AGRICULTURE

Adding spice to the Prairies

BRENDA DALGLISH September 13 1993
AGRICULTURE

Adding spice to the Prairies

BRENDA DALGLISH September 13 1993

Adding spice to the Prairies

AGRICULTURE

Gary Schweitzer’s coriander crop has been causing a stir in Eston, in the heart of some of Saskatchewan’s best wheat-growing land, 150 km southwest of Saskatoon. Schweitzer, 36, planted 1,278 acres of the feathery Mediter-ranean spice plant this year, and everyone in the small farming community is watching his fields with curiosity. His wife, Susanne, 32, says that neighbors occasionally confess to pulling up a few plants to use in their salads. (When the plant is grown for its leaves, rather than its seeds, it is known as cilantro, a parsley-like herb). But others are less enthusiastic. “Some people don’t like the smell, especially in the spring before it flowers,” said Gary. “I’ve been told it smells like dead bugs.” But Schweitzer says that he will keep experimenting with such spice crops as cumin, dill, fenugreek (an ingredient in curry) and caraway, the grasshoppers’ favorite, because they are more profitable than wheat. “I grew wheat on 40 per cent of my acreage last year,” he said, “but it amounted to just five per cent of my revenue.”

Schweitzer was one of the first farmers in Saskatchewan to grow spice crops commercially when he started in 1988. But now, many others are trying out unconventional new crops. Although wheat is still by far the largest crop grown on the Prairies, heavily subsidized grain growers in France and the

United States are flooding world wheat markets and depressing prices. As a result, Canadian grain farmers have also become heavily dependent on government subsidies. But even with that support, wheat alone will no longer pay the bills for many families who are carrying large debts for land and equipment. However, the new crops, like lentils, peas, mustard, canary

Poor wheat prices are forcing farmers to try new crops. The results are surprising.

seed, sunola, borage, spices and even rose hips, pose new challenges of their own. Not only do farmers have to worry about the idiosyncrasies of raising the unfamiliar crops, for the first time in their careers they also have to find markets for the products themselves, rather than relying on an established marketing board to sell their crop. They also have to contend with agricultural policies that are designed to support traditional crops, but that can discour-

age them from diversifying. “We have always grown high-volume, low-value crops in Saskatchewan,” said Schweitzer. “But we can’t make money doing that any more. In the future, we’re going to have to look for high-value crops, even if they’ll never match the volumes of wheat.”

Wheat has been king in the West for most of this century. Saskatchewan farmers seeded nine million acres of wheat in 1916, the first year for which records are available. This year, they planted 19 million of the 32 million acres of wheat seeded in Canada. Not only are the Prairies well suited to growing grass crops like wheat, oats and barley, but decades of research have perfected agricultural techniques for those crops so that yields have increased significantly. An acre of land in Saskatchewan yielded an average of 860 kg of wheat in the bumper-crop year of 1991, compared with 445 kg in 1916, another year when growing conditions were ideal. But the price of wheat has not kept up with inflation. In 1916, a tonne of wheat sold for an average of $47. By 1980, it reached an all-time high of $206. But in 1992, after a decade of escalating international subsidy wars, the price had declined to $113. ‘Wheat is still the biggest crop, and it’s going to be for a long time yet,” said Hartley Furtan, Saskatchewan’s deputy minister of agriculture and food. “But we’re actively trying to encourage the development and adoption of new specialty crops.”

With the continuing slump in wheat prices, many farmers are now showing interest in the new crops. The reason: profits. In 1992, while an acre of wheat earned an average net income of just $13.36, canola paid $32.71 and lentils earned $51.73 an acre. Some exotic crops paid even more. Coriander, for instance, is netting about $75 an acre now. Attracted by those higher returns, the number of acres devoted to specialty crops in Saskatchewan has grown steadily in the past decade. In the past year alone, Saskatchewan fanners almost doubled the acreage devoted to specialty crops to 3 million acres, not counting the 4.7 million acres of canola, the oilseed crop that was first planted in the early 1940s, and which has now become as common as the traditional grains.

Despite the successes, most Prairie farmers are still reluctant to try the riskier new crops. Overall, only about 10 per cent of Canada’s 100,000 Prairie farmers are growing them. Alfred Slinkard, a University of Saskatchewan crop scientist in Saskatoon who pioneered the development of lentils as a Prairie crop and who has contributed significantly to making Canada the second-largest lentil exporter in the world, says that growing wheat is just too easy. “I tell the farmers I talk to that their 14-year-old sons could probably go out and grow a decent crop of wheat,” says Slinkard. “It requires a minimum level of management to get an average yield.” One of the reasons for that: through years of research, scientists have developed a range of herbicides and crop management techniques for the traditional grain crops. But similar research on some of the newer specialty crops is just beginning. Gary Schweitzer, for instance, says that he now grows wheat in some of his fields each year mainly to control weeds, not to make money. When he seeds a field with wheat, he knows what herbicides he can use safely to clear the field of weeds. But many conventional herbicides damage the newer specialty crops, like coriander, which are not members of the grass family. Herbicides for those new specialty crops have not been perfected yet.

Canadian agricultural policies have also discouraged diversification by subsidizing traditional crops and, at times, acting as disincentives for farmers to try new crops. Said Ken Rosaasen, an agricultural economist at the University of Saskatchewan: ‘The policies have created dependencies. It wasn’t intentional, but it’s like that song about Appalachian coal mining: they owe their souls to the company store.” Hubert Esquirol, president of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association, says that Prairie farmers are now divided into two camps: collectivists, who want to stick to the traditional crops and traditional marketing structures, and free enterprisers, who are willing to try growing whatever they can on their land that will make a profit. Said Esquirol: Too many of our agricultural policies have been designed with a single pur-

pose in mind: to grow grain for export.” Now that government finances have become so constrained, he says, farmers recognize that the billions of dollars that they have received in support payments in the past decade may not be there in another 10 years.

But Schweitzer’s experience illustrates how difficult it can be for a farmer to diversify. First, Schweitzer says, it took him almost five years of talking to health food stores and searching through the yellow pages from cities across North America before he found enough spice wholesalers to buy his crops. As well, Schweitzer had to be in a financial position to take on extra risk. By growing coriander instead of wheat, Schweitzer is ineligible for the major grain subsidy programs which, in effect, guarantee farmers a minimum income. In addition to those extra risks, crop insurance for such new specialty crops as coriander is so expensive, Schweitzer says, that he cannot afford it. This summer, a hailstorm destroyed part of his coriander crop.

Deputy agriculture minister Furtan acknowledges that more government policies need to be modified to encourage diversification. Schweitzer, however, is not complaining about his flattened coriander. Like many younger farmers, he longs to break the demoralizing chains of government dependency—and he is not afraid of assuming extra risk to do it.

The only kind of government support

that he would like to see is more research and development on the new crops.

Sitting in Susanne’s immaculate kitchen, eating lentil cookies as some much-needed August sun shone down on his fields, Schweitzer was optimistic about the future of farming. “We’ve only been here for a hundred years,” he said of Saskatchewan. “That isn’t long enough to have discovered all of the things that we can grow in this place.” A few years ago, he planted about 15 different kinds of plants in rows in his garden, hoping to find one or two potential new crops. “In the end, it turned out that the problem was not finding one that would grow, it was choosing just one from a whole bunch of good possibilities.” For many westerners, wheat may still be king. But, thanks to the Schweitzer experiment and others like it, farmers are now learning that wheat is not the only thing that will grow in the beautiful, harsh extremes of the Canadian Prairies.

BRENDA DALGLISH

in Eston