Farmers across Saskatchewan say they are feeling the overwhelming mental and financial stress of crop contracts and poor harvests as dry conditions bake their fields.
Only about half of the crops across the province are at their normal stages of development for this time of year, according to the latest provincial crop report.
The report attributes the problems to lack of moisture, noting about eight percent of cropland topsoil in the province has what it needs. And farmers can see the effects.
“You can very visibly see a lot of crops turning colour, and we’re barely into the third week of July,” said Jeremy Welter, a fourth-generation farmer who lives near Kerrobert, Sask., about 185 kilometres west of Saskatoon.
“These crops should still be grass green,” he said. “They should be lush. They should be thick.”
Mr. Welter said his crop insurance company looked over his barley and a large portion of his cereal crops and said they are complete write-offs for him.
Mr. Welter said the financial stress is a burden that keeps him up at night. From machinery payments to groceries, to pay back the credit that helps seed the soil, he is under pressure.
“I feel like I did everything I could and, you know, you can’t help but feel like a failure, even though you couldn’t have done anything differently,” he said. “You can’t make it rain, right?
“Nothing can grow in a desert, six weeks of no rain.”
Mr. Welter isn’t the only farmer feeling the heat’s toll.
Adelle Stewart is the executive director of Do More Agriculture, a Saskatchewan organization that advocates for mental health in the farming industry and works to provide resources to farmers.
When asked what she was hearing from farmers, Stewart summarized it in four words.
“Extreme stress, desperation, crisis,” she said.
“What we’re seeing right now is unprecedented and only seems to be getting worse with no rain in the forecast.”
Ms. Stewart said her organization often hears farmers and producers look for mental health resources around fall or late August, during the stressful harvest season. This year, they’ve already been hearing a lot from farmers, she said, including one who had to use bath water for their plants.
“We know producers [whose] crops this year aren’t any higher than the stubble they left in the field last year,” Ms. Stewart said. “There is no yield. Farmers are in contracts for their seed and grain that they’re not going to be able to fulfil.”
While some farmers, like Mr. Welter, have spoken about the stress from this year’s harvest, Lesley Kelly said it’s very common in the industry for people to try to deal with it alone.
“You hear that farmers have to tough it out and boys don’t cry, or men don’t cry, and that does have a detriment to our mental health,” Kelly, a Do More Agriculture co-founder, told Leisha Grebinski on CBC’s Saskatoon Morning.
She said the proper next steps are connecting rural communities with the proper health services when they need them.
Do More Agriculture is working on a national phone line that would provide farmers with mental health professionals knowledgeable about agriculture, Stewart said.
Levi Hull farms near Yorkton, Sask., in the southeastern part of the province and is a director of the Saskatchewan Cattleman’s Association. He agreed farmers often keep their emotions close to their chest and that the stigma surrounding mental health needs to change.
“You have family and friends and stuff like that you can rely on, but not a lot of people really do that and I don’t know why that is in this industry where we’re all tough,” he said. “Maybe it’s that we seem weak if we talk about it.”
The federal and provincial governments’ response to farmers
In mid-July, the Saskatchewan government announced the Saskatchewan Crop Insurance Corporation would look at alternative options for farmers with damaged crops, such as silage, baling or grazing.
The insurance corporation will also be doubling low yield appraisal thresholds for farmers who salvage their crops as feed, it said.
Saskatchewan Agriculture Minister David Marit called on the federal government for help, including designating all Saskatchewan farmers eligible for the Livestock Tax Deferral program.
Ottawa responded with support for producers, including agreements for crop insurance programs that would open drought-damaged crops to be used as feed.
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