From dust bowls to mad cows, Prairie farmers endure it all
by Margret Kopala

Published by the Ottawa Citizen, July 26, 2003

A staple of Canlit studies, Sinclair Ross's novel As For Me and My House tells the depression era story of a childless couple's search for meaning and significance in a time and a place which permitted neither. Written in diary form by the character Mrs. Bentley and set in Horizon, Sask., it's a haunting, gritty story of resignation, reconciliation and ultimate triumph over the stultifying effects of small town life.

Exquisitely self-aware, Mrs. Bentley describes the first Sunday she and her intellectually isolated preacher husband must endure in their new church. "(It) . is always hard. Three little false-fronted towns before this one taught me to erect a false front of my own, live my own life, keep myself intact ."

But it is the ever present elements and their effect on the local farmers that break your heart. "The sand and dust drifts everywhere. It's in the food, the bedclothes," she writes in her diary. "In the morning it's half an inch deep on the window sill. Half an inch again by noon. Half an inch again by evening."

Describing the voices of the sober, work, roughened congregation in this five-grain elevator town which for several years has been "blown out, dried out, hailed out," Mrs. Bentley concludes that "it was as if in the face of so blind and uncaring a universe they were trying to assert themselves, to insist upon their own meaning and importance."

Sinclair Ross's writing illuminates the primal forces that have shaped western Canadian sensibilities. The dust bowl era of the 1930s pushed farmers to extreme tests of character and faith. Canada's onetime breadbasket - with 80 per cent of the country's farmable land and half of that in Saskatchewan - saw its crop production diminished as never before or since. Artists such as Sinclair Ross elevated the human dimension of that event, but many individuals despaired.

Times have changed but apparently not for Prairie farmers. Despite stable, even rising production levels, they remain circumspect. This week the Saskatchewan government extended the mandate of the Action Committee on the Rural Economy (ACRE) to continue its study on improving the province's rural economy. Among its findings is the view that many Saskatchewan farmers, failing to recognize or reward success and comparing themselves unfavourably with the more rambunctious Alberta, still see themselves in a negative light. A three-year drought hasn't helped, even though better land and water management practices and farm support programs are a testament to progress in these areas.

If yesterday it was primal forces that shaped western sensibilities, today it is global forces. Low commodity prices, mad cow, subsidies in the European Union and the United States and controversy over genetically modified crops test anew farmers' character and ingenuity. This time, too, there's capital intensive farming, which means fewer jobs on bigger, amalgamated farms. That worries Saskatchewan farm families like the Horkoffs, who run a 4,000-acre organic farm in Kamsack, a town in the Assiniboine River valley near the Manitoba border. "Depopulation of the rural areas has led to school and hospital closings," says ACRE co-chair and mother of five, Audrey Horkoff. "With little to keep centres going, people, particularly our youth, are leaving the province. Our mandate is to attract and keep people here."

ACRE's recommendations span the lexicon of modern economic stimulation packages. Everything from tax incentives, to improving infrastructure, to rural diversification schemes is featured. "We have some of the cleanest air and water on the continent," says Audrey, "with low costs of living and good social services, so this is a great place to settle. We have almost half of Canada's agricultural land. And there's four million acres potential for irrigation with only 300,000 utilized."

Audrey paints a verdant picture, far removed from the parched lands and dust encrusted people described by Sinclair Ross. But will it help Saskatchewan farmers out of their slump? Feeling low, Mrs. Bentley would go down to the railway tracks and crouch by a grain elevator. Like the small farming communities they once serviced, these are crumbling and being replaced by thrusting cement silos. None of this would surprise or disappoint Mrs. Bentley. "We all change and grow," she writes. "We don't just happen as we are. We come by way of yesterday."

Margret Kopala writes weekly on western perspectives.

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