“It was like someone turned on the tap and forgot to turn it off,” Lillian Fleck describes the floods that came last spring in eastern Saskatchewan, leaving nearly two million acres of land too wet to seed and destroying others that were planted.
“That’s not too bad on that side, they’ll probably get at least a third (of the crops),” she says, pointing to a half-green, half-brown wheat field, with pockets of slough (see Saskatchewan Notebook), as she drives the highway from Tisdale to Bjorkdale.
“That over there was seeded but it’s not growing,” she adds. It’s mid-July and the flax should be about 15 inches by now. “I’ll bet you it won’t even grow a foot.”
She warns that the picture gets worse in the next town, Porcupine Plain, which had back-to-back disasters that began last fall: frost and hail, followed by 1.5 metres of snow in winter, and 43 cm of rain in spring.
Ms. Fleck, a cradle Anglican whose grandfather Abraham Moot Fritshaw was a schoolteacher who homesteaded in Saskatchewan 100 years ago and whose parents later had their own cattle and grain operation, grew up on a farm, and recalls, “we didn’t have these extremes of dry and wet weather.”
Ms. Fleck drops by the home of Glen and Gloria Bush, her fellow parishioners at Bjorkdale’s St. John-Hillside, whose crops this year have rotted from the extreme weather conditions. The couple has also had to endure the loss of their daughter Shelley to cancer, on the day that Ms. Fleck drops by with Saskatoon bishop Rodney Andrews and an Anglican Journal reporter.
“I wish we could meet you in better circumstances. These are very hard times for you,” says Bishop Andrews.
“I don’t understand it at all. There’s no explanation,” says Mr. Bush, as his wife serves coffee and raspberries with ice cream to the guests, who have gathered around a kitchen table. Even when there’s a death in the family, Saskatchewan’s famed hospitality is not forgotten. “That’s what it’s like on a farm. We appreciate anybody coming,” says Mrs. Bush.
The couple talk about their daughter and the family she left behind and shows an album with her photographs. The conversation inevitably segues to the disasters and Mrs. Bush sighs, “We still have wheat laying over the field. They couldn’t combine it last year. We have about 80 acres of field where the ducks are still swimming.”
Mr. Bush shows the grain bin with 4,000 bushels of barley covered with mold; they were wet when harvested and hot weather set in before they could be dried. “It would’ve been worth about $3 to $4 per bushel. You’re looking at about $15,000 just going out to the bush. It’s not even good for a pig farm,” he says.
‘There’s always next year’
There were news reports that the provincial government would offer $15 per acre in assistance (it has been reduced to $10 per acre), but Mr. Bush observes, “It isn’t very much.” This year farmers spent an average of $121 per acre to grow crops, according to another farmer, Sharon Stegemann, from Porcupine Plain. The price of fuel went up and in turn, drove up the cost of hauling and shipping the grains; more fuel was also burned to combine and dry the grains; some farmers had to replace tractors and farm implements destroyed from plowing through floodwaters. “We’re getting buried in debt,” she says, and yet provincial officials “wouldn’t even come out to look at our situation.”
She adds: “It’s almost worse than the 1920s because while the cost of everything has gone up, crop prices have remained the same. We used to spend 40 to 42 per cent of our gross income to freight, now it’s 48 per cent.” Canadians may not be aware, she says, but for every loaf of bread only $0.08 goes to the farmer.
And yet, adds Ms. Fleck, most Canadians think farmers are constantly bellyaching. “They don’t understand, and therefore, it’s not their problem. It’s discouraging but we carry on.”
How does one keep faith that just keeps getting tested? “We’re losing it. We’re losing faith,” says Mr. Bush, only half-jokingly. “I know when Shelley died, I wondered. But I guess you got to hang on, eh? You’d think the Lord will step in, wouldn’t you? But that isn’t his way of operating.”
The fact that farmers do not just give up and continue to farm is testament to their faith, adds Ms. Fleck. “We have a bad crop, so okay, next year. There’s always next year. We’re next year’s country, we say. And that’s the optimistic theme that seems to permeate most.”
Still the reality is that continuing agricultural hardships are forcing more and more to give up on farms owned by their families for many generations and they end up being taken over by big agri-businesses; those who stay, find themselves taking other jobs to keep the farm. “The average age of a farmer in Saskatchewan is 55 and so many young people leave the small towns” for oil-rich Alberta, says Bishop Andrews, adding that the continuing depopulation and demographic shift has had a profound effect on rural churches.
“When St. Andrew’s was established 100 years ago, everyone was new to the province and they all had a church affiliation. The level of community involvement was huge. Now it’s no longer the case; there’s no pressure on people to belong to a church community or to participate anywhere,” says Rev. Joanne Beacon, parish priest of St. Andrew’s church in Humboldt, Sask. She reflects that in the seven years that she has served at St. Andrew’s, “I’ve poured my life into enabling, empowering and teaching the Gospel to a generation that slips right through the sieve and goes to Alberta and other parts of the world.”
Ms. Beacon also finds herself ministering to elderly people, the so-called left-behind generation. “It really is that emotional thing of ‘where did they all go? They left us behind. Now I’m dying and I’m sick and I’m alone.'”
There is also pain from the increasing disconnect between people in the rural and urban areas. “I think it’s important to see that the sense of betrayal you often hear about is really a symptom of underlying grief,” she says. “They came here with dreams, they wanted their children around, they wanted to build strong, vibrant communities with their children around them inheriting and building a legacy, and that dream isn’t there.”
Stagnation and isolation
Saskatoon-based Klaus and Margie Gruber, who started a diocesan outreach network to help bridge the gap that they see between rural and urban churches, have traveled to many parts of rural Saskatchewan. “We visited some churches where there are six or seven families left and there’s nobody under 60. They’re struggling to understand where they go from here,” says Mr. Gruber.
“At the same time, we visited churches with young families (that are) totally committed to the church, but struggling because they’re farm families,” adds Mrs. Gruber.
“There’s a lot of variety, but lack of growth, stagnation and fear for the future is kind of a theme that we encountered in a lot of places,” says Mr. Gruber. And, “certainly isolation, people not feeling connected to the rest of the church so much.”
The Grubers say the rural reality as well as the farmers’ “passion for stewardship” is often missed by city folk. Urbanites often see farming as a business and food as a commodity, says Mr. Gruber. “Whether a small family farmer produces it or we import it from somebody else, most people don’t see the value difference and that gets very frustrating to the farmers because they’re still very connected to being food producers and they value it and are proud of it.” When natural disasters hit farmers and “nobody seems to be recognizing that, and they’re facing huge losses and perhaps, the end of farming for some of them,” adds Mr. Gruber, “I think they do feel abandoned in some ways.”
Rural churches, with their own limited resources, do their best to respond but clearly need support. The Grubers stress the need “to do some education within the church and city parishes so that people have a better understanding of what the realities are.”
Christopher Lind, who authored Something’s Wrong Somewhere, a book on the Saskatchewan farm crisis published in 1995, concurs. “I don’t think the church has responded adequately. It’s an enormous challenge. One of the problems ? is, because of the church’s diocesan structure, it’s difficult for people in one diocese to properly understand what’s happening in another diocese.” The church tends to see the rural-urban disconnect as a “structural rather a social and pastoral issue,” or simply a matter of filling up vacancies in rural churches, he says. “You’ve got families in crisis in rural areas, that’s a pastoral crisis. What’s the responsibility of the rest of the church to that pastoral crisis? You’ve got profound changes going on in other parts of the country, what are the theological issues that relate to that?” Elsewhere in Canada, other rural Canadians are facing their own set of challenges such as the rapid urbanization of Alberta, he adds.
When he undertook a study on the farm crisis for the book, says Mr. Lind, one theme that emerged was “the heart-wrenching stories of people who were faced with farm bankruptcy and one of the realities was, these are people whose grandparents and great-grandparents had typically come from Western Europe, sometimes Eastern Europe and had homesteaded in Saskatchewan; they were the first people in their family ever to hold titled land because their ancestors in Ireland or Poland or Ukraine were peasant farmers.” For these descendants to lose that land carries a shame, he says. “They feel that they’re letting down their grandparents and great-grandparents.”
Most Canadians have also been slow to respond to rural crises because “we have this idea that urban life represents progress over rural life,” adds Mr. Lind. “There’s actually a prejudice against rural life. If people leave the countryside for the city, well isn’t that a good thing anyway?” Others have “this romantic image in their head that anybody who lives in rural Saskatchewan eats their food from the garden,” he adds. “But in fact, there are people who are living on welfare ? who need that kind of support.”
The other reality is that the majority of both Canadians and Anglicans now live in cities, he adds. “A hundred years ago that wasn’t true but now it’s true ? We find it difficult to grasp with the issues of the North; I think we find it even difficult to grapple with the issues of rural Canada.”
Still, he says, the church cannot afford not to respond to the needs of rural Anglicans and Canadians. “The cost of the church not responding is losing its faithfulness. If the church is going to be faithful to the Gospel, then the church has to respond.”
Responses could be outright relief and assistance to such practical ways as offering one’s time as a farm hand, says Mrs. Gruber. Urban congregations might also twin with rural congregations to provide outreach, says Mr. Lind.
Bishop Andrews’ 1,500-kilometre tractor trek across the province last year was a creative way to show that the church cares, adds Mr. Lind. “To a cynical urban reader a tractor ride might seem a little hokey but in rural Western Canada this was seen as a major initiative by an urban church to recognize the plight of rural communities and a raising up of the profile of rural families.”
Next issue: Facing the challenges of rural ministry