The high cost of a drought

Patricia Hluchy August 27 1984

The high cost of a drought

Patricia Hluchy August 27 1984

The high cost of a drought

Patricia Hluchy

Doug Murfin knows that his crops are not the only casualties of this summer’s ruinous drought in the southern part of Canada’s prairie grain belt. Murfin’s dreams and his family’s future are also withering beneath the unrelenting sun and parched conditions that recall the disastrous “dust bowl” of the 1930s. Like hundreds of other western farmers, Murfin, who works 1,400 acres of land near Brocket, Alta., was already suffering from the impact of high interest rates and low produce prices, and he wonders if he will be able to recover from the blow of losing his entire wheat and barley crop to the drought. Said the 34-year-old father of three: “It may just close us right down unless we can get the creditors to let us run another year or lend us more money.”

Despair is just one of the consequences of the drought that scorched the prairie earth south of a line running from Brandon, Man., through Regina to Calgary. Although parts of that region have had rain during the past two weeks, it did not reverse the widespread damage caused by the preceding month of parched weather. The western grain and oilseed crops will be significantly below last year’s, and much less will be

available for export. Coupled with the direct loss of farm income caused by the drought—estimated at $900 million in Saskatchewan alone—the decline in earnings from sales abroad will slow the recovery of the recession-hit economies of the three Prairie provinces. As well,

the loss of feed crops in cattle-raising areas may lead to higher beef prices for Canadians next year.

As the drought worsened through the summer, infestations of grasshoppers, which thrive in hot, dry conditions, attacked many farms. Said Robert Mitchell, a farmer in the Pincher Creek, Alta., area: “I sprayed four times, but it was futile. They made the crop like summer fallow.”

The resulting toll has been heavy. An Environment Canada report late last month indicated that half the grain crops in southern Alberta and southern Saskatchewan had been lost and that grasshoppers had eaten more than 67,000 square miles of crops. In Winnipeg, the United Grain Growers co-operative estimated that the western Canadian grain and oilseed crop this year could be 27 per cent below last year’s, representing a total loss of about $1.5 billion in farm income. And, in spite of government aid, the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association in Toronto estimated that western cattle producers may sell off an additional 10 to 15 per cent more than the normal 13 per cent sell-off of 1.4 million beef cows this fall because of the damage caused to pasture land by the drought and because of feed and water shortages.

Indeed, many westerners are already feeling the economic impact, with merchants in farming centres recording declining sales of agricultural equipment, household appliances and even new clothes. Said Eugene Clermont, who has sold farm equipment in Assiniboia, Sask., for the past 17 years: “This is the first year that my equipment sales have gone down.” And the reverberations may well extend beyond the borders of stricken provinces. Declared Saskatchewan Premier Grant Devine: “If farmers have no money to spend, it means no tax money for government, it means they will not be buying equipment, and that means jobs will be lost in Ontario.” Nor can farmers whose crops survived expect to earn higher prices as a result of the smaller crop that will be taken as harvesting began across Western Canada last week. The reason: United States farmers have begun harvesting a record wheat crop that is expected to keep world grain prices at a low level.

At the same time, a sell-off of cows, calves and young steers by droughtaffected farmers may provide a shortterm benefit for consumers—followed by higher prices later. Heavy sales of animals that are not prime beef by farmers who cannot afford to maintain large breeding herds might mean lower prices for hamburger and other cheap cuts of meat this winter. But a smaller herd could also cause drastically higher prices in the long run as the supply of beef dwindles and it becomes necessary to import meat from other parts of Canada and the United States. Said Clifford Penno, manager of the Manitoba Pool Elevator livestock auction in Brandon: “Cattle herds in western Canada are depleted already just because of the economy. The present situation could lead to a shortage of beef and higher prices for consumers in about six months.”

In an attempt to prevent farmers from selling off their breeding herds, Ottawa is expected to contribute $30 million to a $60-million fund to help farmers pay for livestock feed this winter. Under the complicated Prairie Livestock Drought Assistance program, farmers in the hardest-hit areas will receive $48 per head for 85 per cent of their herds if they keep 75 per cent of them until next April. But some cattle producers, who have seen the price of hay nearly double in recent weeks as a result of the drought, say that that assistance will not be enough. According to Gary Decock, a 42-year-old cattle farmer near Deleau, Man., 80 km southwest of Brandon, the grants offered under the program would cover the cost of feeding an animal for only IV2 months of the winter. “It’s a bit of a joke,” said Decock, who noted that his own herd of 280 cattle is in poor condition from eating only leaves and scorched grass in his pastures. Decock is worried that the effects of the drought will make next year’s calf crop late, small and of poor quality. Added Decock: “It’s getting to the point where the fittest are surviving and I’m hoping I’m one of the fittest.”

As a way of helping grain farmers, Ottawa this month announced early payment of $100 million under the Western Grain Stabilization Program that supplements a farmer’s income if it falls below a five-year average. An additional $500 million will be advanced after Jan. 1, 1985. Last week, the premiers of the two hardest-hit provinces —Alberta and Saskatchewan—telexed Prime Minister John Turner to plead for an additional $750 million in federal support for hard-pressed farmers. Premiers Peter Lougheed and Grant Devine noted that Ottawa had bailed out other Canadian industries in the past and now “the time has come to aid Canadian agriculture.” But so far the federal government has turned a deaf ear to pleas by the three Prairie premiers for disaster assistance to save their floundering agricultural industries. Said Henri Vandermeulen, policy adviser to federal Agriculture Minister Ralph Ferguson: “The words disaster zone have been bandied around without reference to what that would mean. The government cannot start handing out money on forecasts.”

For farmers like Malcolm Condie of Kincaid, Sask., in the province’s southwest, the disaster has already happened. Condie, 41, took over his father’s farm in 1971 and paid $33,000 last year in interest payments to the bank. After seeing his crop ravaged by the drought this summer, Condie, who, like about 75 per cent of western farmers, is covered by government-subsidized crop insurance, expects to be saved from bankruptcy by an insurance payout of up to $44,000 in compensation for a crop of only six bushels an acre, instead of the 20 bushels an acre that his farm usually yields. But crop insurance only cushions the blow, without fully compensating farmers for lost income. Said Condie: “Another year like this and I would be through.”

Now, farmers are praying for heavy snowfalls this winter so that moisture reserves in the soil can be replenished. Without that, many of them will be in trouble again next year. In the meantime, Doug Murfin hopes to make it through the winter with the income from his wife’s j ob as a secretary, and by selling some of his farm equipment. His greatest fear is that he will not have enough money to plant new crops. Said Murfin: “Something is going to have to give or a lot of us are going to go under. I was born and raised here, and it hurts a lot to give up.”

With Bill Corbett in Calgary, Dale Eisler in Regina, Laura Ranee in Winnipeg and Hilary Mackenzie in Ottawa.

Bill Corbett

Dale Eisler

Laura Rance

Hilary Mackenzie