CANADA

A superdrought in the West

MARY MCIVER July 29 1985
CANADA

A superdrought in the West

MARY MCIVER July 29 1985

A superdrought in the West

CANADA

With every step that he takes across the pasture land he owns at Divide, Sask., near the Montana border, rancher Pete Butala stirs up a cloud of dust. Last winter the snow that Butala was counting on to supply moisture for his land failed to fall in sufficient quantities, and since early May no rain has fallen on his 13,000-acre spread. Across large tracts of the Prairie provinces—and particularly in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan—grain and cattle farmers are experiencing similar conditions as drought grips the grain belt for the third year in a row. “If you define the past three years as drought,” says Gerald Beaubier, area manager for the federally administered Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration in Swift Current, “then this is superdrought.” The parched conditions, which set in this spring just as farmers in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba finished fighting off plagues of crop-devouring grasshoppers, could spell another year of economic hardship for thousands of Prairie farmers. Ken Bunnage, a regional farm economist for the provincial government in Lethbridge, Alta., estimated that 20 per cent of the area’s farmers could face severe financial dif-

ficulties by the autumn. “Some farmers are having problems finding enough to eat,” said Bunnage. “The benevolence of banks last year kept a lot of farmers going, and this is worse than last year.” Even farmers in regions unaffected by grasshoppers or drought who manage to produce healthy crops this year are unlikely to turn much of a profit. “Grain prices haven’t kept pace with the price of seed, fertilizer, chemicals and machinery parts,” said Kenneth Sydnes, who farms near Brownvale, Alta. “It’s pretty hard to get a return on your investment or even make a living.”

Already, this year’s drought, which covers most of Alberta south of Red Deer and the southern one-fifth of Saskatchewan and extends into a pocket of southwestern Manitoba, is being compared to the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s. In the Lethbridge area only 1.3 inches of rain had fallen between May 1 and last week—the smallest amount recorded in the past 83 years. Said Barry

Bishop, an agricultural representative in Assiniboia, Sask.: “It is desperate out there.” As a result of the wretched growing conditions, federal agriculture officials now have all but abandoned hopes of any substantial improvement on last year’s disappointing 35.4-million-ton grain harvest.

While grain farmers watch their crops wither and die, cattle farmers are having trouble feeding their herds as the drought drives up feed prices. In Alberta ranchers are selling off cattle because they cannot afford to buy hay, which is selling for as much as $140 a ton, up from a range of $100 to $110 a ton a year ago. In Saskatchewan beef cattle herds that took decades to build are being auctioned off, and even calves, which usually are marketed later in the season, are being sent to market at the rate of 100 to 500 a day. To make matters worse, ranchers complain that they will £ earn less for their liveri stock this year as a result i of Ottawa’s decision last

May to allow increased quantities of government-subsidized European beef to be sold on the Canadian market. Said Christopher Mills, a policy adviser to the Alberta Cattle Commission: “The mood in the industry is not all that optimistic.”

Sagging prices are a problem besetting grain farmers as well. Given the massive grain surpluses currently on hand in the United States and forecasts of a bumper crop in the Soviet Union, the International Wheat Council has projected an estimated world production record of 524 million tons of wheat this year. As a result, the Canadian Wheat Board has reduced the prices of the crop. Only five years ago top-grade Canadian milling wheat was selling for $8 a bushel; now the price is hovering around $4 and will probably go lower. Nor is the poor harvest that now seems likely across the Prairies in the fall likely to move world prices higher, since Canada’s share of global production is too small to have any effect on international price levels. “It doesn’t really matter how much grain Canada has,” said Brian Hayward, manager of research for the United Grain Growers Ltd. in Winnipeg, “if everybody else has the product and lots of it.”

The combined impact of drought and poor grain prices is forcing farmers from their land. Legislation enacted in Saskatchewan last year protects farmers from foreclosure on their mortgages, providing they make a reasonable effort to meet their debts. But in Alberta the combination of rising costs and low incomes has forced 37 farmers to give up their land so far this year, reflecting a steady increase from the 33 bankruptcies in the same period last year and 19 the year before.

As they face yet another year of widespread economic hardship, western farmers are pressing for governments to help them out. While Alberta and Saskatchewan already have spent an estimated $15 million this year to help combat the grasshopper infestation, last week the Saskatchewan government announced grants to cattlemen in drought-stricken areas of $60 per head of livestock.

That should be good news for farmers like Ronald Nelubowich, who runs a grain and cattle farm near Robsart, Sask., and will have to rely on crop insurance to help meet his mortgage payments this year. Insurance company officials have already declared his crop a total writeoff for the second consecutive year. But Nelubowich wants rain —not in hopes of saving his ruined crops, but to settle the dust in his devastated wheat fields.

-MARY MCIVER, with Bill Corbett in Calgary, John Miner in Regina and Garry Moir in Winnipeg.