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In the Prairies, We Can Talk Farm

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This is the second in what is, so far, a two-part series of blog posts intended to introduce HuffPost Canada to Saskatchewan and its interesting people.

You find Saskatchewan people everywhere. We often stray from the province and find ourselves working, visiting or living our lives in other parts of Canada. When you discover one of us -- as you most certainly will -- there is a good chance that the conversation will turn, at some point, to farming. I guess people just really like to talk about farming and they believe that a Saskatchewanian is more likely than others to indulge them. We love the attention as much as they love to talk about farming.

I mentioned in last week's blog post that agriculture is only a very small part of Saskatchewan's economic engine. I was taken to task for this diplomatically, and was reminded that farming is the "backbone" of the province. I checked again. Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting account for about 11 per cent of our GDP. That is significant, yes, but down the list. Whatever the number -- even if it dropped to zero -- historically, socially and culturally, agriculture is Saskatchewan. The southern part of the province is covered in farmland. You can't miss it. You see it right there beside the highway as you speed through on your way to the Rockies. Farms, as far as the eye can see -- and the eye can see a really really long way out here. But you won't see many farmers. In the last generation, the number of people employed in agriculture has dropped by half: from over 100,000 in 1976 to 50,000 by 2006. Our backbone has a declining number of vertebrae. In an economy dominated by resources and agriculture, it is only a few people who are directly involved in creating the wealth. The rest of us keep busy doing things for them.

Most of us, then, are not farmers. That has always been the case, but it's especially so these days. And, you know, most of us don't really know that much about farming. Farmers aren't that interested in talking to non-farmers about farming. My next door neighbour is an accountant. We never talk about accounting. Farming is the same.

So why is it that we always end up talking about farming when we leave home?

One reason is that people are trying to be friendly. All they have ever known about Saskatchewan is that there are a lot of farms out there. So, they figure we'll know something about farming. But that can't be the whole story. I don't assume that my relatives from Ontario want to talk about automobile parts manufacturing.

People have a romantic view of farming and about rural life generally. Living off the land. Working with your hands. Battling the elements. Wind in your face. Nurturing fragile life from the soil. In tune with nature, marking time with the rhythm of the seasons. It is virtuous, hard work done by simple, honest souls, men and women who keep alive the pioneering spirit. Urban life is so congested, loudly complicated,dangerous, alienating, morally ambiguous. Saskatchewan seems the last connection to a simpler, pastoral time.

Or something.

The main reason everyone thinks we all know about farming is that many of us, myself included, willingly talk about farming as if we know something about it, which -- and I must emphasize this -- we don't. We have led people to believe that all Saskatchewanians can chin wag about crops and moisture and soil conditions blah blah blah. We can't resist. We want to be liked: if that means we have to pretend to be rural sages; we'll do it.

It's dishonest. So much for rural virtue. It also has the potential to spread a lot of misinformation. I often worry about what happens when a real farmer meets up with the people who have been infected by my faux-farmboy wisdom.

But I never go overboard. I don't create farm stories from whole cloth. At worst, the deception is in the confidence with which I hold forth on things agricultural. I embellish. On the other hand, I have a friend who lives in Calgary. When he visits his wife's relatives, they always get him talking about oil and gas. He knows less about oil and gas than I know about farming, but he really goes to town. He makes up technical terms, invents scientific processes, speculates on the effect particular world events will have on the price of a barrel. He becomes an oilman.

Anyway. I'm sorry. We've been lying to you.

I want to apologize especially to the faculty of the law school out in Ontario where I was a grad student many years ago. Grad students had "common room" privileges, which meant that I got to have coffee and smoke in the same room as the professors. One day, one of them was commenting on a complaint from a student that law school final exams were going too far into the month of May. The professors agreed that the complaint was groundless -- something about academic "rigour" -- a nine month law school year was perfectly acceptable.

It was quiet in the room for a moment, so I piped up earnestly: "You know, in Saskatchewan, law school starts after harvest and ends just before seeding."

They all nodded. That seemed perfectly reasonable.

I was immediately horrified that they didn't recognize that I was joking and I shouted at them "No it doesn't". They all looked at me innocently and unapologetically, as if to say, "How the hell are we supposed to know any better if we have to rely on you, you fibbing prairie fraud?"

We've created our own stereotype.

But we won't stop.