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Surface Rights News, June, 2008

A Loaf Of Bread

The gravel road from our farm to town is 7 miles long and the first time I remember driving it I was all of 6 years old sitting on my grandpa’s knee.  Needless to say I’ve become very familiar with every corner and curve, where to slow down and where to watch for oncoming traffic in a few blinds spots.  On my way home from that morning's coffee with mom and dad, I’m approaching one of these blinds spots at a rather sharp curve and I see up ahead a boiling cloud of dust; a good indication of oncoming traffic driving pretty darn fast.  As this half-ton barrels around the curve, I watch as the back end of the truck tries to pass the front end and I’m thinking, “geezus man, slow down before you lose it!!”   Luck rather than skill straightens him back onto his side of the road, and right behind him is another half ton.  This second guy is driving marginally slower than the first (thank goodness) for we pass one another right on the curve.  I recognize both vehicles and drivers as operators at the local Encana compressor plant that’s located only a mile west of our farm.  That was not the first time I’ve seen the local Encana boys pay no attention to the posted rules of the road or show complete disregard for their safety or for others that share this road.

The conversation we had over coffee that morning began with Encana’s latest act of arrogance in our county.  Dad showed Mom and I an article in the previous week’s paper reporting how this  company slithered onto the new development ‘The Lakes of Muirfield’ at Lyalta and like snakes in the grass drilled 2 shallow gas wells right on the golf course over the Easter weekend.  This despite the fact that there were on-going negotiations between Encana and the County officials.  After Dad showed us that article we each kind of shrugged our shoulders wondering… if an entire county can’t convince this corporation to abide by their word at the negotiations table, what chance do we have in our own on-going negotiations with this “school yard bully of a company” over similar issues?  We had spent three hours that morning, like so many mornings over the past two years discussing our own difficulties in dealing with this company and all we really expect, and deserve, is to be dealt with in an honest and fair manner - not too much to ask for.

One might think then that our own chances of a happy ending in all this has the same hope as the proverbial snowball, but my family has the moral and ethical fortitude that comes from the heart and our grit strengthens with each passing generation that comes from a life long love of the land that we owe everything to.  The strength and depth of our roots go back more than 50 years on this farm, and over 95 years of family history in this community.  As a fifth generation member of a family dedicated to ensuring the best stewardship of our land, I have spent all of my life watching my dad take this land that once only averaged 18 bushels of hard red spring wheat per acre back in 1955 to an amazing record production in 2006 of over 72 bushels per acre.  It is heart breaking to see the look on my dad's face when he talks about what Encana has done, and is planning to do to his life’s achievements.  It has taken decades, my Dad’s life work, to nurture dirt into soil and he knows the reverse can happen in a blink of an eye. 

As the eldest of four daughters, I have worked along side Dad as he worked hard and even smarter to turn what once might have been called a dandelion infested potato patch into the best wheat producing fields for miles around us..  Farming is something that begins the day you're born on the land and all four of us girls started helping in the field long before we were eligible to get a driver’s license.  The neighbors would attest to Dad’s accomplishments as many have over the years phoned or visited him for his advice or insights.  I know that some of the neighbors loved it the odd time when he would ask to borrow a piece of equipment or a tool, because they knew that whatever it was he borrowed would be returned in a timely fashion and often in better condition than when they lent it out.  The fact that dad only achieved a Grade 9 education says little to his intelligence, ingenuity, and forward thinking.  He always was the first kid on the block with the newest toy or gadget, and when technology hadn’t caught up to him, he’d just invent and manufacture his own.  Over the past twenty years my working relationship with Dad and the farm evolved from a seasonal position to more of a partnership and I’ve watched Dad dicker on everything from brand new combines to a bag of bolts, and he always, always demonstrated that above all else his word and his hand shake meant more to him than all the legal jargon on a piece of paper.  This says a great deal about the character of the man and in this regard my dad is like so many other farmers for they call a spade a spade, tell it how it is and take another man for his word, and if they have reason to believe the other fella is a crook, they take their business elsewhere. 

Here in Alberta this is the landowners’ Achilles heel in regards to the greed of the oil and gas industry and the government’s short sighted land use policies.  As farmers and ranchers we are not permitted by law, to think outside their box and it is only getting worse.  The longer we passively allow our democracy to erode the more Alberta’s future depends on landowners who deserve the right to say “No thanks, we simply can’t risk our land or our water for your corporate profit, or for someone else’s garbage pit, or for unnecessary mega power lines, or for duck killing toxic waste lakes.”  The simple intelligence behind the old adage that tells us not to crap where we eat is lost by one-sided provincial and federal dictator-style legislation.  Where is the democracy I remember reading about in school?  Where is the common sense?

My dad has signed lease agreements for the six well sites already on our land, plus numerous pipelines in the same forthright and honest manner he always does, and up until two years ago, he trusted the land man who sat at his kitchen table and drank the coffee my mom politely offered.   Until then, he didn’t ask for a cent more than offered, he believed them when he was told that if he’d just let them drill the next well before the weather turned, they would come right back to fix something that needed fixing.  And when it became evident that the land man forgot that promise, dad just fixed it himself on his own time and his own dime.  Following my dad’s lead, I too didn’t question the comings and going of local operators or crews of contractors on our land.  I’ve had to stop the tractor countless times over the years to pick up their garbage; everything from a survey stake caught in the hoses of the air seeder to a discarded t-shirt that had been recently used as a substitute for toilet tissue tossed only a few feet from the well site.  Our list of problems with this company spans the gamut from just plain unneighborly to the illegal.  

My dad’s respect for Encana’s right to their mineral resources ended just over two years ago when another land man showed up and told us of Encana’s plan to add another 7 wells.  This was the first time I recall hearing the term “Coal Bed Methane”, so I asked a few uneducated yet basic questions.  This land man smiled as he spewed the corporate propaganda laced with half-truths and as we later learned out-right lies.  He was quick to produce copies of the lease agreements for Dad to sign and it struck me then how large the print was on the first page that highlights how big the cheque is going be compared to the size of the print used for the technical, legal stuff.  Since then we have set out to become better educated, written countless letters and articles, and all with little success in improving the way this company operates on our farm, or anywhere else for that matter.  We’re still waiting for answers to our questions from the industry regulator that we wrote to over 2 years ago.

Another topic of conversation over that morning’s coffee was about our latest concerns regarding Encana’s proposed application that would allow them to double the number of wells on land in our area.  The thought of having 8 wells per section per pool on our farm is unimaginable.  Encana has demonstrated they aren’t doing a very damn good job with what they do have and now they want more?  If the pending application is approved it could mean on our farm alone at least 20 well sites.  I agonize about this company in particular and the “system” in general that has proven untrustworthy to my father and about the destructive mess my grandson will have to clean up.

My dad got that look on his face again at the thought of so many acres taken out of production and he got up and went into his office.  Usually when Dad gets upset he just walks away. With a history of cardiac troubles, he’s taken the stance that he can’t afford to get upset about things out of his control.   But a few moments later he was back with his pencil, a scratch pad and his calculator.  He refilled our cups and began telling mom and I of the thoughts he had through the past night and first thing that morning he sharpened that pencil and jotted down two pages of calculations. 

“I’ve damn well had enough of the excuse that the obliteration of my productive farm land for a greedy oil and gas corporation to develop their resource is done so ‘in the public’s best interest’.  Yet I’m reading more and more every day about the growing violence and death occurring all around the world as grain prices rise and supplies dwindle.  As a farmer I look at my land and see a living, breathing entity that has contributed to my life and my community, and the world.  And when I read about poor people rioting in protest and the growing anarchy because they have no other means to feed their families I am beginning to see a well site as a growing cancer on my land.  It takes hundreds of years to produce topsoil, but it can be killed with one single act of carelessness.  People need to realize that top soil is a finite resource and they’re not making any more of it!  Every spring when I reach down and pick up a handful of fertile soil, what most people would call and see as just plain dirt, and I welcome it back as a very dear and living friend for another season.  I make a silent promise to give it all the TLC I can and ask only in return for a good crop.  My vow is now being compromised every time I am asked or forced to sign another well lease and last night I wondered, as a farmer, how many people have I failed to feed because of the blight of these six wells on my property?”

And with that Dad asks Mom and me to think of a simple loaf of bread.  His research shows that one bushel of wheat is the equivalent to 73 loaves of bread.  The average size of a well site on our farm is 5.46 acres and our last five year average yield of exceptionally high protein, hard red spring wheat is 56 bushels per acre.  That works out to 22,320 loaves of bread from one well site.  Now multiple that figure by six (the number of wells that Encana currently has on our farm) and you have almost 134,000 loaves that are no longer available to feed the hungry people of the world.  Enough to supply bread to over 2500 people for one year from the six wells on our farm! To put that into some perspective: that is enough loaves of bread to feed all the people from 5 villages in Wheatland County for one year just from the six well sites on our farm alone. 

Dad then adds, 'I cannot imagine twenty or more wells on my land!'  As we have had these six wells for about 10 years that works out to about 1,340,000 loaves of bread and with those six leases that I have signed, we still have another fifty plus years to go!  At today's price of $2.79 a loaf, you do the math!!'

Dad’s exercise demonstrates the value of what a bushel of wheat truly represents…..FOOD in the form of LOAVES OF BREAD!  Seventy-three loaves to be precise and with that he adds, “I think that “in the public’s best interest” they should compare apples to apples.  Just as bitumen is to oil, a bushel of wheat is to loaves of bread and I believe Encana owes the “public” 134,000 loaves of bread per annum from the 6 wells on my land!'  He continued by saying that he feels it is far more imperative and moral to supply bread to the hungry than it is to supply natural gas (or oil) to the TAR SANDS or the UNITED STATES, particularly in light of the real food shortages that are already happening in the world right now. 

This simple math exercise more importantly demonstrates that it is time to redefine the meaning of “the public’s best interest”.   Now is the time to demand that our governments look at the really big picture and see a little further ahead than the next quarterly corporate profit report. There needs to be significant changes to protect this land, for it is our soil that feeds the world.  We have to remember that of all the land in Alberta, only 6.3 per cent of it is designated as “Class I” farmland.  It's time we include this rich, fertile and life giving resource on a protected species list.  At a time when the newspapers are reporting daily on the changing weather patterns and impending long term effects of climate change, and these same headlines are sharing the page about people starving, doesn’t it seem obvious that the our policy maker’s  priorities are grossly misplaced?  Take for example an article in the April 30th edition of the Calgary Herald that reports that in Zimbabwe in February the price of a loaf of bread soared to an unbelievable $667.00.

For those of you with wells on your land, do your own math and ask yourself, how many loaves of bread are being hi-jacked from your land?  For an even more mind boggling thought, imagine the lost loaves of bread just in Wheatland County and then the province.  And this is before the oil and gas companies get ‘permission’ to increase their spacing to 8 wells per section in our area and later on you can be sure they will want to double it once again, always of course “in the public’s best interest”.  Can our collective consciences really afford to hand over all those loaves of bread? 

Perhaps one of the things I admire most about my dad is he is not a belly-acher.  Once he recognizes a problem exists, his energy is targeted on fixing the problem.  Then thoughtfully and with Dad's usual wisdom he offered this thought to mom and I, “In light of the existing food crisis that is already occurring around the world and is having an impact on us at home, I think all oil and gas companies in Alberta, perhaps in all of Canada should be made to pay a surcharge for the difference between the full production and true value of a bushel of wheat and the retail price of a loaf of bread for every well drilled on every acre of prime, arable agricultural land.  This surcharge would be paid annually and adjusted for inflation until such time that the well site is fully and 100% reclaimed back to prime agricultural land status and the said surcharge to be paid into, as an example, the United Nations World Food Program for the benefit of the starving people of the world.” 

Yes!  The real and true definition of 'the public's best interest' should establish that our soil and the food produced from it is in fact in “SOCIETY’S BEST INTEREST”.  I think my Dad has one hell of an idea.

 N. Donna Wise 
(Donna Wise farms with her parents in the Rockyford area and can be contacted at ndw2008@shaw.ca)

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