwick merely

the angry CAM type. According to one CAM spokesman who begged not to be identified, there is a far more militant element within the movement—located, the informant claims, around Selkirk. Manitoba— that is already discussing the formation of a farmers’ vigilante group that would use Molotov cocktails rather than talk. “It’s going to get worse,” the spokesman warns. “1 believe they may turn violent.”

The Canadian movement was sired by the American Agriculture Movement, a militant United States farmers’ group which dates only from last fall but which has already thrown eggs at Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland and vowed to plow under this year’s crops unless a fairer shake is in the making. They feel President Jimmy Carter conned them with his campaign promises of top-dollar prices for farm products, AAM economists interpret “top-dollar prices” as parity pricing, meaning prices must be 100 per cent of the cost of production plus a reasonable (10 per cent more) return on labor, and they claim in 1977 they received only 66 per cent of what should have been parity—the worst farm year since the early 1930s.

So far, it appears the AAM has had its effect. The Carter administration recently promised farmers at least $3 billion more in their 1978 incomes, a move that is expected to cause a quick sixto eight-percent rise in U.S. food prices. It is not surprising that Canadian farmers would adopt a northern version—though both sides deny the connection is anything more than inspirational. “The relationship is that none of us are making any money.” says Bud Bitner of the AAM’S national office in Springfield, Colorado.

There can be little argument that the CAM farmers are hurting. Though Agriculture Minister Eugene Whelan can point to

the recent sharp rise in beef prices—up 10 to 30 cents a pound retail late last month— and say “they’re out of the badness now,” he and others realize it is the far larger and usually older Alberta beef rancher who is finally catching his breath. The CAM farmer tends to be young, secondor thirdgeneration on the same piece of land, and caught tight by a recent, heavy mortgage. Most are mixed farmers who have previously survived through a cat’s-cradle economic system that has meant when beef prices are down, grain is up, and vice versa. For some time, however, these farmers have been pulling on broken strings: Both grain and beef have been down.

“It’s a dangerous situation.” says Dave Kirk of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture’s Ottawa office. “There have been horrendous declines in income.” According to Royal Bank figures, farmers’ realized net incomes peaked at $4.3 billion in 1975. fell to $3.7 billion in 1976. to $3.3 billion last year and will decline a further estimated $200 million this year. To add to the burden, operating costs since 1975 have risen 17 per cent and outstanding credit by 28 per cent.

The CAM people argue they’d be better off killing their calves at birth, since they lose as much as $200 a head, thanks to this combination of soaring costs and dipping beef (the low beef returns caused much by the 144.750.000 pounds of cheaper meat that have come in from Australia, New Zealand and the United States). For several years the consumer benefited greatly, but rising costs for domestic beef, coupled with a falling Canadian dollar that makes imports less attractive, will soon change all that. “We’ve gotten consumers conditioned to eating meat at $1.25 a pound.” says Evans Thordarson. “Now we're going to have to condition them to eat meat at $3 a pound so we can make up the money we lost.

“The situation now means bankruptcy for anyone who’s buying his farm.” Thordarson argues. “The one difference between my generation and my father’s is that they were happy to be farmers. They had to be. Young farmers are on the land today because they’ve chosen to be. and it’s these people who are the backbone of the protest movement. They’re not going to go under without a fight.”

Tracking down that “backbone” he refers to requires that one turn to telephone party lines rather than to the party membership list, since there is none:

One long ring, one short: Frank Gall. 43, of Handsworth. Saskatchewan, is one of the few CAM people over 40. Fie bought a half section from his father in 1961 for $4.000. and though rising land equity has

now made that same land worth $50,000, Gall is in deep, deep trouble. He has been threatened recently with two suits, one demanding instant payment of $1,657.54 for his crop insurance. “1 can’t pay any of it yet,” he says. Just to meet his family’s living expenses he has been selling off his assets, the cattle, and the herd that was once 100 head has dwindled to two milk cows— one small part of the two-million-head drop in Canada’s cattle population since its peak of 14 million several months ago. Unless prices go far higher than they appear to be going, Frank Gall won’t be back in business: “Ain’t nobody going to be eating free beef off me.”

One long, one short: Marguerite Larson. 33, who works 500 acres with her husband and father-in-law near Lac du Bonnet, Manitoba, is hoped by many—because of her ease with speaking and striking good looks—to emerge as an over-all leader.The only thing that has so far saved the Larson operation is that all three have taken offfarm jobs; she teaches a high-school business course and farms six hours every evening. Her dedication to CAM is evident in that she spent her school break driving from Manitoba to Texas, where she picked the minds of American farmers for new ideas to adopt. And one that she bought was to hold back, regardless of the results. “We’re not going to sell our cattle until we get our price,” she says firmly.

One long: Boyd Charles can ill afford his private phone line, considering his Stoughton, Saskatchewan, farm has been losing money since the fall of 1974. Lrom a high of 400 head his herd has dropped to 100. “I’m going to try and survive another two years.” says Charles. “But if it stays the same. I'm bankrupt. In 1973 I didn’t owe anybody a cent. Since then it’s been downhill all the way.” He is another in favor of militant, though nonviolent action. “You have to do something. You’ve got to raise a little hell.”

It was Charles who brought the move-

ment north from the United States after he and a friend, Brian Ross, were invited to an AAM meeting in North Dakota early in January. They came back with ideas expressed by the likes of Charlie Wissbrod, an AAM spokesman from Noonan, North Dakota: “What we’ve got on our farms— the livestock, the grain—is the biggest power tool in the world, if we can use it.”

The American connection, denied by most, is nonetheless there. Boyd Charles believes it shouldn’t even be of any concern. “It might be an issue in the East,” he says. “But it sure as hell isn’t here.” One idea on which the Americans and Canadians totally agree is the need for an OPECstyle cartel to make sure the big wheat producers stop competing with each other and start returning top profits to farmers. In 1972 wheat sold on world markets at $6 a bushel; now it is fetching about $3.40. And there is still little progress in attempts to stabilize world grain markets.

After an April visit to the American headquarters, during which time he met with Charlie Wissbrod, Elroy Karims of CAM returned home to Saskatchewan convinced CAM could, in the future, “put pressure on our Wheat Board that would help them.” Says another CAM member: “We might soon be stopping the trains.”

On March 11 the federal government agreed to meet with them. Agriculture Minister Whelan. Minister of Industry. Trade and Commerce Jack Horner and others sat down with CAM in Regina and listened while the young farmers detailed their demands. Along with a full parity, CAM is seeking a producer-controlled National Food Products Agency which would be omnipotent enough to control imports and set prices—the sole consumer protection being that farmers will always act in good faith. CAM also insisted that a law be passed, and even offered its own draft of it: “It will be illegal for anyone to buy, sell or trade any agriculture product at less than 100 per cent parity.”

Jack Horner—who walked out of the m

meeting—refuses to accept that Canada’s tariffs are hurting farmers, with the singular exception of the vegetable and fruit industry. He defends the 1.5-per-cent increase on imported beef he pushed through cabinet last December on the grounds that the population had risen that much, and says the current rise in beef prices has proved further imports did no further damage. As for Whelan—w ho. surprisingly. is regarded by many CAM people as “the only hope we've got"—he could only express his sympathies. Though he supports higher agriculture tariffs, he also believes that the possibility of the Independent Farmers Party's ever fully surfacingdiminishes each day beef prices rise. There are also CAM people who believe Whelan's actual clout in cabinet is suspect; farmers know that they are no longer considered much of a ballot threat because they now comprise barely five per cent of the labor force. Whelan himself will admit to frustration in getting the farmers' view across cabinet and has several times—most recently last fall—toyed with the idea of quitting, though he currently says he has no such thoughts.

“1 think there’s a game being played in Ottawa in that they tolerate Whelan."says Roy Atkinson, president of the left-wing

National Farmers Union in Saskatoon. “Because Whelan is saying the sort of things that make common sense to the average guy—while they in the background continue with business as usual.” And that is precisely why several CAM members are beginning to talk about the formation of their own Independent Farmers party: as farmers, they’re used to doing things for themselves. “We’re looking at a campaign where the last thing they’re going to discuss is agriculture.” says Jim Stalwick. the first announced IF candidate. “The idea is to force them to talk about it.” It was. not surprisingly, Thordarson—who is also president of the Western Canada Cow-Calf Association—who first broached the subject. To Thordarson. who believes that “if you shout at an animal, they don't understand—you sometimes have to slap them.” the next step was logical, and he found quick sympathizers. “Once we get further advanced,” Marguerite Larson says, “we're going to have to get political.”

Others look at CAM’S remarkable disorganization and total lack of funding and see what threatens to be there: nothing. “I don’t think anything will come of it.” says Jack Horner. There is even the odd one close to it. like Helen Shiplack of Candiac. Saskatchewan, who isn’t convinced the cry has been heard. And she has good reason: her husband Fred was the CAM member who died of head injuries eight days after an altercation between CAM picketers and workers at a Regina stockyard. Glenn Bozarth has been charged with manslaughter. “Sometimes you just feel like closing the books,” she says.

But she is, understandably, thinking of the immediate past. And since recent memories leave most Prairie farmers twitching, the majority will only look ahead with typical farmer’s optimism. In the evening of the day the calf was born. Thordarson stood in the shallow hole he’d chopped in the frozen slough back of his farmhouse and rinsed his boots while the sky that rose off the field back of him ripened red—the traditional promise of a better tomorrow. “The only thing that frightens everyone.” he said, “is that we might have to go off to Ottawa. By God. we want to be farmers—and nothing else.” 'C?