Sunday, December 04, 2005

Advent Saturday #1

I know, Saturday is over, and this morning I posted something that was supposed to cover it, sort of. But then I realized that I had let the "hope theme" week come to an end without an entry about farming and ranching. How can I talk about hope without talking about farming?

Actually, it was the first topic I thought of when I started this Advent Calendar, but I kept putting it off until I had time to give it more attention. And the week went by. (You can see why I'm not a farmer.) But, like the tardy farmer who decides to just get something in the ground, even if the soil isn't prepared quite the way it should be, here goes.

My thoughts go back to February of 2003, when the cheques bounced. Arcola Livestock Sales had been selling cattle by the truckload into the States, and neglecting their receivables. The trucks kept rolling, though; the cattle kept bawling there on the edge of town, the smell kept wafting whichever way the wind took it (thankfully usually southeast across the sewage lagoon and the open fields), and the auctioneers kept rattling through the weekly sales. The situation all blew up that one week in February, when the local calf producers went to put their auction cheques in the bank and found out there was no money to be had. Some had sold their entire year's crop of calves into that hole.

There were efforts to collect the U.S. receivables after that; I heard that some people spent months away from their families, trying to get the money so that those producers could be paid. I didn't hear whether there was any success. I saw people connected with the auction barn disappear from most community events, driven away by the dark looks, the accusations of theft, the outright attacks in public places. I saw people carry on with their lives as best they could.

That collapse at the auction barn was just the beginning of a "nightmarish year" for the livestock industry, as Kevin Hursh reported at the start of Agribition in November of 2003:
We're just past the six month anniversary of that single case of BSE in an Alberta cow and the border still remains closed to the export of live animals. While the beef industry has received most of the attention, bison and sheep have been hit even harder. For the bison industry, it's yet another setback. Just a few years ago, bison producers were on top of the world. Now there's a struggle to find markets. The elk industry has also gone from riches to rags. Another year has passed, but elk producers have been unable to shake the problems caused by Chronic Wasting Disease. This has also been a difficult year for people who raise horses. A major cutback in the demand for Pregnant Mare's Urine for pharmaceutical use has had ramifications throughout equine industry. But Agribition goes on. Like usual, it's a beehive of activity. Beef entries are up. Trade show booths are full and people are looking forward to doing business. That's amazing considering all that's happened.
That's hope for you.

Cattle and horses are a big part of agriculture around here, with the hills being mostly too rough for cultivation, and the "Kisbey flats" being too wet, and some fields getting saline from the seepage below the hills, and some areas being sandy, and doubtless more reasons that I've missed. The livestock troubles clobbered the local economy in 2003, and then 2004 hit the grain farmers with the August frost.

This year looked promising (as so many years do), but early August was dry, and the crops didn't fill like they should. Harvest weather wasn't great, but nowhere near as bad as it was farther north. I heard that farmers there were driving combines through standing water, hoping they wouldn't stall. That reminds me of the scenes across the border in southwest Manitoba in early summer, after heavy rains. I saw fields where the water was over top of the standing crops. Near Melita I saw a farm lane disappearing into an impromptu lake, and reappearing perhaps 200 yards away on the other side. In front of the water, a yellow diamond warning sign had been planted, with a silhouette of the wildlife that could be expected crossing this road: ducks.

The final crop report from Saskatchewan Agriculture and Food for 2005 is here. I made a couple of posts earlier this fall about what I saw in the fields as I drove to my work sites.

Lately I hear that grain prices are terrible, and just this morning I heard that calves in the area are dying of pneumonia in spite of numerous efforts to save them.

I suppose you could just get totally depressed thinking about all this, but on the other hand, you have to admire the tenacity of the people who carry on working the land they love. These people know hope.

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