Society

After three devastating years of drought, there’s no future for our farm

Our family farm has thrived in Alberta for more than a century—but the dire weather conditions of the past few years have spelled its end
Bob Tolman
A photo of a bearded man wearing a baseball cap
Bob Tolman on his ranch near Rumsey, Alberta on December 11, 2023 in Calgary, Alberta. (Photo by Leah Hennel)

I’ve raised cattle in Rumsey, Alberta, for 43 years. I purchased the land from my father, whose grandpa settled it in 1908. This year, my wife, Joanne, and I retired early, putting an end to four generations as a family business. Our three sons work in oil and gas, and we’re selling our cows to a good neighbour. Our farm has suffered for three years from the devastating droughts that’s struck farmers across Alberta, and that’s forced our hands. We had always planned to retire on our own terms, but the possibility has been taken from us.

It was an especially hard decision to make given my family’s long history here. For 115 years, our ranch has spanned more than 3,000 acres of rolling grassland and aspen trees above the Red Deer River, about an hour’s drive north of Drumheller. My great-grandpa John, born to a Mormon community in Idaho, arrived here in 1892 in a covered wagon with his wife and five kids. Today I can still look over a hill on the property and see where he shot two black bears in the early 1900s. In 1906, they moved to a dugout house on the property to be closer to the cattle. I went and looked at it once—it was basically a hole in the ground. They called that “the year of the hard winter,” and a lot of cattle were lost. It’s hard to comprehend how strong they had to be, especially my grandpa, who was only 14 then. When I was growing up I thought the world of him, a tough and quiet man. 

A photo of a man in a black coat and blue jeans standing to the right of a large brown bull cow, as tall as the man

But by the time my dad took over, the industry was thriving. Demand for beef skyrocketed in the 1950s, and Dad, a clever man who learned fast, supported his kids and parents on the property, and we lacked for nothing. As I got older—and as he started to spend more time on other interests, like getting his pilot’s licence and becoming a rodeo announcer—I began picking up more responsibility. I took over in 1979, and met Joanne a couple years later. We married in 1984, and we’ve been raising cattle ever since, through triumph and tribulation. Our operation was relatively small; we raised just 125 mother cows plus 20 head of replacement heifers yearly. Our herd was homegrown.

We worked seven days a week and occasionally struggled with the bills, but we made a good life in a tight-knit community. And that was possible because the cattle industry continued to grow. The grasslands and climate here have long been ideal for cattle and, during our years working here, Alberta beef became famous. Feedlots and packing plants sprang up and began producing 70 per cent of Canada’s beef. In 2005, the number of beef cattle in Alberta peaked at more than 2.2 million animals. But then the numbers began to fall, reaching a low of barely 1.5 million in 2015. 

READ: I’m a third-generation farmer. This industry needs more skilled labour to survive.

Numbers have modestly recovered since, but that recovery is imperilled now by years of severe drought. Water is everything to a farmer, and without rain and snowpack melting into river basins, crops suffer and cattle have nothing to graze. The drought in 2021 was reportedly just as devastating as the Dirty Thirties, when my grandpa nearly lost everything in the dust bowl. That year, Alberta reported that only 36 per cent of crops were in “good to excellent” condition, as southern Alberta received less than half of the average precipitation. That drought reduced our hay crops, which we used to feed to our animals, to nothing. We used 300 bales of carryover hay from 2020, as an emergency stock to feed our cattle, and began living in “next year country,” a farming term referencing every producer’s belief that next year would be better. Unfortunately, conditions got worse, with back-to-back droughts in 2022 and 2023.

In June and July of 2023, areas of southern Alberta received less than 40 millimetres of rain, and 13 counties declared agricultural disasters. The Canadian Drought Monitor classified the severity as “exceptional drought,” a label reserved for once-in-50-year events. 

A photo of a man in a black coat and blue jeans standing beside a brown dog

Farmers in our area began spending hours every day hauling water to their pastures. We’re lucky enough to have some water-collecting dugouts and dams on our property, but it wasn’t enough. Normally we produce about 700 or more bales of hay every year. Last year, we got exactly one–there was nothing to harvest as our hay crops burned up. We were running out of options, and there was no carryover hay thanks to the drought in 2022. We could have bought feed, but the drought had pushed the price to $300 per tonne, which made it absolutely unaffordable. It would cost us $200,000 to buy a year’s worth for our cattle, and that was money we didn’t readily have.

I was losing sleep as we considered what to do. Over my entire career, I had always loved going out to see our cows, but it was suddenly hard to look at them. If we sold everything and sent the cows to slaughter, it felt like our life’s work would be gone. We waited and waited for rain. When it didn’t come, Joanne and I finally decided to approach our neighbour about a deal to buy our cattle and rent our land. The contract terms out the purchase for 10 years, allowing us an annual income for that time period. 

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We’re grateful the land will remain in the Tolman name. Our sons can still choose what to do with it. We always encouraged them to work outside of agriculture; we wanted them to find jobs with time off and less worry, and to have easier lives than we’ve had. But there’s a sense of loss there too. Maybe our grandkids will return to cattle-raising—but only if conditions improve, and who knows if that will happen. This coming year already looks bad. The snowpack is more than 40 per cent below normal, and the Canadian Drought Monitor is classifying our area as being in “extreme drought”—the fourth of five drought-severity levels.

I’m not sure what the future holds for our industry. Our generation of farmers is aging, without an equal number of young operators picking things up. New ranchers face extraordinary costs, and you can’t break into the business unless you’re independently wealthy. It’s no longer possible to support a big household, like my dad once did, and inflation is driving up the costs of feed, equipment, land and everything else. 

A photo of a long stretch of road under open skies

I’m not sure how a young farmer today pencils in these costs. Going into debt is like running on a treadmill, and it’s not until you’re paid off that you can really succeed. The insurance programs that are offered can be a lifeline, and can certainly be used to mitigate hard times, but they can’t do so forever, and consecutive years of drought are hard. Hopefully programs such as AgriStability and AgriRecovery, intended to help farmers recover from natural disasters, can be fine-tuned to work for more sectors of the industry.

Despite it all, we’re grateful for how much agriculture has done for us, and to continue living on this beautiful land. It’s been difficult to leave the work we love, and we’re not used to feeling idle in retirement. Thankfully, with the sale of our land not being involved in our retirement plan, we’re able to continue enjoying what it offers. When our grandkids visit we take them sledding in the winter and river kayaking in the summer. And maybe it’s selfish, but with our neighbour buying our cows, I know they’ll be treated well—and at least I can still see them.

—As told to Gabrielle Plonka