Canada

Heartbreak on the Farm

As election fever mounts in Saskatchewan, temperatures are rising among the province’s beleaguered farmers

Brian Bergman May 31 1999
Canada

Heartbreak on the Farm

As election fever mounts in Saskatchewan, temperatures are rising among the province’s beleaguered farmers

Brian Bergman May 31 1999

Heartbreak on the Farm

Canada

As election fever mounts in Saskatchewan, temperatures are rising among the province’s beleaguered farmers

Brian Bergman

After a lifetime on the farm, Barry Hamilton wonders if he’s facing his final harvest. With grain prices at near-record lows, the 50-year-old Hamilton, who runs a 480-hectare grain and cattle farm near Rose Valley, Sask., 240 km east of Saskatoon, has watched his farm income plummet over the past two years. This spring, Hamilton is having to fend off a small army of creditors just to get a partial crop in the ground. Among his mounting debts: $7,000 in unpaid property taxes, about $12,000 in back rent that he owes the provincial government for a portion of the land he farms, and a $20,000 bank loan he has now exhausted. “Unless something dramatic happens, I can’t see us surviving,” he says. For Hamilton, whose grandparents homesteaded part of the land he now farms, that is a grim prospect. “It’s a great way of life,” he says of farming. “I just can’t afford to live it anymore.” Hamilton is far from alone in feeling that his best days are behind him. Last year, the price for Canadian hogs dropped by a staggering 60 per cent while wheat prices slumped 41 per cent. Pork markets now show some signs of recovery, but the going rate for most grains remains stagnant and the prognosis is gloomy. The impact of low commodity prices is being felt on farms across the country. But it is in Saskat-

chewan, where wheat is king and agriculture is everything, that the scars run the deepest—and the anger over Ottawa’s controversial attempts to deal with the farm crisis is the most visceral.

Last December, federal Agriculture Minister Lyle Vanclief brought forward the dryly dubbed Agriculture Income Disaster Assistance program—a twoyear, $900-million infusion of federal cash that was later matched by about $600 million from provincial treasuries. But farmers complain that because of the AIDA program’s strict eligibility requirements, many of the producers in greatest need fail to qualify for assistance. In Saskatchewan, barely 2,000 of the province’s 55,000 farmers have even bothered to apply—with many concluding it is not worth the paperwork.

At the same time, a growing number of producers are contemplating the loss of their livelihoods—and, in a few stark instances, their lives. Sharon Nicholson of Big Beaver, Sask., recently had a tense telephone conversation with one fellow farmer who was considering suicide as a way of escaping his debts. Nicholson, who is part of a grassroots farm lobby effort known as the Bengough Rally Group, is also in regular contact with about a dozen beleaguered farm families in southeastern Saskatchewan who are engaged in a kind of “suicide watch”— they check up on each other daily to make sure no one is reaching the break-

ing point. “These are people who have payments they just can’t meet and don’t know what to do,” says Nicholson.

“They just feel like they are real failures.”

Ironically, the farmers’ plight is one reason Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow has been widely expected to call a spring election, perhaps as early as this week. Bad as it is on the land these days, the thinking goes, it will be that much worse by the fall—Romanows other political window for renewing the NDP’s four-year-old mandate. Last week, the signs of an impending election campaign abounded. While the NDP and the official opposition Saskatchewan Party duked it out in pre-election television “attack” ads, Romanow and his cabinet diligently attempted to clear the deck of some potentially explosive issues.

A $ 10-million package to compensate David Milgaard for being wrongfully convicted of murder eliminated the spectre of Milgaard’s indefatigable mother, Joyce, infilling her vow to camp out on the lawn of the Saskatchewan legislature until justice was done (page 28). A bigger stumbling block threatened to be the province’s 8,400-member nurses’ union, which staged a 10-day illegal strike in April. Contract talks broke off again last week and Romanow

has repeatedly said that he doesn’t want to call an election until the nurses’ dispute is at least close to resolution.

Whenever the election comes, the farm crisis is certain to figure prominently. While most of the farmers’ ire is directed at Ottawa, many are also angry that the Romanow government went along with the AIDA program. Certainly, the Saskatchewan Party—a twoyear-old coalition of former Conservative and Liberal MLAs, which now holds nine seats (the NDP has 40) in the 58-member legislature—intends to make it an issue. “The province didn’t play an active enough role in shaping AIDA,” says Saskatchewan Party Leader Elwin Hermanson. “It may work in some parts of the country, but it isn’t working here.”

One of the most familiar knocks against the federal aid program is that farmers only qualify if their 1998 income was less than 70 per cent of their average income over the previous three

years. That rules out many Saskatchewan farmers who had already suffered steep income losses in the years leading up to 1998 due to drought and other severe weather conditions. Among them is 37-year-old Richard Yakimchuk, who runs a farm about 80 km east of Saskatoon, and whose tale of woe reflects the vagaries of grain farming on the unpredictable Prairies. In July, 1997, gale-force winds ripped through his farm, taking out all of his grain bins and damaging his house. About the same time, a massive hail storm hit, wiping out nearly half his crops. Unhappily, Yakimchuk had let his hail insurance lapse. “It hadn’t hailed in the area for 15 years,” he explains. “But then it came with a vengeance.” Yakimchuk borrowed heavily to offset his losses and repair his property. In 1998, he decided to plant what looked to be a profitable alternative crop: canola. He expected to get the average yield— between 28 and 32 bushels per acre. But his farm was in one of last year’s drought

pockets and he ended up getting only 9.5 bushels per acre. Ineligible for the AIDA program because of his 1997 losses, Yakimchuk says he finds himself this spring having to “beg, borrow and steal” to seed even a portion of his 440hectare farm. And with commodity prices still in the cellar, the future looks bleak. “I’d hate like hell to leave the farm,” he says, “but you can’t go on losing money year after year.” Saskatchewan Agriculture Minister Eric Upshall agrees the AIDA program is flawed. That is why, he says, the province lobbied so hard—if unsuccessfully—for changes before reluctantly agreeing to support the initiative in midFebruary. While he still holds out hope of revamping the I program, Upshall says that I Saskatchewan has an even I more pressing case to make to I Ottawa. He points out that 12 the generous subsidies American and European farmers receive is one of the factors helping to depress international grain prices. In that climate, he says, Canada is not doing enough to support its farmers. “Our question for Ottawa is: are you in or are you out?” says Upshall. “Because if you are not in the game, we have to decide how we are going to survive out here.”

Vanclief acknowledges that farmers in Europe and the United States receive greater subsidies than their Canadian counterparts. But Ottawa, he adds, simply cannot afford to match them. As for the criticism of AIDA, Vanclief says: “Farming is a risky business, and AIDA cannot be all things to all people.” That is scant comfort to Hamilton and Yakimchuk, both of whom are now telling their children to avoid the family business. “I certainly won’t encourage them to farm,” says Yakimchuk, a father of three who runs a fourth-generation operation. “This is probably the end of the line as far as our family goes.” In Saskatchewan this spring, that kind of pessimism is rampant.