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Down on the farm: the reality of rural life.

Life on many family farms today has become a desperate struggle for survival

Many people think life on the farm is idyllic. A slower pace, fresh air and green pastures are all popular images of rural living.

The problem is, that image doesn't always fit. And it doesn't even come close to the reality faced by some Canadian farmers over the past year. For them, price crashes of monumental proportions have taken the rosy hues out of any portrait of life in the country.

Farm income in Canada is expected to be down 26 per cent compared to the five-year average. But that aggregate number is deceiving. Some special crops are doing well: dairy, poultry and some parts of the livestock industry. Cereal grains and hogs, however, have been hit hard by price declines.

The situation faced by Ontario hog producers is a case in point. Market prices in Ontario for the latter half of last year and the early part of 1999 have been well below the cost to produce a hog. In fact, in only six months, the price for a market hog went from about $167 to below $40. For a typical farm, the cost of raising and shipping a hog at the latter price was almost $90 more than it captured at the marketplace. The prices are the worst that hog farmers have seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The problem of low hog prices is partly cyclical and partly structural. Hog prices tend to rise and fall over a four-year cycle. But that typical cycle of supply and demand has been thrown out-of-whack across North America by some major changes taking place among the buyers that process the hogs. In fact, the amount of space available to process hogs has shrunk at roughly the same time as more hogs came to market.

In a nutshell, processing companies have been busy buying each other out, closing older, inefficient slaughter-houses, and renegotiating labour contracts. And to top matters off, Asia's currency crisis of last year is said by some to have slowed some growth in pork exports. All in all, the experts say these conditions will depress the hog market for several months to come. And that spells continued trouble for family-worked farms that produce the majority of Ontario's hogs.

As the crisis in hog prices has deepened, stories have started to emerge about how the hardship is affecting some farm families. One farmer simply closed the doors on his barn and walked away, leaving the pigs to starve. The man simply lost his frame of mind and felt he had no alternatives. Other tales tell of feed bills that are unpaid and Christmas presents that weren't purchased. The worst fears are for those who start withdrawing from community life. Severe financial stress can lead people to abuse their families or themselves. Suicide is not unheard of among farmers during times of financial downturns.

The Farm Crisis: Can the Church Help?

Wilma Jeffray, who writes in this issue about the pain of being a hog farmer these days, included this note about the support she receives from the Knox Church congregation in Belmore, Ontario: "These precious people listen, understand and, most important, feel what I tell them. I thank God for their presence. Their quiet, constant presence provides unimaginable strength in seemingly hopeless times. What more could I ask?"

Do you have a story of what your congregation has done? Or are there things you believe the local congregation, presbytery or national church should be doing in these situations? Write and tell us. We will attempt to include your ideas in a future issue.

Thankfully, there are some things available to help farmers navigate these difficult times. Governments and farm groups have provided telephone helplines and counsellors for stress and debt management. And financial aid packages are in the development or delivery stages by governments.

Despite all these services, some farmers still feel a strong need to share their burdens with others. Within the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario (CFFO), we have seen people spontaneously share their struggles with other farmers during structured meetings. It wasn't part of the agenda; it simply happened.

At one meeting I attended, a usually buoyant woman I've known for almost five years broke down in tears as she shared how low hog prices had destroyed the cash flow on her farm and totally changed her plans for retirement. She had little choice but to watch as, month by month, the financial equity she and her husband had built up in their farm slowly dwindled away.

After this woman spoke, a young man with four children under eight years of age rose to tell how he might have to sell his farm in a few months. A progressive farmer with a bright future ahead of him, he told how the bills had simply become too high to continue. Other farmers followed with similar stories.

After they had shared their stories, most farmers felt lighter and actually smiled or laughed. Some shared how these difficult times had forced them to focus more clearly on their families and on the bountiful life they have in Jesus Christ.

The experience of watching these farmers share their stories taught our organization a powerful lesson. The concept of mutual self-help is a strong tool for helping people work their way through difficult seasons in life. In essence, it's compassion in action.

Since then, the CFFO has been advocating that our 22 district associations across Ontario consider implementing mutual self-help groups for farmers who want to participate. It's not a cure-all; but it lets farmers know, in a practical way, that others care about them.

For rural churches, a great opportunity exists to minister to hurting farmers in this way. Most churches have meeting facilities, coffee-pots and members willing to reach out with the love of our Lord. These congregations also have an advantage because they usually have members who either farm or are well-connected to the farming community.

For urban churches, an opportunity exists to learn more about how food is produced, and the human stories of strugle that sometimes go into its production. And, in terms of practical actions, there is always room for intercessory prayers for those going through tough times.

John Clement is the general manager of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario. The CFFO has 4,100 members across the province and develops public policy initiatives for agriculture.
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Author:Clement, John
Publication:Presbyterian Record
Date:Apr 1, 1999
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