A Rancher's Commentary

By Graham L. Wilson

Albertan family rancher

Copyright (c) 2012 Graham L. Wilson. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.3 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included at this link: see my profile page.

Cover image taken by Malcolm Wilson.

A version of this commentary will also appear in the November 16-30, 2012 issue of Canada's People's Voice.

For much of my life I have felt like the last of a dying breed, rather than being simply one of the next generation, as so often I have seen my fellow ranchers in the guise of white haired old men in jeans and caps. These people are relics of a bygone age, back when Alberta's provincial product was raised from the ground and not extracted from underneath it. Many of them were either the children of immigrants or immigrants themselves, such as my late grandfather. The world they describe is utterly unrecognizable from the Alberta of today, long before we became so "prosperous". They remember when being a farmer was not only sustainable, but sometimes quite lucrative. Sadly, this is no longer true, and they are nothing but rapidly departing relics of an age that has come and gone.

What is even more striking is that at my tender young age of eighteen I too can remember better times. At no point in my life has our family ranch been anything more than a "hobbyist" operation, demanding the external employment of my father and now older brothers to stay afloat – something which speaks volumes in of itself. However, I can recall some happier childhood memories of "calf cheques" and the spells of financial freedom they provided us. The bunk-bed of my twin brother and I, for example, was financed through exactly these annual windfalls. A less pleasant memory, however, several years later, was that after expenses all the calf money could go towards was the purchase of a new toilet seat. What was it that changed a profitable side interest into what it is now?

When the mad cow scandal broke out in May 2003, I was little more than nine years old. I was not able to fully comprehend how it would affect my life, and pave the path for all the rest of the strife that was to come. All that I can recall was the panic, and the sudden deprivation of those yearly calf cheques. I also recall the varied responses to it, such as Premier Ralph Klein's infamous uttering of "shoot, shovel and shut-up" and the disloyalty, at the time, of American ranchers organizations like R-CALF believing that by closing off their Canadian compatriots they would win out; breaking solidarity with the rest of us and unwittingly falling into the interests of the large agricultural companies.

Even so, we did emerge out of the crisis, battered and bruised, but still standing. Although now hardly profitable, we still continued to at least break even: the price fetched for our calves paid for the cost of feeding the herd over the winter. This security proved vital to our continued operations when the other link in the chain broke. My father lost his embedded technology job after the fall of that great capitalist boondoggle the Dot-Com Boom, leaving him underemployed for the best part of a decade. It was a difficult balance, but we continued to work it out such that both bovine and human continued to be fed, sheltered and healthy.

Still, the industry continued to stagnate, as the large agricultural corporations continued their efforts to push out small farmers. The margin by which we were able to pay for our feed continued to become smaller and smaller, until finally a few years ago we started coming in at a loss – the enterprise of now three generations of my family had finally become a liability. It was now financially poisonous to us to maintain our lifestyle and to retain our family traditions. This is particularly alarming given the relatively low inputs required, only winter feed and the occasional salt block or fence repair. Conceivably, our operations should be self-sustaining. This being so, we had thought then that this was going to be pretty much the lowest it could get.

This year has since proved us wrong, as we are now facing the choice between selling our calves at rock-bottom prices or else retaining them over the winter and hope for better in the spring. Given we were fortunately able to get a decent deal on hay last summer, it appears that the latter is largely our best option. Though even in that case, the purchase left a stoppage in our cash flow, driving us to the local food bank for the first time since my father got his new job in June: we had to choose their feed above our own. As reported in the last issue, this is not just a one off in our case, but a larger issue affecting ranchers across the Prairies and beyond, all over the developed world in fact. The reasons for the current crisis is emblematic of the root cause of decline in Canadian family agriculture as a whole. The scandal and the atrocious policies of XL Foods have been taking most of the spotlight of late, as in the last issue of this paper, and rightfully so, but ranchers had been nervous of what to expect for months before that new revelation came to light.

The United States has spent most of the past year in an extreme drought, devastating the production of hay and corn, which has caused a feed crisis and a mass sell-off of livestock. This influx of supply has naturally cratered demand in international markets. Of course, the innate link between the drought and climate change has continued to be largely ignored and under-reported, as well as how this has specifically targeted the most vulnerable. In the face of a lowered production of their preferred corn-meal, the large feed-lots have simply diversified their choices, making sugary swill out of things such as surplus Oreo cookies and gummy worms. This is not an option for those of us who rely on feeding our cattle grass and hay, as they are biologically suited to do. With lower hay crops, many farmers across the United States have had no option but to sell their stock or watch them slowly starve.

Thus calamities on both sides of the border have created the perfect storm, and like all such storms produced by the contradictory system of capitalism, the smaller and the poorer operations suffer far more. It is not the large monopolies like Cargill, Monsanto or XL Foods who in the end are going to foot the bill for our lost livelihoods. No, they are liable to profit from the influx in cheap meat, with no added benefit to consumers or their employees. If it wipes out what little parts of the sector remain independent of them, all the better. A world where there are no family farmers, and no healthy, happy pasture raised cattle with room to roam, has been the one they have been working towards for decades now, a crusade in which, with explicit government backing, they have been widely successful in.

Unless a drastic fightback takes place in support of family farming, the rural diaspora shall continue until the countryside is filled by nothing more than factory farms, animals treated as industrial materials and one or two tenant farmers on the payroll of their rich masters. In the context of a brewing food crisis throughout all agricultural sectors and in all parts in the world due to years of mismanagement, unsustainable policies and the continuing ravaging of climate change, this is a trend upon which everyone should be worried. If new blood such as myself and my brothers are to be the last of our kind, then who will retain the skills needed to pick up the pieces when it all comes tumbling down? How can we ever come back to way we once were? Is this the end of sustainable, healthy, and humane ranching as we know it?

October 17-21 2012