The narrative of Saskatchewan is so deeply etched and so familiar that talking to Larry Sommerfeld is a shock. He is that rarest of creatures-a happy farmer who is looking to the future with confidence.
Sommerfeld stretches out in his chair and smiles: "It's a nice place to be right now, Saskatchewan. Everybody's pretty optimistic."
Apart from being the proprietor of a 3,000-acre farm, Sommerfeld is mayor of the town of Allan, a half-hour's drive southeast of Saskatoon. He sees change everywhere. The PotashCorp mine on the edge of town is in the middle of a half-billion-dollar expansion, which is a lot of money for a town of 700. The trailer court and the hotels are jammed. Sommerfeld talks of Saskatchewan people returning home from Alberta, where the living these days is no longer quite so easy. Local trucking operators-a business Sommerfeld knows from his own seasonal work driving rigs-are bringing in trainees from as far away as the Philippines. And everywhere, wages are going up because the mines and the oil and gas operators are competing for employees.
When we first met seven years ago, Larry Sommerfeld was not a happy man. He had just bought a tractor and he was not looking forward to his next meeting with the bank manager. His three sons were not much inclined to take over the farm after he retires and he was not in much of a mood to tell them they should. He was pretty pessimistic about farming, period.
These days, Sommerfeld's wife, Bev, still works at the local Walmart to help out with the bills. His canola and pea crops were not as great as they might have been this year. But he had one of his best years ever for wheat and barley. More important, he has even made a big bet on the future. He shakes his head and laughs at it, but he confesses he has just bought himself a combine for $400,000. "I guess I look at it this way: If I go broke, at least I'll have something good on my auction sale."
Not so long ago, most Canadians felt a bit sorry for Saskatchewan, that poor cousin on the bald prairie. The people of Saskatchewan called their province "next-year country," but the wise guys said that was because this year was always so unfailingly wretched. Think about it. If it was not the cracking cold of winter, it was the baking heat of summer, probably with hailstorms and locusts thrown in for good measure. True, the province had always relished its reputation as the breadbasket of Canada, if not the world. But when the numbers were added up at the end of the year, Saskatchewan was always in the bottom half of the Canadian ledger. Saskatchewan was a perennial have-not, reliant on handouts from Ottawa.
But lately, Saskatchewan has been watching the world's commodity prices rise-wheat, barley, lentils, chickpeas, potash, oil, gas, uranium. Saskatchewan is rich in them all, and suddenly, as of last year, the province is in the top half of that Canadian ledger, looking down on even stumbling Ontario.
At the same time, something here is changing besides the numbers. Saskatchewan's personality is changing too. The place that had to stick together, the place that was proud of its Crown corporations, its institutions designed to protect farmers from capitalists, and the pragmatic strain of social democracy that produced medicare, is now in love with the markets.
Is Tommy Douglas rolling in his grave? Perhaps. To hear one of his ideological descendants tell it, there is a danger in forgetting how cruel commodities markets can be. It was dust bowl hardship that made Saskatchewan, according to Nettie Wiebe. "I think it evoked in people-and with wise leadership got articulated as-a need for a recognized interdependence," she says. "That is less and less the case now. Not just because it has become that much easier here, but also because of larger influences that have tossed us all into a kind of globalization that inhibits us from recognizing our interdependence."
Nettie Wiebe represents the old Saskatchewan-she has led the radical-roots National Farmers Union, and was a left-wing candidate for the provincial NDP leadership. If you want a symbol of the new Saskatchewan-or what is assumed to be the new Saskatchewan-you could do worse than to consider Mayo Schmidt, an American agribusiness veteran who arrived at the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool in 2000. The Pool is one of those prairie institutions that sprang out of hardship and common cause; it was formed by farmers in 1923 to get them a better deal after decades of rude treatment by grain traders.
What Schmidt found 77 years later was a farmers' co-op that had become seriously dysfunctional, with a debt of close to half a billion dollars. "For me it was time for the company to stop talking about what it had done, many years past, and start talking about what it was going to do to get in control of a situation that was beginning to be out of control," he says.