Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Farmers' hopes washing away

Flooded fields another blow to beleaguered food industry

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The flood of 2011 is having disparate effects on urban and rural Manitoba, as cities and towns remain largely dry while agricultural producers are bracing for another year of losses.

But these two solitudes of flooding are more connected than many city dwellers realize. The fate of farms in southern Manitoba, one of the world's most productive agricultural regions, has implications far beyond the province's borders.

Not only can a major flood affect the price of grocery staples such as bread and cooking oil in Canada, it can exacerbate food-security concerns for people already struggling to feed themselves halfway around the world.

"It's amazing when you think about it," said Kreesta Doucette, executive director of Food Matters Manitoba, a non-profit organization that tries to raise awareness about food security.

"We tend to feel we're insulated from the food riots," she said, referring to recent events in India, Haiti and several African nations. "Most of the food we grow is exported around the world. We eat very little of what we produce."

Even in a nightmare scenario, Manitoba is in no danger of losing its ability to feed itself. A handful of large grain and vegetable farms could feed all 1.2 million people in the province, Doucette said.

But Manitoba's ability to help feed the world is diminished when farmers quit the business, as thousands have in recent decades. Manitoba lost 2,023 of its 21,071 farms between 2001 and 2006, the year of the most recent Canadian census, a drop of 9.6 per cent over five years.

The reasons behind the drop are numerous. Grain prices have fluctuated, along with the cost of inputs such as fertilizer and pesticides. The Canadian dollar soared, rendering pork uncompetitive. BSE devastated the cattle industry. The difficulty of the farming lifestyle discourages children from following in their parents' footsteps.

Farmers in the flood zone -- which this year stretches across all 11.6 million acres of Manitoba cropland -- also have the headaches of cleaning up debris, seeding late in the season and not being able to take advantage of favourable prices.

"If you can't access your land to grow, then you're in a real pickle," said Betty Green, a cattle farmer in the RM of Fisher, which has suffered from overland and river flooding for three years in a row.

Conservatively, she estimates one-third of the 1,000 acres she tends with two other families are under water. This has forced the farm to buy feed, eating up profits in what should have been a fruitful year.

One of Green's partners has left for Alberta in order to make money. Succession issues loom in the future.

"We're losing farmers in almost every area," she said, referring to the cattle industry. "We would have, anyway, because we're going through intergenerational change, but the problem is we're not finding the replacements.

"There's vast amounts of pasture land not being utilized anymore."

Some of this land has become summer homes for city residents. Land that remains dedicated to agriculture usually gets added to larger operations, which tend to be more profitable -- but come with food-security concerns of their own.

"When you get a lot of large-scale production, you wind up with monocultures," said Doug Chorney, an East Selkirk farmer who serves as president of Keystone Agricultural Producers, an umbrella organization for Manitoba farmers.

"And as we lose (rural population) density, we lose our ability to adapt to changes in the market."

There's no way to tell how many more farmers will throw in the towel after a single flood, but the cumulative effects of frequent flooding is exacting a toll, Chorney said.

On the plus side, people in cities are becoming more aware of the conditions farmers face and food security as a whole.

"It's easy to become complacent about going to Safeway and Superstore and Sobeys and buying all your groceries," he said. "You take your ability to produce food locally for granted when the shelves are full."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 16, 2011 A3


Updated on Saturday, April 16, 2011 at 2:18 PM CDT: adds update

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