CANADA

FIELDS OF WOE

A DEPRESSED FARM ECONOMY CASTS A DARK SHADOW OF UNCERTAINTY OVER SASKATCHEWAN’S ELECTION

BRENDA DALGLISH October 21 1991
CANADA

FIELDS OF WOE

A DEPRESSED FARM ECONOMY CASTS A DARK SHADOW OF UNCERTAINTY OVER SASKATCHEWAN’S ELECTION

BRENDA DALGLISH October 21 1991

FIELDS OF WOE

A DEPRESSED FARM ECONOMY CASTS A DARK SHADOW OF UNCERTAINTY OVER SASKATCHEWAN’S ELECTION

CANADA

The July hailstorm, said farmer Erwin Hack, swept down on the prairie “like a freight train.” For 15 tempestuous minutes, hailstones the size of golf balls plummeted into the verdant fields of maturing grain that surround Strasbourg, Sask., 80 km north of Regina, pounding the fragile stalks to the ground. For many farmers, that sudden devastation now means that while their counterparts in the rest of the province have been harvesting bumper crops in the past few weeks, their own granaries stand empty. But there is a telling irony: in some cases, the flattened fields and empty grain bins translate into a better financial harvest than may be garnered from fields that withstood the hail. That is because, with prevailing world prices for wheat at their lowest ebb in 20 years, farmers who bought hail insurance will receive as much for their destroyed crops as those with

wheat to sell—without experiencing the heavy expenses of harvesting and shipping their crop to market. Indeed, among insured farmers who lost their crops, said Garth Fisk, manager of the Pioneer Grain Co. Ltd. elevator in Stras-

bourg, “Some of them are saying that it was the best thing that could have happened.” Across much of rural Saskatchewan last week, the depressed fortunes of grain farmers were clearly the dominant issue as the province passed the midpoint of an election campaign. Recovering from four years of crippling drought, this year’s harvest is so bountiful that on many farms, grain has overflowed storage bins and is piled in heaps on the ground. But with wheat prices at a meagre $2 a bushel, their lowest since 1971 and down from about $5 a decade ago, farmers can take pride in their harvest, but no profit. In a province with an economy built on grain, the result is deepening gloom. Said William Modeland, manager of the Strasbourg Credit Union: “Somebody turned off the light at the end of the tunnel.” And for politicians stumping a province whose electoral map is dominated by rural ridings, the farmers’

dark mood is creating uncertainty about the outcome of the election that will be held on Oct. 21. Said Donald Wagner, a Strasbourg-area dairy farmer and an ardent New Democrat: “There’s a lot of scared people out here.” Last week, the Conservative federal government attempted to calm the economic despair among Canada’s farmers with an $800-million emergency aid package, with about half of that to be allocated in Saskatchewan (page 74). With the province’s Tories, led by Premier Grant Devine, in danger of being eclipsed at the polls by their main rival, the NDP, led by former Saskatchewan attorney general Roy Romanow, the timing of the federal package seemed far from coincidental. Indeed, Devine promptly claimed political credit for the aid announced by federal Agriculture Minister William McKnight, a former president of the Saskatchewan Progressive Conservatives. Citing a string of federal outlays in the province since 1984,

Devine told Maclean ’sin an interview last week: “This federal government has spent $13 billion in Saskatchewan alone. Do you

think Mr. Romanow is going to get money out of Bill McKnight?”

Devine’s opponents, while welcoming the federal cash, sharply attacked Devine and his counterparts in Ottawa for what they called the cynical timing of the aid announcement. Liberal Leader Lynda Haverstock, whose spirited campaign has surprised many observers, accused the Tories of threatening “the long-term survival of agriculture” by tying farm aid to a political agenda. A new poll last week showed her party and the Tories neck and neck with the support of 24 per cent of decided voters, well behind the NDP’s 51 per cent. Still, Romanow, who has aimed his campaign attack at the Devine government’s economic record during nine years in office—and in particular at the growth of the provincial debt to $5 billion from less than $500,000—acknowledged that the federal action will cost his party votes. “I have always believed that this is going to be a close election,” said Romanow, adding: “With this, it’s going to be a whole lot tougher.”

Nowhere were the political effects of the federal aid package likely to be felt more keenly than in Strasbourg. The town of 856 people is the focal point of the provincial riding of Last Mountain/Touchwood, a bellwether constituency whose 9,300 voters share the preoccupations of most other residents of Saskatchewan’s farm country.

In fact, in comparison to many other small Saskatchewan towns, Strasbourg is doing well. It has a medical clinic, an RCMP detachment, a new recreation centre, a bustling main street with only one closed store, a senior citizens home and a 12-grade school. Its streets are shaded with stately poplars and Manitoba maples, and a ridge of rolling hills to the east softens the flat prairie landscape. In early autumn, the sloughs in the surrounding fields are crowded with plump mallard ducks and Canada geese migrating south for the winter. The birds draw numerous outof-province duck hunters to Strasbourg’s Royal Hotel, where rooms go for $18 a night. The sign at the edge of town proudly proclaims the civic motto: “Alert and growing.”

But the sign is weathered and Strasbourg has seen better days. Indeed, one resident, 92-year-old Ephraim Erickson, says that the town really hit its prime 80 years ago. Erickson, who retired only in June from his Massey-Ferguson farm-equipment dealership, has lived in the area since 1903, when his Swedish-born parents staked the first homestead in the district and dug a house out of a hillside. “There was pretty near as many people in town in

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1912 as there are now,” Erickson recalls. “It had three restaurants, two hotels, two banks. Every year, it had an exhibition, with cattle and livestock and prizes. There were dances and parties. It was a really busy town.” But according to Erickson, the critical influences on Strasbourg since then have occurred beyond the town limits, in the surrounding farmland. There, mechanization and a trend towards fewer, larger farms have reduced the number of farmsteads by three-quarters. Asked what happened to Strasbourg’s formerly bustling prosperity, Erickson answers: “Five hundred farms were bought out, that’s what happened.”

As a result, despite the town’s optimistic civic motto, its population has remained steady for 20 years. And even that apparent stability is misleading. One-third of the residents are over 65, retired farmers who have sold their land or passed it on to the next generation and moved to town. The number of children living in Strasbourg is only about half what it was 25 years ago. In that time, many younger residents have moved away in search of wider opportunities: of the 30 or so graduates from the local high school in 1972, only a handful remain in the area.

Those who have stayed in Strasbourg speak of their town with satisfaction and pride. William Schwandt, who owns the town’s Shop-Rite grocery store as well as a farm nearby, points to the unique benefits of living in a small community. One day last week, he noted, he bumped into the school’s

mathematics teacher in the store—and checked up on his son’s homework assignment. “It’s a great place to bring up kids,” added Schwandt. “You always hear what they’re up to.”

And some of the area’s farmers have survived the decline in grain prices better than many of their counterparts elsewhere in the province. “They have had some relatively good crops,” observes Terry Rolfe, the manager of the town’s Royal Bank branch. “And there tend to be more older, well-established farmers here.” But that success is at best relative. Several have succumbed to the combination of high debt and low grain prices—earning Rolfe the exaggerated nickname in some farm circles of “Col. Klink,” after an officious Nazi charac-

ter on television. And there is a joke heard around town that Strasbourg should be renamed Unionville—because the credit union now holds the title on some property.

Despite last week’s federal aid package, whose details remained to be worked out before any cash actually reaches farmers, the winter ahead is likely to be a painful one for many farm families. Underscoring the difficulties that some may face, elevator manager Fisk showed a letter from the Royal Bank that ordered him to turn over to the bank the payment that he owed to one farmer for a load of grain recently delivered to the elevator. Said Fisk: “I get these every week.” He adds that he is concerned about how he is going to collect money that Pioneer is owed for fertilizers and chemicals that it supplied to farmers this spring and summer. Said Fisk: “It is going to be pretty hard to walk out to those guys and tell them that they have to pay, when I know they don’t have any money.”

In the face of such demands, some farmers say that they are going to vote for the Conservatives. Ronald Frizzell, 57, a farmer and a Tory campaign worker, insists that Devine, a farmer himself, has done a lot for other farmers. “He brought natural gas to the house and that saved me $1,000 a year,” said Frizzell. “He put s in underground power—I § went around those damn I poles for years and I’m glad to I see them go. And we got rid I of the [telephone] party line. S Right there, he’s got my vote

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for as long as he wants it.” As for the deficit, Frizzell said: “Oh well, I’ve got a deficit, too. If you do anything, you’ll have a deficit.” But other fanners are angry at Devine’s financial record. Declared dairy farmer Wagner, 56: “My grandchildren, who are all under the age of 14, will probably be as old as I am before a lot of this debt is worked off.”

The farm vote is a crucial factor in any Saskatchewan election. Success with rural voters produced a majority win for Devine’s Tories in the last provincial election—33 of the 38 ridings won by the Tories in 1986 were rural. The NDP won 20 of the province’s 25 urban ridings in that election, but elected only five MLAs from rural Saskatchewan. The lone Liberal was elected in a rural riding. The rural vote is no less significant this time. Despite a redistribution in 1988, rural ridings still outnumber urban ones in the expanded 66-seat legislature by 39 to 27.

In stark contrast to Devine’s farm-oriented campaign, the NDP’s Romanow has offered rural voters few specific promises. Instead, Romanow has concentrated his attack on the Tories’ record in government, accusing Devine of attempting to buy rural votes with the latest round of federal aid and a program of decentralizing civil-service jobs. Said Romanow confidently: “At the end of the day, the farmers will take the cash, but dump Devine.”

Meanwhile, the province’s reinvigorated Liberal party is aiming at a larger role in this election than it played in the last. Then, the party’s candidates finished a distant third in most ridings. But under new leader Haverstock, a 42-year-old clinical psychologist and an expert in the stresses experienced by farm families, the party hopes to significantly increase its one-seat presence in the legislature. And according to some analysts, Haverstock’s efforts may undermine Devine’s appeal in particular. Acknowledged one Tory supporter in Strasbourg: “I talked to one guy the other day who said he was so mad at Devine that he said he was going to vote Liberal and he didn’t care if he wasted his vote.”

Any resurgence in the Liberal vote could be especially damaging for Arnold Tusa, the Conservative farmer and teacher who now represents Last Mountain/Touchwood. Tusa won election in 1986 by a margin of just 89 votes— 4,032 to 3,943—over his NDP rival. The Liberal candidate took 480 votes. And as the campaign for the riding, which has voted with the government in every election since 1944, drew to a close, few residents were willing to predict the outcome. Indeed, even among those who had decided which party to support, there was scant enthusiasm for any of the options. Farmer Erwin Hack, still reeling from the loss of half of his uninsured wheat crop to last summer’s storm, said that he will vote for the Tories. “I don’t think a change of government will have much of an impact,” he added. “I don’t know one that’s better.” He made the choice sound very much like the difference between hail and $2-a-bushel wheat.

BRENDA DALGLISH in Strasbourg