Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Today's Farm Families in Canada Find They Must Innovate, Diversify - or Quit

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Today's Farm Families in Canada Find They Must Innovate, Diversify - or Quit

Article excerpt

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. …

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