Many prairie farmers in these two provinces have been forced to sell their livestock or have no harvest in the face of another summer with less rain than in many deserts. This has provoked an outpouring of solidarity by other farmers and working people.
Faced with a lack of feed, ranchers have been rushing their animals to the market in record numbers, driving already low prices down even further. Beef producers are receiving the same price for a cow and calf as they would normally receive for a single cow. A purebred cow that would have sold for Can$1,800 at auction last year now sells for Can$600 (Can$1 = US 63 cents). Alberta alone is short 650,000 metric tons of hay, and the shortage will put between 400,000 and 600,000 cattle at risk of being sold or slaughtered prematurely.
A cow eats approximately one ton of hay per season. The price of hay before the drought was about Can$50 a metric ton, but prices have skyrocketed in these drought areas with some desperate ranchers paying as much as twice that amount.
Some Alberta farmers are resorting to mixing sawdust into cattle feed to make it go farther.
For the last few years smaller beef and pork producers across Canada, struggling to get a decent price for their livestock, have often been forced to sell below the cost of raising the animal. A pork producer in the lower mainland of British Columbia, where the drought is less severe, told this reporter that he receives $10 less per hog than what it costs him to produce it.
The Canadian Wheat Board has estimated that this yearís crop could be down one-third or more, the smallest yield in 28 years. Barley production is off 44 percent and canola 57 percent. By some estimates the value of the crop loss in western Canada in the three grains may be as much as Can$2.6 billion.
Bruce Sept, who grows wheat and peas on some 13,000 acres, told the Sun that his crops will only yield about one-ninth the normal production.
Sept stated, "We are working very hard to make a living at farming. The family farm is going to be a thing of the past unless we look at all the possibilities of how to make them work."
Dave Nelson, who has a family farm in the drought-stricken area, has been forced to sell one-third of his 150-cow herd. Nelson explained to the Sun that the numbers donít work. He is nearly $200,000 in debt from buying the little feed he can, and the $7,000 he spent on bait for grasshoppers failed to stop the pests. His crop and farm insurance combined will pay him less than $15,000.
In the last five years, 11 percent of farmers in Canada, most of them family farmers, have been forced off the land, according to the National Farmers Union.
Prices for fertilizer, transportation, and farm machinery have skyrocketed over the past two decades while prices the farmers receive for their produce have dropped or remained stagnant. "Farming is a struggle to get all your expenses so youíre not too much in debt," said Ross Tory. "Fertilizer is expensive, feed is expensive, and farmers are getting less and have to do more with what they have." Referring to the aid coming from other farmers, he said that he was glad to see the help but felt that it didnít compensate for the inadequate government aid.
"If normal everyday folks can chip in and help, why canít the government do its share? Itís what the government is supposed to do," Tory said.
Some payments will come in from the Canadian federal government in October but farm organizations say itís too little too late.
In contrast, farmers in the eastern provinces mobilized to send loads of hay to the feed-strapped areas on the prairies in an operation dubbed Hay West.
It began with a small group of farmers from Ontario but within days farmers in Quebec and the Maritime provinces also stepped forward with their hay. The federal government initially agreed to contribute $2.2 million to fumigate, load, and ship 187 more rail cars of hay from the East. Then under pressure from farmers, and with tons of donated hay waiting for shipment, Ottawa agreed to pay for 190 more rail cars in early September. The two large railway companies, Canadian National and Canadian Pacific, claim that they have contributed $400,000 in transportation costs but refuse to do any more.
The hay shipments, which are being distributed by lottery, will help only a few farmers for short periods.
Annette Kouri is a meat packer in the Vancouver, British Columbia, area.
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