Saskatchewan, Canada, July 27, 2003: It's very dry
where I farm in south central Saskatchewan - at least as dry
as I can ever remember. And hot. Hotter, in the local vernacular,
than the bottom step of hell. All of which means there will
not be much crop here. The sad thing is that, further south
of us, it is even drier. Some areas have not had a rain since
This has farmers pretty worried, but, even before a meager
harvest begins, there is talk about next year. It generally
takes the form of, "We couldn't possibly have two years
this bad in a row!"
The other thing that has farmers awfully worried is the BSE
crisis. But unlike the dry weather and the plague of locusts
we are enduring, there is the terrible possibility that there
may not be a next year as far as the cattle industry is concerned.
What began as a scary but isolated incident just over two
months ago has turned into a potential catastrophe that could
make even the legendary Dirty Thirties look like a Sunday
While this may be dramatic language, it only reflects the
hopeless and helpless feelings that are threatening to overwhelm
farmers in Canada. While the story is still front-page news
in the farm papers, it has slid far from the top of the urban
media's agenda and the federal government's priorities. There
is settling in the most unsettling sense that the government
may have given up on a speedy resolution, or any resolution
to the crisis. This was reinforced last week when Saskatchewan's
Agriculture Minister declared that Canadian farmers may have
to consider a 40 percent reduction in the size of the Canadian
cattle herd – an amount that would bring supply closer
in line with domestic demand.
Clay Serby's remarks brought quick condemnation from other
politicians and farm groups but Serby defended himself by
saying that anyone blind to this potential reality is burying
their head in the sand. This is tough medicine from a provincial
government that up until May 20 was eagerly encouraging expansion
of all aspects of the cattle industry.
A 40 percent reduction in cattle numbers in Canada would
have unthinkable consequences. Family farms would drop like
flies alongside the price of cattle. The feeding and packing
industries would be shattered. Fragile and erosive land would
come out of grass and again be put under the plow. Tracts
of land in Canada would be abandoned entirely. (This is already
a reality in some areas because of low grain prices.) Trucking
and related industries would downsize. Farmers would increase
production of field crops and the mix would change with a
shift from feed grains to milling cereals, oilseeds and pulses.
This would negatively impact these commodity prices. The adjustment
would be slow and very painful for all.
Canadian farmers' frustrations are understandable. The Americans
have admitted that our reaction to the mad cow problem has
been exemplary. Our tracking system for livestock is vastly
superior to that in the U.S. (Americans don't have one.) We
are restricting specified risk materials, i.e. brains, spinal
cords, eyeballs, etc., from animals over 30 months of age
from entering the food chain. (The Americans do not.) None
of this seems to matter. Nor have the Americans told us what
we must do to gain access to their markets. Rather, they have
tossed the ball to Japan, saying that until Japan is okay
with Canadian beef, the border will not open.
Most infuriating is that we have a free trade agreement with
the U.S. This agreement produced an open border for livestock
imports and exports and created in large part the current
size of the Canadian cattle herd, and the vast two-way trade
in beef and dairy cattle, from feeders to slaughter animals
to breeding stock. Under that agreement, the U.S. does not
have the right to prevent our cattle from crossing the border
simply because of the threats of a third country.
What Canadian farmers are learning very clearly is that where
it comes to international agreements, the Americans make up
the rules as they go along, and all the moral suasion in the
world is not worth a hill of beans. And that’s too bad,
because this belief, which is really the hallmark of the current
American government, gets transferred to the American people
in general. As a result, I hear increasingly negative remarks
about Americans from the farmers around me. It is a sad change
from the friendly relations once enjoyed between two countries
that used to believe they could prosper together.
© Paul Beingessner, firstname.lastname@example.org . The author
is a columnist, transportation consultant and third-generation
farmer in Truax, Saskatchewan.