On an autumn afternoon in the Canadian prairies, golden wheat chaff blows from a rumbling grain dryer, shimmering in the sun like a snowfall. Clarence Zeleny stands beside the machine, irritation straining his face.
“It’s giving me trouble today,” says the 83-year-old farmer as he studies the snaking tubes and wiring.
Dryers like this, which blast freshly harvested wheat and canola with warm air, are essential for farmers in the region as they attempt to salvage another poor harvest: weeks of rain and snow have left crops too wet to cut or sell otherwise.
“Too many more years like this and farmers here might not survive,” he says.
The patchwork of farms across the vast landscape of Canada’s western prairie provinces has long been the source of much of the world’s supply of canola seed and wheat. But farmers across the region are increasingly feeling pushed to the brink by an unfolding crisis that shows little sign of easing.
This year’s dismal harvest marks the fourth poor season in a row – the worst run of bad luck in memory – and comes against a grim background of plummeting incomes and a trade war with China.
“A farmer always says next year will be better,” says Norma Zeleny as she and Clarence lunch on cheese and crackers.
Norma has helped run the family grain farm for nearly six decades. But the changes she’s witnessed over the years have made her question such received wisdom. “It’s sad because a lot of young people really do want to do farming. But they’re being discouraged.”
According to Statistics Canada, farming incomes across the country dropped by 45% in 2018 – in Alberta the figure was closer to 70% – due to higher operating costs and interest rates and stagnant or falling crop prices. Meanwhile, the price of farmable land has soared, driven up by scarcity and speculation.
When they first started their farm nearly 60 years ago, the Zelenys paid $100,000CAD (£58,500) adjusted for inflation, for 64 hectares (160 acres). A similar-sized plot now sells for more than six times the amount.
The price of machinery has outpaced incomes: a combine harvester can cost nearly three-quarters of a million dollars, more than twice the cost of a house in town, and many farmers find themselves plunging ever deeper into debt.
“It’s not uncommon for farmers to have millions of dollars in debt or to be very asset-rich, but cash-poor,” says Andria Jones-Bitton, an epidemiologist at the University of Guelph who studies farmers’ mental health. “One family I know have a $5m (£3m) loan over their head.”
To make matters worse, Canadian farmers have spent nearly a year hostage to a diplomat dispute with China; Beijing halted all imports of canola from the country following the arrest of Huawei telecoms executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver on a US arrest warrant.
The cold realities of modern farming in a globalised world have concentrated unprecedented pressures on individual farmers. Nearly half of all farmers in Canada feel immense stress from their job, according to research by Jones-Bitton.
Although communities and government agencies are working to improve awareness of mental health, suicide has become a growing occupational hazard.
In the US, the Centers for Disease Control found that farmers killed themselves five times more often than other sections of the population. Canada doesn’t track similar statistics with as much detail but Jones-Bitton said the country’s farmers die by suicide at rates much higher than other groups.
“People say, ‘I’m worth more to my family dead than I am alive because of insurance’. It’s heartbreaking,” she says.
Sitting in the late morning sun at his kitchen table, Larry Kitz is exhausted. The night before, he seized the brief window of opportunity offered by a change in the weather and hired a team workers to harvest grain overnight in sub-zero temperatures.
“There’s so many tentacles grabbing you at the same time – bank, weather, markets,” he says. He knows all too well the effect mounting stress can have on local farmers: his brother Gary, who ran the farm with him, killed himself two years ago.
“Nothing was going right for him,” says Larry. “I reflect back and those fricking signs were there. The signs were there. I feel just horrible because dammit, it was happening.”
He admits he comes from a region – and a generation – where speaking openly about mental health wasn’t encouraged. But after seeing how his girlfriend, a nurse of 25 years, meets friends as a way to process work-related trauma, Larry decided to follow suit. In recent weeks, he and a group of friends have met at a local diner to eat breakfast and openly discuss the challenges of life on the farm.
“It’s the best damn therapy out there,” he says. It still takes an effort to share his concerns, he said, but speaking openly about the uncertainties of the harvest, the weather and the markets “makes a world of difference”.
Other farmers are more bullish on both their mental health and their chances in the industry. Forced inside by a howling snowstorm, Braden Halina reclines in his garage, a can of beer in hand. The 28-year-old, from the town of Vegreville, Alberta, is a rarity, as fewer young people are taking up farming.
After losing his father to suicide three years ago, Halina was forced to run the family farm. Now a father himself, he admits that the stresses of the job can seem daunting but he remains optimistic. “I’ve never really reached out for any help, because I don’t think that I need it, to be honest. I think I got it under control,” he says.
Halina says he has developed defensive instincts that he hopes will better insulate him from the unpredictability of markets and weather. After all, he reasons, the world still needs people like him. “You need farmers. You fucking need farmers.”
But the world that farms work in is changing. Experts predict the prairie region will warm in the coming years, potentially improving the growing season in some areas, but also increasing precipitation, which can delay the harvest.
Many farmers in the area are sceptical about climate change science, but the area has already started to experience the effects; in 2017, forest fires hundreds of kilometres away in British Columbia blanketed the prairie region near Mundare with smoke, dramatically curtailing the growing season.
While farmers debate how much to read into the changing weather, they also express frustration that their voices fall on deaf ears.
Canada recently went through 16 weeks of election campaigning, with candidates criss-crossing the country in search of votes. But none of the party leaders, or the local candidates, spoke about the challenges farmers are facing, said Ryan Warawa, who farms 4,300 acres (1,740 hectares) outside of Mundare, Alberta.
Like many in the prairies, he feels that the rest of the country is ignorant of the anxiety and desperation overwhelming farmers. “A farmer puts all his money and his heart into farming … and a lot of these city people haven’t got a clue what it takes to run a farm. No one cares about where their food comes from.”
By late autumn, Ryan and his father, Danny, have nearly 1,400 acres (566 hectares) of unharvested wheat and canola in their fields. With weather jumping erratically between rain and bitter cold, the harvest is unlikely to be finished before winter sets in. Leaving the crop in the field might give them the chance to harvest the remainder in spring, but they will have to sell it for much less.
If the trend of cold, damp days continues, “you might as well put a for sale sign up on the farm”, says Danny, who spurned retirement to help his son.
To hedge against the increasingly bleak returns from wheat and canola, he points past the sheds and grain bins to a pasture he calls his insurance policy. Milling around the fields is a herd of 54 bison he recently purchased with his savings. “They’re my retirement,” he says with a laughs. “They pay me better than any bonds I could have bought.”
Ryan estimates that they have $700,000 (£410,000) of wheat and canola left in the field – but they owe a similar amount to the bank. The family doesn’t own a grain dryer, which costs more than $130,000 (£76000), meaning no matter how hard they work or plan, the success of his operation will depend on the weather.
“I got an 11-year old kid that absolutely loves the farm and would quit school tomorrow if I told him he could take over,” says Ryan, staring down at the ground, hands in pockets. “But I don’t want him to do this.”
• Crisis Services Canada can be contacted on 1-833-456-4566. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.