Saskatchewan tries to give its farmers a break

Saskatchewan, Canada's major grain-producing province, is trying to give its hard-pressed farmers some breathing room. But pending legislation to provide a debt moratorium is not totally welcome in the agriculture industry.

The moratorium would allow producers to put off paying on $3.2 billion worth of land mortgages for the next 13 months. Lenders could foreclose only after a long and difficult process involving the provincial government.

Trapped by falling commodity prices and high production costs, 17 percent of Canada's farmers are under ''severe financial stress and another 7 percent are under moderate financial stress,'' according to recent estimates by a federal government survey.

Saskatchewan's agriculture minister, Lorne Hep-worth, says the proposed debt moratorium will not compound the problems of the province's 67,000 farmers by drying up farm credit. Some commercial lending institutions are threatening that they may be reluctant to extend farm credit in Saskatchewan. Mr. Hepworth expects that those farmers who are able to will continue to make mortgage payments.

The agriculture minister, a member of the free-enterprise Progressive Conservative Party, rejects criticism that the provincial government is interfering in the marketplace. He insists, ''It doesn't make any sense'' to drive as many as 10,000 farm families off the land when the government can do something about it.

But Saskatchewan's prairie neighbor maintains that a debt moratorium would be a millstone around the neck of the agriculture community.

Alberta's minister of agriculture, Leroy Fjordbotten, thinks it would set a bad precedent and adversely affect the supply of credit to agriculture. Many farm groups agree with him.

Lorence Willness, a farmer from Spiritwood, Saskatchewan, doesn't put much stock in this latest program for producers. Stressing that any business, including farming, should pay its own way, he says the fundamental problem is for producers to receive a fair return for their product.

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