ST ANDREWS, Man. — It was crunchy and dusty in Curtis McRae’s wheat field as he showed Marie-Claude Bibeau his stunted crops.
But despite grasshoppers rocketing away in all directions during the federal agriculture minister’s visit, the sight of deep cracks in the soil between skinny crop rows and other evidence of the severe hit to yields coming to crops across Western Canada, McRae’s first plea to the minister was on behalf of cow-calf producers.
“The most important thing we probably need to do at this meeting is find some kind of relief for the family cattle farm,” said McRae.
“A lot of decisions were made this week.”
Later in Winnipeg, after Bibeau’s tour of the drought-plagued Interlake region wrapped up, Manitoba Cattle Producers’ president Tyler Fulton spoke about those “decisions,” which have tragically involved some families being forced to sell off their cows and face a grim future.
“This is our livelihood. It’s heartbreaking,” said Fulton, a Birtle farmer, his voice cracking as he described the widespread drought ravaging the Prairies.
While Bibeau’s tour was limited to the Interlake, which is a major region of cow-calf production and particularly scorched this summer, Fulton and other farmer representatives underlined the massive size of the drought, which is more widespread than the 1988 drought.
Bibeau announced a battery of safety net and tax changes to help cattle and crop producers, measures that the farmers there said would help both types of farmer undertake actions that would help them survive the present calamity. Farmers who need to sell their cows won’t be hit as quickly by the taxman, and farmers who harvest grain crops for feed won’t face some crop insurance complications.
But the presence of the minister and her office’s willingness to use its influence to draw city and media attention to the plight of farmers were more important than the specific changes.
“The most significant part was coming and seeing the issues, and putting your boots on the ground, an acknowledgement that we do have an issue here,” Bill Campbell, president of Keystone Agricultural Producers, said in an interview.
“The communities we visited today come to Winnipeg as well. They shop here. They purchase inputs. They purchase things that they need. It’s important that we have these communities and build them.”
Bibeau visited a dairy farm, a cattle operation and McRae’s crop farm, hearing about how this drought is affecting each of those slices of Canadian agriculture, but it’s hardly news to her, as a daughter of a dairy farm family in Quebec and an experienced agriculture minister.
Her presence, however, was sufficient to draw the interest of multiple Winnipeg-based media outlets, for whom there are many competing stories and for which farming and agriculture can often seem a distant and complicated reality beyond their usual focuses.
Images of drought and farmer struggles appeared on TV, in newspapers and websites, while accounts of the situation reached people far removed from rural areas.
The presumed link of climate change to this summer’s drought provided a hook to pull together a key urban and rural concern.
“It’s another concrete proof that we are being hurt by climate change and that farmers are the first to feel it,” said Bibeau at the news conference after the tour.
“It’s an obvious demonstration that we need to do more, and faster.”
McRae took advantage of the federal minister’s visit to explain how and why he uses his grain dryer — another issue that vexed numerous growers facing wet harvests. Finding a way to address the federal government’s desire to have a broad carbon tax while not penalizing farmers for activities they can’t avoid bedevilled farmer-government relations until recently, when the federal government moved to fix the issue.
But for all the specific fixes to practical farm issues and new efforts made to deal with the impact of this summer’s drought, reducing the psychological stress on farmers seemed to be an underlying theme for the day.
“I can’t begin to imagine what producers are going through, watching your pastures and crops dry up, wondering how you’re going to get your animals through the winter, and facing the prospect of sending breeding cattle off to auction, animals that are the result of generations of genetic selection, hard work and sacrifice,” said Bibeau.
“There are tears. There is anger. There is mental stress.”
KAP director Craig Riese highlighted the same issue.
“A year like this poses stresses like no other,” said Riese.
Fulton was relieved to see farmers receiving attention from government and media because the situation has hit a point from which some won’t be able to return, while others are hanging on.
“This week felt like a tipping point in the industry,” said Fulton, noting that a usually empty auction mart north of Winnipeg saw 1,500 animals move through it a few days before.
“Normally there’s nothing on (at this time of year.)”
Whether or not the tweaks to safety net and tax programs save many farms, and regardless of whether this drought becomes a major national story or remains a secondary issue for urban-based media, the farm representatives felt like the plight of farmers had at least been witnessed and addressed on this day.