DUST-DRY SOIL, DWARF CROPS AND HARD TIMES FOLLOW THE WORST PRAIRIE DROUGHT IN MEMORY
DUST-DRY SOIL, DWARF CROPS AND HARD TIMES FOLLOW THE WORST PRAIRIE DROUGHT IN MEMORY
The summer was unrelenting, with its scorching heat and dust-blown horizons. The images of human failure were also unrelenting: farmers standing in their fields, letting the dust-dry soil slip between their fingers as withered crops that should have been waist-high barely brushed their ankles. Now, with the approach of autumn, there is a grim futility to harvesttime in much of the Prairies as farmers in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba reap the meagre crops that survived what some of them call the worst drought in memory. It is also a time of cruel irony— after years of low wheat prices, the drought has pushed prices up. But few farmers will be in a position to take advantage of that. Said Jacques Poissant, who farms 1,280 acres on the traditionally bountiful land near Sedley, Sask., 45 km southeast of Regina: “Nothing times something is still nothing.”
In his 15 years of farming, Poissant says, he has never seen a crop as poor as the one that he is harvesting this year. In the past, his average yield was as much as 30 bushels per acre; this year his land is grudgingly giving him three to nine bushels per acre. According to some estimates, this year’s total grain crop could be down by 31 per cent to about 38 million tons because of the drought. And despite the safety net of government aid and crop insurance—Ottawa alone is expected to provide $1.3 billion to drought-stricken farmers within the next few weeks—the drought has wreaked havoc on the western economy. But what is even more frustrating
for Poissant is that, like many devastated western farmers, he can look across the gently rolling Saskatchewan landscape and see, a few kilometres away, neighbors with crops that are better than his. “Timing this year was everything,” Poissant said. “The lucky ones got a thundershower just at the right time—and they are going to do all right.”
That phenomenon has been repeated across the Prairies, from the Red River Valley south of Winnipeg to the southern reaches of Alberta. While hot, dry weather scorched much of the area, there were pockets that received enough rainfall at critical times to save most of the crops. So erratic was the drought pattern that a farmer could have drought on one part of his property while another part was the beneficiary of an unexpected shower.
Gerald Holland farms two separate parcels of land near Avonlea, Sask., 75 km southwest of Regina. But although those properties are only 25 km apart, there were dramatically different results. On the 700 acres that surround his home, Holland has been harvesting as many as 30 bushels of durum wheat per acre, a very good yield that he attributes to sudden and isolated thundershowers in early May and June. But on his other piece of land, baked brown by the sun, he says that yield has been substantially less—as low as 10 bushels per acre. “Everyone is saying that it seems to be the luck of the draw,” Holland said.
But the poor harvest, which Canadian Wheat Board officials say could leave Canadian producers with a 15-million-ton shortfall from 1987 export levels of 32 million tons, has surprised no one. An unusually mild and snowless winter in 1987 resulted in ground moisture levels already well below normal in the spring. Then, during a rainless and oppressively hot summer, the drought tight-
ened its grip on the land almost weekly. Average temperatures were up almost everywhere on the Prairies—in Regina, rising to 22.6°C (73°F) in June from an average of 15.9°C (61°F) in preceding years. And for that same month, rainfall was down in the Regina area to as little as 1% inches from an average of three inches in past years.
In addition to stunting the crops, the drought also forced many cattle farmers to ship their animals to provincially administered pastures where water was available— in some cases hundreds of kilometres away. In the meantime, with ponds and wells gone dry, governments were forced to step in with emergency aid for farmers who needed to haul water or for communities digging wells to replenish their dwindling reservoirs. In Saskatchewan alone, the government set aside an additional $8.5 million in June for well-drilling assistance. The province has received more than 2,500 applications so far this year compared with only 663 for all of 1987.
For those farmers who are lucky enough to have respectable yields this fall, the drought may result in a windfall. After years of low grain prices—partially a result of international subsidies that have kept prices down—the reduced grain stocks across North America have already pushed prices up by as much as $70 a ton. Indeed, the current asking price for a ton of top-grade wheat is about $250—a 35-per-cent increase over the May price of $180. And for his part, Brian Stacey, information officer at the Canadian Wheat Board in Winnipeg, says that those price increases are a direct reflection
of the scarcity created by the drought. Said Stacey: “We are in a very sharply reduced exportable supply situation.”
At the same time, the impact of the drought is already being felt throughout the western economy. At the Lake Superior port of Thunder Bay, Ont., which handles up to 50 per cent of Canadian international and domestic wheat shipments, a total of 400 grain handlers, railway workers and others directly associated with grain handling have been laid off. So far this year, 7.5 million tons of grain have been shipped through Thunder Bay— down 12 per cent from the 8.5 million tons shipped by the same time last year. And in a chilling prediction, Thunder Bay Harbour Commission controller William Trochimchuk told Maclean ’s that the worst is still to come. “People were holding back deliveries because of the drought, hoping the price would come up,” he said. “What we are concerned about is next year—when there won’t be anything to deliver from this year’s crop.” On the Prairies, the adverse effects of the drought are abundantly evident. In Rosetown, Sask., 270 km northwest of Regina, Robert McNab said that farmers, squeezed first by low prices and now hit with a drought, do not have money to spend—and that is filtering down through the economy. McNab, who owns a menswear store on Main Street, said that he is planning to attend a three-day sales show of new menswear in Saskatoon next week. But he added that show is not likely to lead to many orders from the merchants who attend. “Everyone tells the salesmen that they will come, but only to look and maybe buy later,” McNab said. “Before, people would do their buying right at the show.”
While small-town merchants are suffering, the one business that is probably bearing the biggest brunt of the drought is the farm machinery industry. Traditionally, farm equipment outlets have been the business backbone of most Prairie towns. Although no industry-wide figures are available yet for this year, Murray Westby of Watrous, Sask., president of the Saskatchewan-Manitoba Implement Dealers’ Association, said that this year is one of the worst he has seen in 31 years in the business. Westby estimated that seasonal sales for such “big-ticket items” as combines and tractors are down by more than 50 per cent from 1987. And, he added, “don’t forget last year was not very good either.”
Still, most farmers will be protected from the more extreme ravages of the drought. The Western Grain Stabilization Fund, paid into by farmers, is expected to give an estimated $1 billion to Prairie farmers suffering as a result of the drought. Farmers will also receive about $500 million in federal and provincial crop insurance payments. Among many farmers, there has also been a strong sense that, with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney poised to call an election, further help will be forthcoming from Ottawa. Indeed, in 1986—a year of particularly low prices—the federal government established a precedent by issuing a $1-billion farm deficiency payment that was divided between all farmers who had crops planted that year. Now, federal officials are expected to announce a further $ 1.3-billion drought relief package within the next two weeks.
That package, though, may not offer the sort of widespread relief that many in the West are hoping for. Finance Minister Michael Wilson has already said that such a support package—if it comes—will only be intended for those hit hardest by the drought. But whatever the details, Hartley Furtan, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of Saskatchewan, said that something is needed to see the farm economy through the winter until next spring, when seeding can again begin. Said Furtan: “The government needs to ensure that any money it provides feeds into the farm economy for things like equipment and fertilizer. We do not want to see it simply going to pay down debt,” Indeed, the drought has clearly deepened the crisis in Canadian agriculture. Warned Furtan: “Nothing is moving out there. We are losing our economy.” For farmers like Jacques Poissant, such dire predictions only add to the despair of the dustblown summer of 1988.
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