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All Things Considered – November 2012

Digging Out of a Hole


You no doubt know the old line about the way to get out of a hole; the first thing you do is stop digging.

But that is just the first thing. The next item on your escape plan should be to assess just how deep a hole you’re in and what the hole looks like. Common sense dictates that it is going to take longer and be harder to get out of a 100-foot-deep hole than a five- or 10-foot one.

The shape of the hole also matters. In St. Andrews, Scotland, among the ruins of the old castle there is something called the bottle dungeon. As the name implies, it is shaped like a bottle and is as bleak a place as can be imagined. Prisoners were lowered into the cell and escape was impossible. The only way out was to yell for help and hope it arrived.

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Today, much of the world economy – think of southern Europe – is in a 100-foot hole. Other areas, such as much of the United States, are in a decent sized hole. Some regions, such as North Dakota and Montana, are standing on little hills because of newly developed oil and gas reserves. But in California and Nevada, the hole is deep and getting deeper. And in the rust belt of Michigan, Indiana and Ohio, the hole is deep, but thanks to the saving and recovery of the auto industry, they have at least stopped digging.

In Canada, the picture is similar.

The Prairies – thanks to natural resources – are doing fine. In Quebec and the Maritimes, the picture is mixed, with some areas and large cities doing OK and some rural areas not. In Ontario, Ottawa is fine and even Windsor is coming back because of the auto industry recovery. But, and I’m going to get parochial here, the region in which I live is sinking. This area has the highest unemployment rate in Ontario at 10.9 per cent (EI Program Characteristics for the period of September 09, 2012 to October 06, 2012, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, http://srv129.services.gc.ca/rbin/eng/rates_cur.aspx). This region is called Niagara by Statistics Canada, which is a misnomer. The region consists of the counties of Haldimand, Norfolk and Brant, one township from the Niagara Region and one from Elgin County.

It is a largely rural area that has/had a few large employers. One of the big employers (locally known as the Bick’s plant in Dunnville) recently shut down. Another, the gigantic coal-fired generating station at Nanticoke, has scaled back and is shutting down. Only a steel plant and an oil refinery remain.

Sadly, people and politicians living in this area thought they were in a 10-foot hole, had stopped digging and were looking for some ways out. But little did they know that others living in Toronto and the United States were, for business reasons, tunnelling underneath them and proceeding to drop them into a 100-foot bottle dungeon. The only saving grace is that retirees from Toronto and area have discovered the low housing prices.

Farmers know what can happen when you’re hit by forces beyond your control. Floods, droughts, political machinations and other events can wreak havoc, but sometimes you can recover on your own. Other times, you may need someone to give you a ladder, provide a rope or simply throw down some climbing gear. Once you’re out, you then set about filling the hole.

You do all this not out of a sense of charity, though that isn’t a bad reason; you do it because no one can know when they might fall or be pushed into a hole and need help getting out.

Senator Herb Sparrow knew about holes and about helping guide people out of them. Back in the 1980s, the farmer-rancher from North Battleford, Sask., saw the economic and agronomic hole farmers were digging for themselves with summerfallow and constant tillage and what was happening to the prairie soil. He saw that localized dust storms were returning and that nutrients were being sucked from the ground at an alarming rate. In response, he used his Senate office to put together a seminal report titled “Soil At Risk.”

It was and remains a classic.

The report played a huge role in changing what farmers thought and did, and influenced government actions for decades.

It is, in my mind, the most significant thing to come out of the Senate in the last 30 years. It also showed what one dedicated and determined senator could accomplish.

He showed Prairie farmers the hole they were digging themselves into. He used science and, in combination with his own considerable skills, showed them the way out. He rallied others to help with the transition to more efficient and effective farming techniques. He demonstrated how saving the soil would save farmers’ dollars and how it made financial sense.

Senator Herb Sparrow passed away on Sept. 6 at 82. Though not a tall man, he made a gigantic contribution to farming.