Manitoba couple sees dreams washed away

Pastures purposely flooded | After three years of flooding, the couple plans to sell more cattle

SIGLUNES, Man. — Arnthor and Jackie Jonasson both practise meditation and other relaxation techniques.

For them, it’s a survival strategy because they are sick of being angry all the time.

After three years of having their farm devastated by chronic flooding, and then seeing this year’s hoped for return to normal production swept away by another flood, they have forced themselves to enjoy the farming life.

“We didn’t decide to put a farm in a bad spot. We picked a good spot. People farmed here for years,” said Jackie, whose family has farmed here on the east side of Lake Manitoba for more than a century.

“I’m mad. It’s turned into a swamp. And that’s not our farm.”

The Jonasson farm is one of dozens along the shores of Lake Manitoba intentionally flooded by the Manitoba government. Its decision in 2011 and 2014 to pour vast flows of water north from the Assiniboine River through the Portage Diversion into Lake Manitoba saved thousands of homes east of Portage La Prairie along the Assiniboine, but killed tens of thousands of acres of pasture, swept away fragile soils and caused an exodus of cattle from the once productive area.

The Jonassons have spent about $120,000 between 2012 and today on buying hay and renting pasture for their refugee cattle.

They are now considering selling cows this winter, reducing herd size to 150 cow-calf pairs from the current 280. That is a 40 cow reduction from 2010.

It’s not where the couple wanted to take the family farm.

“It’s a beautiful part of the province,” said Arnthor, who is descended from the Icelandic settlers who established the first farms in the Interlake region. “It’s an ecologically sensitive part of the province. You have to go with the plants that live here. We pride ourselves on being pretty close to nature here.”

The couple has four children: Bjorn, 27, Erika, 26, Stefan, 24, and Brynn, 17. They aren’t encouraging any of them to come back and take over the farm, even though Bjorn feels honour-bound to keep the family farm going.

“We’ve always told them, ‘get an education, go out and get a life, find your way,’ ” said Jackie.

“We said ‘come back if that’s really what you want to do.’ ”

But with the insecurity due to the repeated intentional flooding of the lake, they don’t feel they can recommend a future here. Even if the government builds an exit channel for the excess water being poured down the diversion, it will only operate effectively once the pastures are already covered again.

The land along the lake has always been rich pasture and hay land, with a water table just a couple of feet beneath the surface of the soil supplying moisture for rich crops every summer.

Jackie’s father had a city job until she was 13, but her summer holidays were spent at the farm operated by her grandfather, helping with haying. When they then moved onto the farm, she was involved all the time.

Arnthor’s family farmed along the shores of the lake too, but further north. The couple both loved the ranch lifestyle.

They have taken great pride in their native prairie pastures and in how they’ve been able to protect their fragile land.

But that all changed in 2011, when the diversion poured so much water into the lake that it rose many feet, submerging almost all their pastures and hay land for almost a year.

Most of their cattle were evacuated, with some stranded on ridges. Only about 100 cow-calf pairs were able to stay on the farm that year. Some had to be put on pasture four and a half hours away, making it hard to keep them in good condition.

The next year was just as bad. The pastures and hay land were flooded until late winter and the grass died.

In the spring, it was too mushy for an all-terrain vehicle to get across, so it just sat there, drying, as the family paid others for hay and rented pasture.

The situation improved in 2013 and the family started bringing back the cattle. This year began with the land producing thick, lush crops of hay.

But late June-early July flooding along the Assiniboine resulted in the government again opening the diversion’s floodgates and flooding their land.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s covered by four feet or one. It’s underwater,” said Arnthor.

They expect to produce about 800 bales less than normal this year.

“We aren’t 25 any more. We can’t bust our butts to get back to normal and have this happen again,” said Jackie.

The Jonassons want government to leave lake levels alone and let the water, grass and wildlife return to the natural rhythms that seemed to keep everything in balance for a century.

About the author

Ed White's recent articles



Stories from our other publications