Driving west on Highway 1 out of Winnipeg last weekend, we weren’t even beyond the city limits before we were surrounded by brilliant yellow fields of canola. The scent of their blooming flowers slid in our open windows.
As we left the city behind, the prairie patchwork, while mostly yellow, was interspersed with fields of purple flax and waving green barley. Livestock huddled under windbreaks, seeking shade. We were thankful to be a small moving object under the full, blue bowl of sky. We promised ourselves a sunset swim when we reached our destination, our family hobby farm on Salt Lake, three hours to the northwest.
Along with the usual transport trucks, travel trailers, cars and vans, we were joined by a train with five engines chugging along the track running parallel to the highway, its load snaking behind it. A short time later we spied two small yellow airplanes dipping and circling like dragonflies, distracting my driver more than his cellphone ever would. One plane dropped from the sky out of view behind a row of trees, flying low for 10 to 15 seconds, then swooped back into sight 100 metres from the highway, pulling up hard enough to miss the hydro lines, shooting into the sky to roll over and drop down, making another pass.
The next time he dove out of the sky he levelled off next to us and we observed him dump his load of herbicide before lifting up again.
“How do you think he knows where exactly to fly?” I asked.
“They used to have a guy in the field, but now it’s all done by GPS,” my husband said.
Canola dominates the crop choice all the way to the farm, with wheat, rye and oats randomly breaking the yellow dominance. Every field appears perfect, with no visible weeds.
At the farm the next morning we awoke to no wind and Salt Lake as calm as opaque glass, the colour of avocado. Our lake is dying. A few years ago it used to be clear most of July and then there would be weeds in August. But now there is a green algae bloom that will turn a toxic blue colour as summer progresses.
Our family cottage was built in the late-’40s by a man named Kippen, after the sawmill he operated during the war in nearby Riding Mountain National Park closed. My husband’s parents and grandparents bought the quarter section of land, which includes part of the lake, and the cabin from Kippen in 1960. They farmed the land, rotating from summer fallow to wheat every other year. In 1986, the older generation retired and my husband and I worked in the city, so the land was rented to farmers who have continuous cropped it since then.
We have enjoyed the lake every summer, raising our four children in the log-hewn four-bedroom cabin, sharing the five-km-long lake with a dozen or so other cottages and a public beach at the south end used for swimming lessons every year.
Underwater streams feed the lake; you feel the cold flow when swimming through them, so mostly, when it gets hot, we swim anyway, hearing it’s poisonous but hoping it’s not.
That day, we spent time in our canoe enjoying the light breeze ruffling the water, the crops circling the lake, thick and splendid, rolling with summer heat, the sky cloudless.
The airport north of town buzzed with three yellow airplanes easily recognizable as aerial sprayers. We observed them take off with a heavy load, fly low over the lake heading south, returning within the hour to land, reload and take off again.
“There never used to be this kind of action at the airport in town,” I commented.
“There’s no summer fallow any more. It’s continuous cropping and everybody sprays,” my husband said.
“Canola’s very popular. I know it’s cooking oil, but what’s it used for anyway?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he answered.
This morning before going to work, I informed myself further about canola. Sources say it was originally bred naturally in the seventies by Canadians and named after ourselves, Canadian-Oil-Low-Acid. In 1995, a genetically modified version came on the market that’s resistant to herbicide sprayed for weed control. The oil is said to be unaffected and remains healthy, low in saturated fats, high in omega-3. More than 80 per cent of canola crops planted on the prairies is genetically modified, causing concern. It is widely used in commercial food production. Read the labels; it’s in everything.
So what do we do now? We have been blind to the symptoms in our waters, pretending it wasn’t happening, but our lake is in a death spiral. Every year it turns green sooner than it did the year before, and it never clears up.
This tragedy is taking place all across the prairies and in other watersheds as well. The yellow planes dipping and dropping like children’s toys are an innocuous symbol of the revolution. After observing them busy doing their job all weekend, I’m unsure what to do next.
Sandra Vincent lives in Winnipeg.