Consider the toughest times in Saskatchewan history for either the government, the people, or for both. By no small coincidence, such times are inevitably accompanied by drought on the farm. Without much doubt, the toughest historical period in Saskatchewan was the Great Depression that very much shaped the psyche of this province. It gave rise to the Co-operate Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and what would be North American’s first social democratic government.
It was in that time that Saskatchewan faced the double-whammy of Depression and Dustbowl. It was the worst drought of the last century at the worst possible time. In addition, it is here where the correlation between political and economic upheaval and drought began to form a distinct pattern in Saskatchewan.
Tough times on the farm in the 1960s contributed mightily to the demise of the Ross Thatcher Liberal government in the 1971 election won by Allan Blakeney and the NDP. Similarly, the issues of the Grant Devine provincial government of the 1980s were many. However, the Devine government`s free-spending ways were certainly not helped by the onslaught of a severe drought in 1988 that wiped out the Saskatchewan agriculture economy.
Fast-forward nearly three full decades and farmers in some parts of the province today say they are facing the worst conditions seen since the late 1980’s. Most parts of Saskatchewan, south of Saskatoon, have seen less than 100 millimetres (half an inch) of rain since April. Fields are so parched that crops did not germinate. It is also worth noting that, for the first time ever, Saskatchewan farmers seeded more canola than wheat. Canola is not nearly as droughtresistant and dry conditions at the flowering stage have made this crop very vulnerable. Farmers and ranchers with cattle are facing little summer grazing and little hay.
Dry conditions are quickly making good water scarce. It is a problem made worse by toxic blue-green algae in dugouts and diminishing sloughs, a problem made even worse by salinity. You will recall the problem of 200 dead cattle in a pasture near Shamrock caused by dehydration, poor water quality, and heat.
Of course, this is obviously not a historical precedent for Saskatchewan. However, with nearly two decades of excessive moisture in many parts of Saskatchewan that drove land prices and operating costs higher, we are facing a situation that younger operators have not faced before. Farmers who may have over-extended during the better year buying up higher and higher land prices face especially big challenges. “The problem is now you need a lot more money to operate these operations and it’s not the same as it was in the dry years before,” Alan Dumontel, a long-time farmer in the Frontier area, recently told the CBC. “You know, we always had expenses but they are not like they are now.”
Saskatchewan`s 33,000-odd producers are at a historical low, but they are also seeding more land in this province than ever before. Because of this, farming still contributes mightily to the economy. With oil and potash revenue already in the tank, a decline in agriculture is going to hit Premier Brad Wall`s government as hard as it is going to hit the overall economy. It remains to be seen whether it will be as politically devastating.
Farmers and rural people in general are wise enough not to blame any government for a drought. It may take more than a year`s drought to turn the political tide in rural Saskatchewan. However, hot weather leading to bad crops does tend to put people in Saskatchewan in a bad frame of mind.
Rural people are already expressing their mounting frustrations over higher taxes and the loss of things like the STC bus services. We have seen it happen before in this province in times of drought.