Letter from Saskatchewan
Rural areas lacking critical mass to recover
As financial security forces rural residents to flee for the cities along with them goes any incentive to return

By Paul Beingessner

Meet Paul

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, January 11, 2005: As the kids go round the ice at the skating rink in Moose Jaw, I sit in the bleachers having a rather disturbing conversation with another parent. Young and ambitious, he tells me how he farms on weekends in the Kayville district, while living and working all week in Moose Jaw. The long hours he puts in repairing truck and tractor engines and transmissions, and building trailers, describe a fellow with many useful skills and lots of energy.

The dream he and his wife have is to buy some land to add to the family holdings, and then move to the farm. Meanwhile he works hard, knowing that few farms can support their owners unless there is a significant amount of off-farm work involved.

The disturbing part comes when he began to talk about whether the move will ever take place. The problem for them is that the area they want to move to, her family's home, is practically deserted. The once thriving community of Kayville, that 10 years ago boasted an indoor pool open year round, is down to a population of 10. The Co-op store is gone, the large, modern community hall is closed, as is the credit union, and the school has been gone for a decade or more. Much of that decline followed the closure of the rail line and the Pool elevator.

So when he considers his options, my friend looks at the fact his kids would have to ride the school bus for nearly three hours every day. Hockey teams, school sports, all types of recreation are now many miles away. In Moose Jaw, he lives only a few blocks from the skating rink, swimming pool and school. He heart is on the farm, but his head wonders if it will ever be possible. As a skilled mechanic and jack-of-all-trades, he believes he can survive financially on the farm. Can his family make the social and cultural transition? Will they want to?

The problem, of course, is self-perpetuating. If young people don't stay in, or return to rural areas, these can never recover. But without a critical mass of people, what is the incentive to return to what has become an isolated area?

Much of this stems, as rural readers well know, from the lack of net farm income. It is a problem Wayne Easter, parliamentary secretary to the federal Minister of Agriculture, has been given to tackle. Easter has no doubt about the cause. It is, he says, a lack of farmer power in the marketplace. The solutions are less evident.

My friend in the skating rink might agree. We muse on what would happen if farmers simply refused to sell their crops and livestock unless prices improve. He pauses, and says it wouldn't work unless you could be sure everyone had to take part. Otherwise, he says, some would break ranks as prices rose and ruin it for everyone. He hesitates and says, almost apologetically, "It would have to be like a union, or something."

Even when frustrated farmers hold their products back, it can have the opposite effect. We talk about the recent story around canola. It seems farmers in western Canada are simply not willing to part with their canola at the prices currently being offered. As a result, potential sales are being lost and the stage is set for large carry-out stocks of canola. This will, naturally, ensure large supplies and low prices next year, assuming normal weather.

The canola problem is made worse by the large soybean crops in the U.S., Brazil and elsewhere. Cheap soy oil and meal affect both oilseed and livestock feed prices.

The problem is not only one of market power, not only that the world grain trade is controlled by a handful of companies or that three or four meat packers control the North American market. It is also a problem of over-production, and a lack of will by world governments to eliminate hunger and poverty.

All of these seem out of farmers' control. But my friend in the rink gives me hope. He doesn't believe farmers are solely to blame for their situation. He is beginning to see that solutions won't come unless we work together. And that may mean with farmers all over the world.

© Paul Beingessner (306) 868-4734 phone 868-2009 fax beingessner@sasktel.net

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