Letter from Saskatchewan
Fate of Canadian Agriculture Rests on Cattle Herd

By Paul Beingessner

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Saskatchewan farmer Paul Beingessner has missed only a handful of deadlines in writing a weekly column during the past eight years. He covers Canadian agriculture from a High Plains perspective. His straight-talk style informs readers about corporate influence in national and international agriculture, national ag politics on both sides of the border, and why some farmers do the things they do. Click here for more information about Paul.

TRUAX, 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 May.

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 picnic.

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, beingessner@sasktel.net . The author is a columnist, transportation consultant and third-generation farmer in Truax, Saskatchewan.