Thursday, July 2, 2009

On fleeing a drought

In the morning I will drive the east out of Swift Current and leave the drought behind. Since the spring thaw it has only rained about an inch and a half or so in this region. Even in the week that I have been here the hills around the city have become noticeably browner as the grasses dry up and go dormant. Normally at this time of year the farmers would be out cutting the hay to be stockpiled for winter livestock feed. But this year the only place where you find grass long enough to cut for hay is in the roadside drainage ditches (and I have seen farmers out cutting it).

So what will happen is that the cattle will be put onto the pasture to graze, and the farmers will have to buy hay this winter. And because no one in this region will have hay to sell, it will have to be shipped in from the east at a premium price. The grain crops are not doing well either, except where they have been irrigated. The wheat plants are barely a foot tall, if that, and have started to form small seed heads very low to the ground, which will make them hard to harvest. All this spells trouble for farmers in this area. Some counties to the west of here, in eastern Alberta, have already declared a farm emergency, resigning themselves to the fact there will be little if any harvest this year.

It is somewhat fitting that I find myself here at this time. I'm in the midst of researching the impacts of historical droughts on rural communities in this part of Saskatchewan. During the 1930s, this region was hit by terrible droughts, and many farmers gave up the land and moved elsewhere. Massive dust storms swept across the prairies, caused by the combination of hot & dry conditions with agricultural practices that left soils exposed to the elements. As one old farmer told me, if they still farmed today the way they did back then, there would be a big dust-up right about now. But farmers are much more careful about disturbing the soil today. Instead of plowing and turning over the soil, they use pressurized air to drill seeds just under the soil surface, barely disturbing the top layer. Today's farmers also leave stubble on top of the land after the harvest to act as both a shade and a wind barrier to prevent erosion. These tactics enable farmers to squeeze out a grain crop even in the driest conditions. However, to do so also requires pounding a good deal of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers into the land, as well as spraying a good deal of chemical pesticides to hold back the weeds.

Back in the 1930s, there used to be a family on every half section of land (that is, you could not go more than a half-mile without seeing at least one farmhouse). Nowadays you can drive for mile after mile and not see a living soul. The only way to make a decent profit now from growing wheat or raising cattle is to get bigger, and to get bigger means fewer farms and fewer farmers on the land. In the 1930s, 640 acres was considered to be a big farm. Today, you can find single fields that are two or three times that size. Farmers increasingly use tractors that are guided by GPS systems and use infrared sensors to detect how much fertilizer each square foot of land needs. Of course, that kind of equipment costs millions of dollars, so a feedback loop emerges: you need ever more capital to farm, and the only way of getting that capital is to grow the size of your farm, which in turn requires ever more sophisticated equipment and greater capital. But let's face it: in order for all of us to enjoy $3.99 value meals at fast food restaurants, it means the farmers must be getting tiny profit margins, and to make money form tiny margins necessitates producing large volumes of food at minimal cost.

Farming is a hard way to make a living, and so I doubt very few people would be interested in doing it, even if it were not so expensive to get into. Still, as I head east tomorrow with the brown hills in my rearview mirror, I suspect I will still feel a sort of detached melancholia for the communties I leave behind. This drought will have its impacts. There will be fewer dollars spent in local stores, because those who remain in agriculture will have fewer dollars in their wallets. For some farmers, particularly those getting older, this drought will be the signal for them to pack it in and sell or lease their land to others. The scale of the impacts will be nothing near those of the 1930s, but it will be a hard winter just the same. I hope I'm wrong; I hope a timely rain will show up tomorrow or the day after and break this drought, but the forecast does not look good. It's supposed to be bright and sunny for the next couple days: good weather for driving.

A quick follow up note: An overnight change in the forecast: possibility of extreme thunderstorms today, only a millimetre or so of overall precipitation, but some spots to be locally heavy. Not a great outlook either: sounds like a greater chance of being destructive than beneficial, although I guess farmers would take that chance in exchange for the possibility of even a little more moisture.

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