Today's Farm Families in Canada Find They Must Innovate, Diversify - or Quit
OSLER, SASKATCHEWAN — THERE amid the endless skies and wheat fields of Saskatchewan, farmer Gary Bolt, his wife, Robin, and their 2-1/2-year-old daughter, Jennifer, hope to be moving out of their trailer and into a new house soon.
That will be a big day for this young Mennonite farm family, which has been working hard since the mid-1980s to follow in the footsteps of Gary's parents by making a living off some of the finest soil in Canada.
But if there is one thing Gary and Robin have learned in the eight years since they married and put their shoulders to the plow, it's that hard work and good land are not enough for the Canadian family farm of the 1990s. A new flexibility and adaptability are needed in order to prosper.
``There's been a real change,'' Gary says, sitting at his kitchen table. ``It's a change in attitude. I grew up on this farm. I went to university and came back to the farm with my father. Dad passed away in 1985, and I started farming on my own the year the drought started. What I see is that people are willing more than ever to try anything, to do whatever it takes to make it out here.''
One of the biggest changes, Gary says, is in how farmers view wheat, still the king crop here in Canada's breadbasket. Planting wheat has been almost automatic for many. And for decades, it fetched top dollar. Farmers like Gary's father could go a lifetime planting nothing but wheat.
Now king wheat's crown is slipping. Wheat prices worldwide have fallen for a decade because of some nations' export subsidies. Gary used to get $5 (Canadian; US$3.60) a bushel but now gets just C$3 (US$2.16), although equipment and other costs continue to rise.
Faced with this financial squeeze, many farmers have sold their land and moved to the city. Between 1986 and 1991, the number of people living in farm households in Canada fell 7 percent, from 930,000 to 867,000 - meaning that just over 3 percent of Canada's population lives on farms, according to government statistics. Those who remain do whatever it takes to stay on the land.
The Bolts, for example, are only able to build a home this year because of Gary's willingness to learn how to grow several crops other than wheat. But even that hasn't been enough. Robin's ability to earn ``off-farm'' income from teaching folk art and Gary's use of his parents' debt-free farm equipment have tipped the balance to keep this farm financially afloat.
Gary tilts a small glass jar and a half-dozen tiny, dark-green lentil seeds slide out into his large palm, where he rolls them back and forth. He looks at them silently for a moment. This year, Gary diversified further from wheat than ever before, with 500 acres - almost a third of his crop - in lentils; 600 acres in canola, an oil seed; and 500 acres in wheat. A decade ago, almost all would have been wheat.
``It took a few years for us to wake up,'' Gary says. ``We kept hoping the price [of wheat] would come back. In the latter 1980s, we began to realize it wasn't going to happen.''
Part of ``waking up,'' the Bolts say, was shifting gears as a family to bring in money from outside the farm. Canadian farm families now get more than half their incomes from off-farm sources; many families have at least one member who works off the farm, according to the government.
Robin, who has an anthropology degree, says she surprised herself by discovering a flair for folk art, which she now teaches. ``I really like the country, and I would do anything to stay here,'' she says, with Jennifer on her lap eating a cookie. ``There's a different type of freedom when you live in the country, because you're not surrounded by other people. How they do things and what they do can really influence - even how you dress. People really dress up in the city. Out here, it's more just our work clothes. You can think what you want to think and not have people pressing on you.''
Freedom to think and act according to deep convictions is a cherished part of farm life here near the tiny town of Osler, center of a largely Mennonite farming community. Noted for their pacifism and simplicity of lifestyle, Mennonites typically reject military service.
The Mennonite Church numbers about 208,000 in Canada, according to the Canadian government. Many left the United States for Canada during the world wars - fleeing persecution because of their conscientious-objector status or seeing a chance to acquire cheap farmland.
Though theirs does seem a simplified lifestyle, the Bolts are hardly backward. Gary plants the 1,600 acres he farms with a 250-horsepower Case four-wheel-drive tractor that cost C$80,000 (US$57,600) used. It is taking all Robin and Gary's ingenuity to find the money to build a home and still purchase or rent more land. Even though his farm is more diversified than many, increasing the size of the farm is still important, he says, to spread out the huge cost of equipment.
``We hope to be in the black this year,'' Gary says. ``Five years ago, people still kind of wondered about me. I've tried growing spices like coriander, things that still really aren't very typical out here. We've got to keep our eyes open, looking for opportunities.''
For Robin, the formula for life in the heart of Saskatchewan boils down to simplicity, safety, serenity.
``What I really like is the privacy,'' she says. ``I've lived in an apartment before. But here we can garden, have animals. I can leave Jennifer in our backyard and not worry. You can hear the birds. There's no traffic.''
``A lot of people aren't suited for it or don't want it,'' she says with a slight smile. ``So we're fortunate.''