As Alexis Kienlen found her stride as an agricultural reporter, one date kept cropping up in conversations with producers: May 20, 2003.
That day, when officials publicly confirmed a case of BSE in an Alberta cow and borders slammed shut, was still raw for producers when Kienlen began writing for Alberta Farmer Express in 2008. Some producers would write down that date and start talking about the effects, says Kienlen.
“And I could really feel that that was when beef farming had changed,” she says.
Eventually, Kienlen focused her reporting on the livestock beat, particularly beef cattle. By 2011, Kienlen was actively reading about and researching BSE, and talking to producers and others in the beef industry about their experience living through the crisis and it’s aftershocks.
Those conversations and research have culminated in a novel, titled Mad Cow, released this spring. (Just a note: I read and offered feedback on an earlier draft of the book). The novel is told from the points of view of Donna Klassen and her teenaged daughter Allyson, who live on a beef operation in rural Alberta.
As the BSE crisis slams their farm and their community, Donna and Allyson also have to face a family crisis that stresses the Klassens and puts the farm at risk. It’s an emotional book that examines the cumulative effects of trauma and stress.
Kienlen says that while she was writing the book, she had to stop at one point, because several people in her extended family died.
“It kind of became a novel about grief,” she says. While the novel contains darker themes, it also has some humour, she adds.
Part of what drew Kienlen to the idea of writing about BSE was how little had been written about it. She wasn’t as interested in the political landscape so much as “the lives of the people and what happened to the farm.” That interest in farm families’ lives is also reflected in a plot line on farm succession. Again, Kienlen drew upon her work as a farm reporter as well as specific conversations with industry experts around what can go wrong during farm transitions.
Kienlen also has a personal interest in emotional health that is reflected in the book. She attributes that interest to living with depression since her childhood.
“Since I’ve always struggled with it myself, it’s always something I want us to be open about, especially in agriculture,” she says, recalling a conversation with an agent about the high rate of suicide among farmers.
Kienlen, who lives in Edmonton and grew up in Saskatoon, says she wrote the book with a Prairie audience in mind. Still, she says she didn’t really write the book with the idea that ranchers would read it. In fact, she suspects many producers won’t want to read it, as the BSE crisis is still close to home for many, especially with the current stress of COVID-19.
But she wanted to “tell the story of ranchers and what they went through in BSE,” as she thinks it’s an important story that people don’t talk about enough in Canada.
People learned a lot from BSE, Kienlen says, but there were lots of casualties, of different kinds, she adds. Now beef producers are in a situation that bears some similarities to the crisis that began 17 years ago.
“It’s not the same because the whole economy is affected and there’s different challenges. But it’s still a challenging time for the beef industry.”
Mad Cow is published by Now or Never Publishing Company. Readers can find Kienlen’s book in many brick-and-mortar bookstores or online retailers. One Edmonton-based bookstore she recommends is www.glassbookshop.com, which offers free delivery within the Edmonton area and will ship to other customers.