The desperate plight of the small farmer

W. B. BAKER,ROBERT COLLINS August 18 1956

The desperate plight of the small farmer

W. B. BAKER,ROBERT COLLINS August 18 1956

The desperate plight of the small farmer

For generations he was the most important man in Canada. Now he can’t make a living. After a long and exhaustive study, this expert tells what’s behind the tragedy and what probably lies ahead

W. B. BAKER as told to ROBERT COLLINS

To many Canadians the most pathetic and puzzling figure in the country today is the small farmer. Yesterday he was the builder and backbone of our economy, the very prototype of Canada. Today, although he still represents a large slice of the population, he finds himself on the social and economic fringe, frightened and seemingly forgotten. While most Canadians prosper he complains that he can scarcely make a living. He doesn't dare think of the future.

To urban people it seems an illogical situation. Why is the farmer’s income low? Is his problem any different from ones he has faced before? If farm life is so unrewarding why doesn’t he quit?

As chairman of Saskatchewan’s six-member royal commission on agriculture and rural life I’ve lived with these questions for four years. Our assignment was to see what has happened to Saskatchewan farming since 1905. With a technical staff' averaging twenty members, we pored over 300 briefs, circulated 1,676 questionnaires, studied reports of 660 rural-community forums attended by 18,000 people, sat in on 57 community hearings and had interviews with 1,900 Saskatchewan farmers or their w'ives. And we found a startling new Saskatchewan in the making.

Abandoned schools and homes are bleak signposts in the exodus from farms

The small farmer is in trouble. He is caught in the most abrupt and dramatic change in agricultural history, a change that was inconceivable twenty years ago. Since Saskatchewan is a wheat-farming province easily adaptable to full-scale farm mechanization, the situation is most advanced here. But it also applies to the plains regions of Alberta and Manitoba. It will finally touch every farming area in Canada and, indirectly, our entire economy.

To put it bluntly, the small farm is obsolete. In today's mechanized agriculture the small farmer can’t produce enough to keep up with his high fixed machinery costs, particularly when markets can’t handle his products at a good price. As a result he has little income left over to allow his family a modern standard of living.

Already many small Saskatchewan farms have vanished. Between 1939 and 1951 forty thousand quarter-section and half-section farms were absorbed into eighty-five hundred farms of a section or more. There are now just over a hundred thousand Saskatchewan farms, but this number will decrease because half of those farms are still too small to farm economically under present conditions. In most years this means that fifty thousand Saskatchewan farmers are eking out a living on a gross income of twenty-five hundred dollars a year or less. They have a fifteen-thousand-dollar or less capital investment in land, buildings and machinery whereas an adequate-size farm should have a minimum of twenty thousand.

When you double the size of farms and almost halve the farm population in fifty years, it calls for changes in almost every aspect of rural living. It costs more money, in tax dollars, to bring rural electrification to scattered farm homes, build all-weather roads, develop modern schools and maintain community organizations.

“Farmers must leave the land5’

Thirty percent of the one-room schools in Saskatchewan have closed and more are closing. The country church is closing too. The new' location is in the village. In many places this new' neighborhood centre is also declining: the smaller farm population and mobility provided by the automobile are causing farmers to shift their patronage to larger towns. Seventy-five percent of Saskatchewan's towns and villages must accept the fact that, with fewer people to serve, they can’t provide the better services modern rural buyers demand.

The small farmer blames most of his troubles on fluctuating wheat prices and lack of markets. These, indeed, are a major part of the problem. A farmer is certainly entitled to a fair price and evidently some supportprice system is necessary.

But price support isn’t the whole solution, as farmers and farm organizations seem to think. We can’t fix prices to suit every lowincome farmer. There's a relatively new' problem with more painful, far-reaching social implications, a problem many small farmers refuse to face: farms must expand and farmers must leave the land.

Already the exodus from the land has shaken rural Saskatchewan’s social structure. Between 1939 and 1951 Saskatchewan’s urban population increased by ninety thousand while rural population decreased by nearly two hundred thousand. It is impossible to count the farm population accurately because many farmers are classed as city dwellers. Of the approximately one hundred thousand Saskatchewan farmers, twenty percent live away from the farm all or part of the time.

The trend away from the farm is not only inevitable but, although this may sound callous, it’s healthy. Eventually we’ll see fewer farms, but they'll be more productive and efficient and will provide better living for those who farm them. More people will be released for industrial jobs to produce more goods. There's nothing wrong with the trend if our cities can provide jobs for the ex-farmers.

The men most affected fall into four main categories: farmers who’ve successfully made the adjustment, those who want to quit but don’t dare, those who are already squeezed off the land and those who stay on in spite ot, financial and social handicaps.

One of the latter group is James Clark, a short stocky man on a half section six miles west of Saskatoon. He bought his farm in the worst possible year—1930. He lost four sons in the war. He owns a small tractor, small unpainted buildings and four horses. Like most small farmers he hasn't enough land to make money from mechanized farming and he can't buy more land or better machinery until he does make money.

“I've been in debt ever since I came here,” he says. “But I’m getting in the clear, a little at a time. It’s a living, anyway.”

Farming’s a living, also, for the. fifty-year-old man our commission met near Leader, northwest of Swift Current, hut it isn't the fun it used to be. With his milk cow. ten beef cattle, seven hogs, sixty chickens and a half section of wheat and coarse grains he’ll never go hungry.

“Poor roads in winter, no neighbors, no phones”

“But it’s lonesome,” he complained. "If I want to see somebody 1 have to go about ten miles instead of one or two, the way it used to be. I’m going to move to town and farm from there. This is no good. Poor roads in the winter, no neighbors, no phones—not a damn thing. If a person gets sick he has to sit at home like a dog!”

Ten years ago RCA F veteran Murray Dennis, one of my former university students, bought a quarter section near Weirdale, northeast of Prince Albert under the Veterans’ Land Act. He later bought or rented another one hundred and eighty acres. He raises wheat, oats, barley, rapeseed and a few chickens.

With a VLA grant, nine hundred dollars in war gratuities and a partnership with his dad, Dennis licked the machinery problem, which is perhaps why he’s still able to farm. Father and son bought some implements on a fifty-fifty basis, bought others on their own without duplication and now share everything but their tractors. Even so, Murray’s share of machinery cost about eight thousand dollars.

“It meant doing without a car for a long time and there are still many household appliances we can't afford.” he says.

Other young men like Donald Barr are already casualties of the new era. Barr, another air-force veteran in his thirties, with a small family and a university degree in agriculture, bought a twentythousand-dollar half section near Elrose, north of Swift Current, under VLA.

He had only one bad crop out of nine, but often the marketing situation permitted him to sell only fifteen hundred to two thousand dollars’ worth of grain a year, which didn't begin to meet his costs. At these times Barr was being hamstrung by the grain-delivery-quota system, set up by the Canadian Wheat Board to contend with high production and tighter markets and handle grain marketing in an orderly fashion. The system controls the amount a farmer can market, but gives each farmer an opportunity to market something.

Though often deprived of a larger income by this quota system, Barr, by purchasing only essential implements, secondhand when possible, kept his initial machinery bill down to about eight thousand dollars, instead of the usual ten to fifteen thousand. Still, there were annual repair, gas and oil bills, a house and granaries to build and a harvest helper to hire at fifteen dollars a day.

With more acreage Barr could have produced more grain and perhaps kept up with his costs. But he could rent only one arid quarter section ten miles away.

“When good land came up for sale there was always somebody ready to offer cash for it,” he says. “All my cash was tied up in machinery.”

He stayed on until January 1956, earning off-season money by hiring out his combine, driving a school bus, tending the town skating rink and laying sidewalks. Then he leased his farm and took a job as agricultural representative in Delisle, southwest of Saskatoon.

“I’m still paying debts,” Barr says. “But I’m lucky. With university training I got a job 1 like and can handle.”

Others aren't so lucky. What will happen to them? What caused this change and why are so many farmers unable to adjust to it?

Let’s go back to 1920. By then homesteaders had settled most of the prairie in quarter sections and half sections as permitted under the Homestead Act. Villages sprang up every six or seven miles along the railway, a convenient horseand-wagon haul. Everybody owned or wanted to own his land. The small-farm pattern was firmly established.

Then the tractor revolutionized farming. The Depression and World War II delayed mechanization in Canada but since 1946 the annual sale of new machinery has quadrupled. Today a farm without a tractor is the exception. Fortyfive thousand Saskatchewan farmers have combines, fifty thousand have trucks and sixty thousand have automobiles.

With mechanization the average operation and overhead costs per Saskatchewan farm have increased from one thousand dollars a year in 1941 to three thousand a year today. That’s the average; probably half the farmers have costs higher than three thousand. It’s cash and scientific know-how that run the prairie farm, not muscle. Most scientific advances — chemical weed control, fertilizer, improved livestock feeding—cost money. Many small farmers want to use farm science but simply can’t afford it.

But this doesn't alter the fact that the quarter section is out of date. It’s difficult to say how much land is enough. It might be anything upward from a three-quarter section, depending on markets, soil, rainfall, management, whether the farmer diversifies his crops, what standard of living he expects, how large a family he supports. But the commission visualizes this ideal “family farm”:

1. The operator makes all or most of the managerial decisions. While most men still want to own their land, farms entirely owned by their operators are the smallest in Saskatchewan and thus provide the lowest income. The trend is toward the partly owned, partly rented farm, averaging more than eight hundred acres.

2. The operator and his family provide most of the labor. Perhaps a hired man helps out at harvest or seeding but, in spite of larger farms, hired labor has sharply decreased.

3. The farm provides a reasonable income, in addition to the produce the family raises for itself. We consider a gross income of twenty-five hundred dollars a year, or less, inadequate.

4. The farmer, if renting, must have a secure, well-defined rental agreement. Too many rental agreements are verbal, short-term and with no legal provision for improvements.

Only forty-three percent of Saskatchewan farms qualify as family farms under these rules.

Contrary to popular opinion only three percent are working farms too large. But although huge farms are rare, small farmers still blame the large landholder for many of their troubles. I was astonished at the bitterness the commission found behind remarks like, “The big shots arc grabbing all the land,” or “We’re building a province of land barons.” At one of our central Saskatchewan meetings an embarrassed farmer stood up and apologized to his neighbors for owning more land than they.

Here the small farmer must face the facts: it's his farm that needs readjustment. But where will he get more land? We've settled most of the arable soil. Every year some four thousand would-be Saskatchewan farmers compete with established farmers for the estimated twenty-five hundred farms that go on the market.

At the same time, the situation is further complicated by the established but incompetent farmers. They must leave the land if any solution is to be reached. Here an agency, perhaps government operated, should help such men plan an orderly retreat to the city. The National Employment Service lists jobs for those who apply, but its service doesn't go far enough. Many farmers have never heard of NES and have no access to its offices. We should take detailed information on city jobs, wages and living costs and conditions to the farmer. In many instances vocational training and grants for moving will be needed.

If such men are helped into city jobs, vacated land will open up for the capable small farmer or the capable beginner. Assuming that we find a way to stabilize farm income through price measures and crop insurance, these farmers will next need credit to buy more land and machinery.

The Veterans’ Land Act has done a good job, but for veterans only. Shortterm loans are available from rural credit unions or under the Farm Improvements Loan Act from banks, but these are for farm improvements. The Canadian Farm Loan Board provides funds for purchase of land, but its policies are not designed to be of much help to low-income farmers. Father-son partnerships are usually verbal and often end in discord. One man told the commission, “When the deal ended Dad took the farm and 1 got the road.” Credit is usually not available to encourage useful partnerships. Banks aren't popular with low-income farmers; they say it’s too hard to get credit when you really need it.

What the farmer needs is a supervised national farm-credit program, sponsored by the federal government and patterned after the VLA. It would incorporate the best features of all existing loan schemes. It would not be easy credit: candidates would have to show good managerial ability and access to a minimum of working capital. But to those qualified it would supply fixed and working capital for established farmers, beginners, men on uneconomic farms, men who want to start other occupations and for fatherson partnerships—on terms adapted to the needs of agriculture.

Speaking of father-son partnerships reminds me of the Rugg family of Elstow. thirty-one miles southeast of Saskatoon —a family that doesn’t need help. James Rugg, pink-cheeked, cheerful and seventytwo, has savored every minute of his long farming career. A former instrumentmaker from London, England, he walked from Saskatoon to his Elstow quarter section behind a team of oxen in 1904.

Since 1914 he has specialized in registered seed grain. With it he built up a farm of eight hundred acres. When his three sons were old enough to work he paid them the going wage instead of doling out occasional pocket money.

The oldest put himself through university and is now a government agricultural representative. After World War II army veteran Bill, now thirty-seven, and air-force veteran Barry, thirty-two, each bought a half section from their father under the VLA. Barry took a two-year course in agriculture. The boys with their families now farm the entire eight hundred acres. Each has a house inside Rugg’s homestead shelterbelt of cottonwood, spruce and willow. Rugg, now retired in Saskatoon, pays each a monthly salary and an even share of the profit.

How to keep boys on the farm

Farmers as a class don’t pay enough attention to educating their children— educating them for efficient farming or for other work if they decide to. or have to, leave the farm. In all Saskatchewan only about thirty-three percent of the children who complete grade six go on to finish grade twelve. (That’s eight percent fewer than in Alberta, ten percent fewer than in Manitoba and twenty percent fewer than in B. C.) Only eight percent of them go to university. Five percent graduate and less than one percent go into postgraduate work.

For rural areas alone the percentage is even lower. In 1950 the Canadian Research Committee on Practical Education discovered that sixty-three percent of all Canadian farmers’ sons do not complete high school. This was the third highest incidence of “drop-outs” in Canada, exceeded only by the sons of semiskilled and unskilled laborers.

Some farmers discourage, rather than encourage, a high-school education. Not long ago a farmer with two sons—one eighteen, with a grade-eight education, the other twenty-three, with a grade-ten education—came to me with a question: “How can I keep rny boys on the farm?” he asked. He had a half section of land and twenty years ahead of him before retirement. Yet he was downright hostile when I suggested that his boys get more education and leave the farm.

That man is thinking in terms of 1920, not 1956. There is no longer a place on the land for every boy and girl. Fifty to sixty percent of them must now leave the farm every year. Without an education they end lip unemployed or with unskilled laboring jobs in the city.

But many small farmers have great difficulty financing a child's education. And you can't blame a man for wanting to keep his sons on the farm, or for fearing an alien world of streetcars, foremen and lunch pails.

There are opportunities for a far better farm life in this new agriculture hut it calls for difficult adjustments. No one likes change. Any way you look at it, it’s a tough time for the small farmer— particularly if we leave him to sink or swim. ★