Winter of Discontent

Farmers are hurting—and afraid that a way of life is fast disappearing

Brian Bergman February 28 2000

Winter of Discontent

Farmers are hurting—and afraid that a way of life is fast disappearing

Brian Bergman February 28 2000
Sitting in his farmhouse on the same land his grandfather first homesteaded in 1904, Brad Clark is the picture of dejection. Eyes often downcast, his voice flat and devoid of emotion, the 56-year-old Milden, Sask., farmer relates what is now a commonly told tale on the Canadian Prairies. A 1,900-acre grain farm that once provided Clark with a comfortable living is currently running at a 30-per-cent annual loss as Clark struggles with the one-two punch of skyrocketing production costs and near record-low commodity prices. And as he contemplates putting another potentially money-losing crop in the ground, Clark finds the joy is gone from the only life he has ever known. “I used to love the smell of the earth in the spring,” he says. “You'd be optimistic and have a few dollars in your pocket. Now, there’s just no incentive to be excited about anything.”

Like Clark, many Prairie grain farmers report a sense of impending doom—and desperate times are sparking desperate measures. On Feb. 7, dozens of angry farmers and their families launched a round-the-clock sit-in at the Saskatchewan legislature to try to pressure the provincial government to provide $300 million in new farm aid, which they hoped would in turn trigger a further $ 1-billion bailout from Ottawa. The province refused to budge, insisting that the farm-income crisis was a federal responsibility. Last week, the sit-in abruptly ended with a bizarre twist when Regina police swooped down in the night to clear the protesters out of the legislature’s cafeteria, where they lay sleeping. According to Chief Cal Johnston, the police had received a threat that “persons unknown” would be arriving at the building the following morning “with firearms and that there would be shooting and possibly somebody would be killed.” Johnston declined to indicate who the threat targeted, and at week’s end, police said they were continuing their investigation.

While up to 70 farmers continued to demonstrate outside the legislature, two of the most vocal members of the sit-in, Arlynn and Lillian Kurtz, flew to Ottawa to lobby federal politicians about their plight. The couple, mixed-grain farmers from Stockholm, Sask., say that, without further government assistance, they and many of their neighbors cannot afford to plant a crop this spring. Time, they add, is of the essence, which is why they are pressing Ottawa to provide substantial new farm relief in the Feb. 28 federal budget—a prospect that Macleans has learned grew more likely after Prime Minister Jean Chretien privately signaled his support for the idea last week (page 20).

How bad is it on the land? Over the past two years, the world price for wheat has plummeted by more than 40 per cent. To offset those losses, many farmers have shifted increasingly to other crops, including canola, peas and lentils. But as production of such specialty crops ratchets up, market prices in many cases are also taking a tumble. The impact of low grain prices is being felt on farms across the country. But in Ontario, for example, losses on the grain side are more than offset by other thriving farm sectors, including dairy and poultry. It is on the Prairies and especially in Saskatchewan—which alone accounts for 40 per cent of all cultivated land in Canada and has long served as the nation’s breadbasket—where the scars run deepest.

Perhaps the most alarming statistics come from Agriculture Canada, which regularly tracks something called “realized net income”—the amount of farm revenue earned from all sources after depreciation of equipment and buildings has been deducted. For 1999, it is estimated that the net income for Saskatchewan’s 55,000 farmers will total $96 million—an average of $ 1,745 per farm. That is down dramatically from the five-year average of $740 million, or $13,000 per farm, for the years 19931998, a period of strong grain prices. And if current trends were to persist, federal projections call for net income in Saskatchewan to briefly increase to $294 million this year, before crashing into losses of $318 million in 2001, $186 million in 2002 and $161 million in 2003. If that came to pass, it would represent the | worst sustained farm-income crisis since the Depression.

Federal forecasters maintain that such a | doomsday scenario is unlikely. Farmers, they say, will adjust in ways that soften the overall blow to the industry, including further diversifying their crops, increasing the size and efficiency of their farms or abandoning the land altogether. All of this would reinforce trends that have been in play for decades. Between 1936 and 1996 (the last census year), the number of farms in Saskatchewan steadily dropped, from 142,391 to 56,995. During that same period, the average farm size climbed from 400 acres to 1,152 acres. Some are much larger still, with many grain farms now running in excess of 5,000 acres. If properly financed and managed, such operations can make money even when commodity prices are quite low. Jack Stabler, chairman of the University of Saskatchewan’s agricultural economics department, observes: “It’s a bit like Wal-Mart’s retailing philosophy, where they make a small profit off each sale, but generate a tremendous amount of sales. Sometimes you have to farm an awful lot of land because you are only making a few cents on each bushel.” While most of the farms remain family-owned, the inexorable move towards larger farms has contributed to the slow death of countless rural communities. Recent market forces threaten to accelerate that process. The commodities nosedive dates back to the mid-1990s when, encouraged by strong prices, the world’s grain farmers expanded production. Then, in 1997 and 1998, food-importing nations in east Asia and Latin America, as well as Russia, suffered internal economic crises that drove down demand and depressed prices for Western grains and hogs. Europe and the United States responded with massive subsidies. Today, European governments’ support for wheat farmers amounts to just under $6 per bushel, while their American counterparts receive about $2.50 per bushel. The Canadian government, by contrast, provides subsidies of about 40 cents per bushel.

The net effect of the high European and American subsidies was to encourage even more grain production and further depress the world price available to Canadian grain farmers, who export 85 per cent of their product. But the price squeeze is just part of their dilemma. In 1995, Ottawa did away with the last vestiges of the historic Crow rate, which had reduced the cost to farmers of moving their grain to port for export by as much as $600 million annually. The Canadian Wheat Board estimates that, since the Crow was scrapped, the average railway freight rate for a farmer in the middle of the Prairies has more than doubled, from $ 15 per tonne to $34 per tonne. At the same time, the prices farmers must pay for fertilizer, chemicals and machinery have all climbed steadily.

In December, 1998, Ottawa responded to the farmers’ plight with the two-year, $900-million Agriculture Income Disaster Assistance program, which was later topped up by $170 million and matched by another $600 million from the provinces. But farmers complain that the AIDA program was bureaucratic and cumbersome—in some cases, farmers received claim cheques for as little as $18, which cost several times that to process—and often the producers in greatest need failed to benefit. Last October, Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow went to Ottawa to demand $1 billion more in emergency aid for his province’s farmers alone. He was joined by Manitoba Premier Gary Doer, who was looking for $300 million. That request was flatly rejected. Last month, federal Agriculture Minister Lyle Vanclief promised another $ 1 billion in aid for all Canadian farmers over the next two years—a figure that federal sources say may be boosted in the budget by another $200 million to $500 million, if eleventh-hour talks with the Prairie provinces can be wrapped up in time.

Still, the frustration, and fury, among many Saskatchewan farmers has been steadily building. It is directed at governments but also, in part, at a public that they believe takes the bread on their table for granted. “We’re the only workers in Canada not allowed to make a cost-of-living,” declares Lloyd Pletz, one of the organizers of the Regina sit-in. “Even people on welfare get that. We have to beg and holler and protest and still we get nothing. We’re not going to take it anymore.”

This year is the worst that we can remember. We had a very wet spring and couldn’t get seeding early. When we could get out there, we could only seed portions of the fields because of the wet conditions. After what looked like good growing conditions, we hoped for a good yield to make up for the low prices we would be getting. Then we had an early frost and harvesting proved to be one disappointment after another.

We have many neighbors who have decided to get out of active farming. How far can this go before we run out of people willing to farm the land? We have encouraged our three sons to pursue a good education so they will be able to make a decent living. They hope that the farm will be here for them if and when they can afford to come back to it. We don’t see any future here because we have lost so much equity over the last few years.

How long can we afford to dump money into this farm? Why do we have to provide food below the cost of production? We do not feel benevolent any longer. We have farmed long enough and had hoped that all our years of risk and labor would count for something. Now, we will lose it all!—From a Nov. 23, 1999, submission by Sheila Farden of Davidson, Sask., to the letter campaign organized by Carol Skelton

Many farmers near the village of Milden, 160 km southwest of Saskatoon, can trace their roots back to the early 20th century when their forefathers arrived in the area, usually to homestead a quarter-section (160 acres) and break sod behind a horse or ox-driven plow. Much has changed in the intervening years: farms have grown bigger, farm machinery has become more efficient, and specialty crops and exotic livestock have found a home where wheat once reigned supreme. But perhaps the biggest change is that farming is rapidly becoming an old person’s occupation, as younger people flee to the towns and cities in search of better opportunities.

Noel and Carol Skelton, who operate a 2,200-acre farm 25 km north of Milden, have adjusted to the new realities better than most. In addition to the 1,400 acres of grain they seed each year, the Skeltons have recently switched from raising purebred cattle to elk and bison. As he takes a visitor on a tour of his farm on a brilliantly sunny February afternoon, Noel, 56, explains that it costs less than half as much to feed bison as cattle, while their meat is twice as valuable. He is also finding ready markets for the velvet from the antlers of his elk, prized in Asian medicine. Noel says his attempts to diversify strike some neighbors as radical: “They’re just trying to survive doing what they know best—and they’re losing.”

While Noel and Carol—who has an off-farm job as a rural co-ordinator for Canadian Blood Services—are comfortable enough, both of their sons have tried, and failed, to make a living at farming on their own. Ted, 32, now runs a service station in Edmonton, while Mark, 27, is a mechanic in Regina. “We haven’t lost our farm,” notes Carol, 54, “but we’ve lost our family. And we’re not alone. There’s a whole lost generation that isn’t coming back. There won’t be anybody to take over from us when we’re done.”

It was these kinds of thoughts that ran through Carol’s mind when she read excerpts from a now infamous interview the federal agriculture minister gave to the Winnipeg Free Press in November. In it, Vanclief likened Ottawa’s rejection of a new bailout for Prairie farmers to a form of “tough love” intended to weed out farmers who would not survive no matter how much government money they received. A massive new aid program, he added, would send the wrong signal to farmers who run profitable operations. “I have had farmers say to me very clearly, and these are not my words, ‘Don’t you dare bail those bastards out,’ ” Vanclief said.

After stewing over those remarks for two weeks, Carol Skelton decided to act. In a letter published in several rural Saskatchewan newspapers, she urged farm families to write her about their struggles and challenges. To date, she has received more than 100 letters, 40 of which have been tabled at the provincial legislature. The letters (some of which appear on these pages) put a human face on the farm-income crisis—which is exactly what Skelton had hoped to do. “Farmers are very proud people who are brought up not to ask for handouts,” she says. “To admit they have problems is a big thing for them—a lot are still in denial.”

When farmers suffer hardship, the entire rural economy takes a beating. Milden, a village of about 200 people, bears its share of bruises. In recent years, Milden has lost a hospital, a bank and two grocery stores. The exodus of young families is obvious at the only local school, which is down to a mere 60 students spread over 12 grades. It has also taken a toll on that most Saskatchewan of passions: hockey. Longtime residents recall when Milden alone boasted four or five bantam hockey teams. Now, it has to pool its young people with others from neighboring towns to lace up even one.

Hugh Sinclair runs the only remaining grocery store in Milden. At age 79, he says he keeps it going because seniors need a place to shop that is within walking distance. But after 55 years in the business, Sinclair has rarely seen such sluggish sales. “It’s gone all to hell,” he says. “I don’t know how long the doors can stay open.” Across the street, at Milden’s only restaurant, owners Susanna and Peter Li tell a similar tale. They arrived from Hong Kong 14 years ago and recall when their lunch and dinner trade was brisk, with young parents and children filling the seats. But in the past two years, business has dropped 50 per cent. “Now all you see,” says Susanna, “is old farmers sitting around drinking coffee.”

The restaurant is indeed “coffee row” for farmers, a place where they gather to swap jokes and grouse about the sad state of their industry. One recent morning, Tony Wisse, a local councilor, was holding forth on a familiar bugbear—that a subsidy like the Crow rate, which benefited western farmers, is gone, while dairy and poultry producers, largely concentrated in Ontario and Quebec, continue to enjoy protection from market forces thanks to government tariffs. “The East don’t care about the West and never did,” declares Wisse.

At another table, grain farmer Ed Mourre ponders the sit-in in Regina. Mourre figures it is just the start of a new militancy that could include blockades or a rural tax revolt. The farmer, he suggests, “is like a wild animal—if you get him in a corner, he’s going to bite back.”

The farm crisis is real, despite Mr. Chrétien’s suave assurances to the contrary. Our net income has been steadily falling. It no longer is the occasional weather disasters that we have to contend with, but the systematic destruction of every possible source of income. In spite of wide diversification of crops, there are no good prices. There is no chance to build up a little in good years to see you through the inevitable lean years.

But it is not just the farm crisis that hurts. It is the total destruction of rural areas. Hospitals closed—even when we have a dedicated doctor willing to stay in the area. (He now runs himself ragged trying to cover three “health centers.”) Schools closed—and more and more families opting to home-school rather than submit their children to the daily abuse of long bus rides. Farm couples working at two, three or more jobs to try to make ends meet.

It is not just the farm crisis. It is having to drive farther and farther for everything, whether it is to get the mail or buy parts for the combine or take your kid to the volleyball game or your uncle to emergency or yourself to that part-time job you are afraid to give up. It is having to drive farther and farther in older and older vehicles on the worst roads this side of Mexico. It is seeing my dad, who grew up with this country, from sod house to barbwire telephones to paved roads to the Internet, disillusioned and saddened by the deterioration of the community he devoted his life to.

No, it is not just the farm crisis. It is a human crisis. And some of it you, Mr. Chrétien, can take responsibility for.—From a Nov. 19, 1999, submission by Joan Soggie of Elbow, Sask., to Carol Skeltons letter campaign

The view from Milden is not universally shared. On the same weekend that protesters occupied the legislature in Regina, about 40 farmers from across the province gathered for an agribusiness seminar in Saskatoon sponsored by the University of Saskatchewan. They had come to discuss the latest management techniques for farming in the global economy. During a coffee break, about a half-dozen of them sat down with Macleans to explain why they had little sympathy for their more disgruntled brethren.

Woody Leippi, 40, runs a 2,000-acre grain farm about 25 km southeast of Regina. He also raises 145 head of elk and has investments in a seed-processing plant and some Regina apartment buildings to supplement his farm income. Farming is a cyclical industry, he says, and producers need to save and build up equity in the good times so they can weather the bad. “We can either sit around and bellyache or learn to be creative and innovative,” he says. And for those who can’t make a go of it, he has some ready advice: sell or rent your land to a neighbour and find other employment. “What’s so wrong with getting a job?” he asks. “Where does it say that because you are a grain farmer, that’s all you’ll ever do?”

The farmers at this table have little patience with complaints that western producers are discriminated against. Yes, they say, federal agriculture policies tend to favor farmers in Central Canada and punish those in the West. But when you live in a province that is home to only three per cent of the nation’s population, what else can you expect? “There’s no sense crying about these inequities,” says Don Sanderson, a 56-yearold grain farmer from Rosetown, Sask. “I’m not going to change that—I’ll never live that long. We just have to play the cards we’re dealt.” There is also little support for a huge bailout from Ottawa, which these farmers say would inevitably reward some bad managers. “Sure, Vanclief would make a lot of people happy here,” says Shawn Buhr, 35, a grain farmer from Lucky Lake, Sask. “But he’d have three million people in Toronto thinking he’s crazy.”

Buhr, whose own farm has steadily grown from 1,500 acres to 4,000 acres over the past 20 years, does share one concern with the protesters—the decline of rural Saskatchewan. “Have I won,” he asks, “if I have no neighbors?” The answer, he insists, is not handouts, but investment in initiatives such as converting more grain land to pasture for cattle and building processing plants in the province to keep farm dollars at home. “Rather than just complaining and moaning,” he says, “we’ve got to start looking for viable alternatives.”

That farmers disagree so stridently on the problems facing them—let alone the solutions—should come as no surprise. It’s in their nature to be stubbornly independent. One of the great appeals of working the land is the chance to be master of your own domain—while, paradoxically, being at the mercy of the hail and drought and rain that can descend at any time to destroy your livelihood. But as they prepare for the uncertain prospects of this spring’s seeding, Prairie farmers seem to agree on one thing. “Everybody’s asking, where is the future of farming?” says Noel Skelton. “Nobody really has the answer yet.” In the land that stretches as far as the eye can see, it is getting increasingly difficult to know what lies ahead.

This is what the government does not see. Farmers losing their pride and self-respect. It does not see the wives who try to improve the husband’s frame of mind only to have the husband turn against her in anger. The government cannot see the inner turmoil of a farmer—nor does the government want to see the despair.

As for the future on the farm—one exists one day at a time, never looking back and never looking ahead. Looking back brings sadness—the end of an era where living on a farm was a wonderful way of life. Looking ahead—an empty void and nothing more. This is the real farm crisis: the loss of hope; continual discouragement; deep depression; and a disregard for government figures who are clueless as to the plight of farmers.—Margaret Chibri of Neilburg, Sask., in a Dec. 1, 1999, letter submitted to Carol Skelton's campaign