COVER

TRAGEDY’S HUMAN FACE

JOHN DeMONT June 27 1988
COVER

TRAGEDY’S HUMAN FACE

JOHN DeMONT June 27 1988

TRAGEDY’S HUMAN FACE

COVER

Somewhere beyond the horizon, it begins. And by the time it whips across Old Wives Lake, 50 miles to the southwest of Regina, the dry wind is as hot and unrelenting as the air from an open blast furnace. Old Wives Lake, which is 18 miles long and 12 miles wide, used to be deep enough to water-ski on. But two months of scorching heat and nearly a year without a heavy rainfall have transformed the lake into a bone-dry desert of white dust. Even more destructive is what the drought has done to the surrounding land, which, in the past, supported vast herds of cattle. The oncefertile pastures are now deeply cracked and hardly produce a blade of green grass.

The only animal in view is a tired horse tied up in the front yard of one of the few remaining farmhouses in the area.

Scorching: That is the harsh reality of drought-devastated regions of the southern Prairies in the long, hot spring of 1988. The scorching heat and lack of rain have forced the relocation of livestock.

And if the drought does not break soon, many western farmers could lose all of this summer’s crops—and perhaps even their farms—as a result. But the hundreds of businesses that depend on farming for their prosperity are also threatened. And the bleak prospects for western farming are speeding the exodus of young people from rural areas to the cities.

The hardship is reflected in the eyes of the men and women who live on the Prairies—men like Melvin LaCasse, who has been farming near Old Wives Lake in southern Saskatchewan since the 1930s. LaCasse is philosophical about the risks of earning a living from the land. But as he surveys the cloudless sky and ravaged soil surrounding the lake, even he admits that he is worried about the future. “Two inches of

rain,” he said, holding up a grizzled thumb and index finger, “that’s what stands between getting the crop in and having to write the whole thing off.”

Blew: LaCasse is like thousands of other southern prairie farmers, from southeastern Alberta to southern Manitoba, who have watched helplessly as the sun and wind baked their crops and blew once-dark, rich topsoil into billowing clouds of dust. In the coffee shops and general stores, which double as social centres in small-town Manitoba and Saskatchewan, the conversation nearly always turns to rain. Even sun-wrinkled oldtimers who

can recall the devastating drought and economic depression of the Dirty ’30s say that the current dry spell could be the worst ever. The driest areas in the region, including Manitoba’s normally verdant Red River Valley, have not had a prolonged rainfall for 10 months.

The dry spell has been made all the worse because last winter there was barely any snow, and the critical spring runoff has been almost nonexistent for two years. Adding to the problems are the incessant winds, which, at their mildest, batter wheat stalks and scatter topsoil and, at their worst, form tornadoes, levelling nearly everything in their path.

Without more moisture, many crops will fail completely. And even if last week’s scattered showers turn into a widespread downpour, the best that many farmers can expect is a a poor crop. Said George Frerichs, who farms 1,000 acres near Rosetown, 70 miles southwest of Saskatoon: “Over six inches of rain will have to fall by harvest if we are to have a chance at an average crop.

Hopes of that are pretty well gone.”

For many, it is already too late. Last week, in the so-called sure-crop district of Kindersley, 125 miles southwest of Saskatoon, Arthur Walde, 53, was plowing under his 1988 crop—it had been scorched by 40°C heat as it emerged. With almost no winter snow cover and less than an inch of rain falling this spring, Saskatchewan agriculture department officials rate topsoil moisture conditions as poor. Said Walde, who farms about 4,000 acres: “It is the driest I have seen in my farming days.”

Ravaged: And hundreds of miles to the east at Roland, Man., in the heart of the drought-ravaged Red River Valley, the story is the same: last week’s sprinkling of rain was too little and too late. Said Roland grain farmer Harry McKnight, as he surveyed his parched farm from the seat of his tractor: “It is game over for the

wheat crop. With the heat and wind, not even a good rain would save it now.”

McKnight’s problems are shared by hundreds of other Red River Valley

farmers. The area, which contains some of the province’s richest farmland, is described by Manitoba Agriculture Minister Glen Findlay as “the most drought-ravaged area of Western Canada.” Hot, dry winds have ripped away topsoil and have dried up water supplies. Thirty-four communities in the region now face water shortages, and farmers often must line up for three hours at government wells to fill their tank trucks.

Pursue: The prospect of more dry weather and low grain prices is forcing more and more young people to pursue secure careers in Canada’s cities. As a result, family-owned farms are on the decline and farmers’ lives are changing forever. Ghost towns already dot the countryside in southern Saskatchewan. Once-thriving Ardill, a few miles from Old Wives Lake, now consists of only a beer hall, a post office—and nine inhabitants. And nearby Expanse, which once had 500 citizens, a bank and three hotels, is now home to only Ian Mitchell, a former

employee of the nearby Mossbank Coop, and his wife.

Many farmers say they are concerned that the drought—the fourth in a decade—could speed the exodus of young people. The dilemma facing the region’s young farmers is personified by LaCasse’s son Kevin, 28, who worked in the oilfields of Alberta before returning two years ago to start a crop-spraying business and farm some of his father’s land. But the spraying business has fallen off dramatically this year because most farmers in the area are not willing to hire him when there is little chance of harvesting a profitable crop. Now, Kevin says that he is again thinking about returning to the oil industry.

Suffering: The drought has taken a heavy toll in other ways as well. Cattle and other livestock are suffering and have had to be moved to northern Saskatchewan. Many of the region’s rivers, ponds and lakes—including Willowbunch Lake and Lake of the Rivers, which are both within 30 miles

of Old Wives Lake—have dried up. Meanwhile, acres of cropland and pastureland have been broiled into stunted, yellow straw. And wide tracts of the southern Prairie’s once-fertile soil have been baked into concrete—hard dirt and blazing sand—which, under the scorching afternoon sun, is too hot even to touch.

Acute: Facing acute water shortages, many towns and cities have instituted strict water-rationing rules. Some of the most extreme measures are in effect in the town of Assiniboia, Sask., where people caught watering lawns or gardens can be fined $500 and have their water supply cut off for 48 hours. But the most vivid example of how nature is conspiring against western farmers comes in the form of huge clouds of suffocating black dust, which billow seemingly out of nowhere to engulf whole towns. Recalled Rodney Dahlman, who farms 2,200 acres of land east of Assiniboia: “I was only a mile or so from home. But by the time I was in the door, it

was as dark as night. I looked up and saw a black wall about a mile away moving towards me.” In such bonedry towns as Rosetown, the dust gets so thick that drivers have been forced to turn on their headlights in the middle of the day. And, elsewhere, midafternoon dust storms have been dense enough to trigger darkness-activated outdoor lights.

Ruined: Although established farmers who own their land will be set back—but not ruined—by yet another crop failure, others will be more permanently hurt. Most devastated will be the younger, ambitious farmers who borrowed heavily to buy land about 10 years ago when economic forecasts said that the price of wheat, then at $6 a bushel, would reach $8. A less-than-average crop will make it hard for those debt-saddled farmers to meet their interest payments. Says Assiniboia farmer Walter Aim: “You can almost point out who will survive and who won’t.”

So far, such relative newcomers as Bruce Frank, 30, who farms 800 acres of land at Gravelbourg, Sask., just southwest of Moose Jaw, have been able to keep up with loans. But Frank has been saved by the salary that his wife, Karen, earns as a clerk with SaskPower Corp. Even so, he has had to take a second job as an industrial painter in Bateman to make ends meet. Said Frank: “I’ve been at this for seven years. Don’t ask me if I will be here in seven more.”

Drought-aggravated economic problems have already spread beyond the farmyard. Hardest hit are businesses that depend directly upon the farm industry for their prosperity. Gary Nelson, a John Deere farm-equipment dealer in Avonlea, near Regina, says that sales are already down by 35 per cent this year and that he has had to cut his staff by 10 of his 30 employees. Said Nelson: “Nine out of every 10 farmers need to replace their equipment but they are just putting off purchases.” In addition, the province’s small

towns are suffering from shrinking tax bases. Meanwhile, construction companies are quiet because new home building has almost dried up. And, despite the scorching heat, even prairie beer parlors are feeling the crunch. Says Orest Hilkewich, who

owns the Blue Hills Motor Inn in Avonlea: “The dollars simply are not there for luxuries.”

Plowed: The drought has forced desperate measures. In southern Alberta, where most of the ponds have dried up, farmers have plowed them up and seeded them to take advantage

of below-surface moisture. Many cattle farmers have also been shipping their, herds hundreds of miles to northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba to find green pastures. But the round trip costs about $90 a head, which makes it prohibitive for farmers with large herds. Meanwhile, well drillers are doing a booming business as farmers scramble to water their thirsty herds and crops. And also suddenly in demand are the so-called water witches who use divining rods to locate underground water sources.

Survive: But the

drought has also brought some communities together. Limerick, a village southwest of Regina with 175 residents, is in the very eye of the drought. When the village began running out of water last year, the town was able to survive by pumping water from a well on a local farmer’s land. But this year, nobody had water to ^ spare. Facing an even | more acute water short“ age, the town brought 3 in a hydrogeologist who found that the nearest water deposit was located under a gravel pit six miles from town. The town council is putting up $42,000, raised an identical amount from the provincial government and rented six miles of aluminum pipe. Then, over three back-breaking evenings, the people of Limerick pitched in to lay the pipeline. Said councillor David Skarban, who also owns Limerick’s sole general store: “It just shows what people can do when they have to.”

The farmers of southern Saskatchewan are stoic by nature—and necessity. The veterans among them say that you have to take the good with the bad. But there are limits to even their optimism. When things are as bleak as they are now, many farmers say that they would sell out—if they ^ could find anyone willing to buy. But then a few inches of 3 rain could change their minds.

JOHN DeMONT

DON ZAKRESKI

GARRY MOIR