Financial stress soars

The ability to cope with stress is an important attribute to have if you’re a farmer in Western Canada.

Just ask Warren and Lyle Lutz, owners of Double L Farms south of Leross, Sask.

The Lutz family have been farming in the Leross area northeast of Regina for three generations. And during that time, the family has seen its share of tough times on the farm.

But according to Warren, who’s been growing crops for the past 25 years or so, 2019 was the most stressful growing season he’s ever experienced.

The Lutz brothers, who sow about 9,000 acres of cropland, are trying to get by this winter with less than half of their anticipated farm income.

After a long and frustrating harvest, hampered by rain, snow and generally poor conditions, the Lutz brothers finally threw in the towel on Nov. 1 and made the difficult decision to park their machinery for the winter.

Conditions were miserable. Their crops were wet and covered in snow. The risk of damaging their machinery in an attempt to harvest a few more bushels of damp grain was simply too high.

All told, the brothers left nearly 4,500 acres of grain in the field, including 3,000 acres of canola, 1,000 acres of lentils and 500 acres of spring wheat.

The value of unharvested grain on the Lutz farm is conservatively estimated at more than $2 million.

“The bins are empty. The bills are due and the crop’s still in the field,” Warren says.

“There’s no job out there that stresses you out more than farming, especially on a year like this.

“You go to bed thinking about it and you wake up thinking about it.”

Lost income is not the only concern on the Lutz farm. Operating costs were also through the roof last year, and the bills are still piling up.

Because all of the wheat they harvested last fall was sprouted and damp, Warren and his brother will have to renew their entire wheat seed supply this spring, another six figure expense that the farm hadn’t banked on.

Harvest costs were also up sharply as a result of increased fuel consumption last fall, unexpected repairs to their machinery, longer hours in the field and a grain drying bill that could end up costing $100,000 or more.

It goes without saying that the federal carbon tax hasn’t helped the Lutz’s financial situation.

The brothers will spend as much as $60,000 on propane alone this winter to dry grain that was so tough it would barely flow out of the hoppers and into their bins.

All told, nearly 200,000 bushels of grain will be dried on the Lutz farm this year. It remains to be seen what they’ll get from unharvested acres that are covered in snow.

“I don’t know what to expect,” says Warren, whose acres are insured under the provincial crop insurance program.

“Is that canola going to be good in the spring or isn’t it? Honest truth, if that canola is garbage and I have to burn it all, I’m done. I won’t be able to climb out of that hole.”

Needless to say, the Lutz brothers have drawn heavily on their coping skills this winter, and on whatever cash reserves they had available.

The winter of 2019-20 has been incredibly stressful, Warren concedes. In fact, there have been times when he’s considered leaving it all behind, throwing the keys in a pail, and handing them all back to his creditors.

But he still loves farming, and his 16-year-old son loves it too. So the Lutz brothers are pushing ahead, crossing their fingers and hoping for the best.

“If it’s an early spring and we can get something off of those acres, it might not be too bad,” Warren says.

“But if it’s not and we’re trying to do everything in May, it’s going to be a complete disaster.”

The Lutzes aren’t the only western Canadian farm family facing tough times this winter. Across the West, about four to five million acres of crop have yet to be harvested.

In Alberta, about 1.6 million insured acres were unharvested as of mid-December, according to Agriculture Financial Services Corp. (AFSC) in Alberta. That number doesn’t include acres that weren’t covered under Alberta’s crop insurance program.

In Saskatchewan, between two million and 2.5 million acres were left in the field, according to estimates from Saskatchewan Crop Insurance Corp. (SCIC).

Unharvested acres in Saskatchewan are concentrated largely in east-central Saskatchewan, in provincial crop districts 5A, 5B and 6A.

John Olinik, reeve of the Rural Municipality of Kellross, where the Lutz brothers farm, figures as much as 40 percent of last year’s acres have yet to be harvested in his municipality.

“There’s an awful lot of stress out there and you get to the point where you worry about farmers’ mental health,” says Olinik.

“We don’t want the only ones to benefit from this disaster to be bailiffs, bankruptcies and auctioneers … and it could easily escalate into that.”

Dale Czemeres, a farmer from Dysart, Sask., and councillor from the neighbouring RM of Lipton, estimates unharvested acres in his municipality at 35 to 40 percent.

Czemeres, who has been farming in the Dysart area since 1976, left more than a third of his acres in the field this year.

The cash crunch that growers are facing in his area is the worst he’s seen in nearly 45 years of farming.

“It’s probably the worst that I’ve ever seen,” he says, when asked about the level of anxiety among local farmers.

“It’s depressing out there. And I’m scared for some of these young farmers. I really am.”

Bob Antoneshyn, who farms north of Kelliher, Sask., says 2020 could be a make or break year.

Antoneshyn, a 30-year grain grower, left roughly 50 percent of his crop in the field this winter, including 2,000 acres of canola and 400 acres of oats.

He and his brother are hoping for the best this spring. But at this point, the risks involved in farming are looking larger than ever.

“We’ve still got a million dollars’ worth of canola lying in the field…,” Antoneshyn says.

“We’re pretty tough, pretty resilient. But there’s only so much a guy can take.”

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