John Varty and his fiancée Molly Daley are driving across Canada in an effort to speak to farmers about the issues that concern them, and to bring those concerns to urbanites. They’re doing it in an unusual fashion — towing a "farmhouse" behind a Massey Ferguson 1660 — more details here. They will be posting periodic reports of their trek across the Prairies.
So there we were, finally, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the "Paris of the Prairies." Urban boosters of the 19th century insisted this place would eventually realize its destiny as the natural centre of the British Empire.
Boosterish embellishment aside, its hard to exaggerate this city’s importance since the late 19th century — regionally, nationally, and globally. Looking west from the historic exchange district you’re surveying exactly what had Imperial dreamers and colonial officials salivating: a solution to the increasingly "full" American West and declining trade in the Black Sea basin.
Things are a bit different in Winnipeg’s downtown these days. Large swaths of the exchange district have been colonized by artists’ studios, coffee shops, night-clubs, and swanky lounges. We had little time to play tourist, but as most do, we headed straight to The Forks. The confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers is now an impressive monument to history and civic pride. The indoor market, though not exactly brimming with local produce, is nevertheless a charming collection of fine food purveyors, artsy clothing and jewelry stands, and eating establishments.
But we’re in the Canadian West to interview farmers, and we soon had to remove our tourist hats and haul out the camera equipment. Having made arrangements in advance, we rolled our caravan toward the south end of town, where we spent a truly wonderful afternoon with Mr. and Mrs. Steiffenhofer, retired German farmers well into their 80’s.
The Steiffenhofers uprooted and moved to their new farm, near Carman, in the late 1970s. That’s right, they started up a new life, in a new country, on a new farm, in their early 50s! They were impressive and inspiring people, whose concern is particularly with young farmers taking on too much debt — they insist you can still survive on a section.
Before leaving I asked Mrs. Steiffenhofer who had been her favourite federal agriculture minister over the years. Her hilarious response was: "The one with the big head." I think she meant Eugene Whelan.
Heading west out of Winnipeg left us with no doubt: southern Manitoba was dry! While fuelling up at a truck stop on the ring road a few area producers told us they were expecting yields to be off between 20 and 40 per cent. A coolish May and below-average June meant a slow start, and the dry July was threatening to be the final nail. Protein content in the spring wheat would be good, they conceded, but yields in general were way off.
Concerns about moisture were confirmed in Oakville, where we stopped in on "farmer appreciation day" sponsored by AgWest, the Massey dealer in Portage la Prairie. However, the most commonly expressed concern at this event, at least by those who took time to talk with us, was Manitoba Hydro’s plan to export power to Saskatchewan — via poles and lines that would, of course, stretch over producers’ fields. There’s a storm brewing over this issue, as one lady said point blank, "farmers need some help on this one."
As an interesting aside, the very next day, in a parking lot in Portage la Prairie, a fella approached in a small pickup truck. He asked if we supported grain farmers, to which we said "of course." At this point his lit into us about supporting people (grain farmers) who "only work four months of the year and who go whining to the government for relief every time there’s a crop failure." He was wearing a Manitoba Hydro shirt. Irony aside, we’ve not yet experienced hostility of that nature before, and it was as surprising as it was illogical.
With that still fresh in our minds we motored west, and after visiting some lovely farms in the Brandon area, we finally reached Saskatchewan. An old joke says that "there are five farmers in Saskatchewan, and they ‘re all rich"—we were out to talk to the five, and to find many more.
After some driving through eastern Saskatchewan, it became apparent why the Assiniboine River had flowed so high and fast through an otherwise dry Manitoba landscape. Saskatchewan farmers have had rain, lots of it. Migratory bird populations appeared to love it, but the plain fact is that countless fields featured significant unseeded areas. A beef producer told us that he basically had to "mud in" his feed corn.
Once we had interviewed producers in the Moosomin area, we made it into Regina. We knew we were in truly large-scale farm country, with all of its promise and pitfalls.
After taking in the sights downtown and having a few very productive meetings and interviews, we had nothing but open prairie sky in front of us. And so we headed north.