By Amber Fletcher 

 Amber Fletcher

The town of Shaunavon is located in southwestern Saskatchewan at the southern edge of the Swift Current Creek Watershed. The community has a population of approximately 1,756 – a number that continues to grow due to increasing economic activity in the area. Shaunavon is located in an area known as the Dry Belt, at the heart of the semi-arid region known as Palliser’s Triangle. The area is known for its history of extreme, prolonged drought. 


The town was founded when the Canadian Pacific Railway company purchased the town site in 1912. A period of settlement followed and Shaunavon’s population boomed to 700 by 1914; to this day, the community is known as “Boomtown”. Today, Shaunavon maintains its agricultural roots but has experienced strong economic growth due to oil extraction in the area. The town now contains over 100 commercial services for household, agriculture, and oilfield purposes and is a key commercial area in southwest Saskatchewan.


In the spring and summer of 2012, a team of four graduate students lived in the Shaunavon area for several weeks and interviewed a large portion of community members for the VACEA project. The goal of these interviews was to understand how rural communities are affected by climate extremes, such as flood and drought, and to identify the most effective ways for individuals, communities, and governments to respond to these extreme events.


Over generations, Shaunavon-area farmers and ranchers have adapted to the drought-prone conditions and have become very resilient. Participants clearly remembered some of the most severe weather events in their area over the past century, recalling droughts in the 1930s, 1960s, 1980s, and mid-2000s. Several of our interview participants recalled the extreme agricultural droughts of the 1930s from their childhood: one participant remembered thick dust clouds caused by soil erosion, which forced him to walk home from school moving hand-over-hand along a barbed wire fence to avoid getting lost. Another participant remembered using wet towels to block cracks in windows and doors to prevent the blowing dust from entering her childhood home. More recently, producers had coped with shortages of hay for cattle, dramatic crop losses, and grasshopper scourges associated with very dry conditions. Grass fires are also a threat in dry years.


Many farmers had relied on crop insurance to cope with drought. However, since drought has a slower onset than a flood or fire, some participants felt that drought was less likely to catch the timely attention of governments, making government programming a less reliable support in the minds of some. While some ranchers had purchased feed from elsewhere, transporting hay can be expensive and some found it more sensible to graze their cattle in wetter parts of the prairies, relying on the help of friends or paid arrangements in those locations. Indeed, social networks were a defining feature of the Shaunavon area. Neighbourly relationships were often a key source of help during crisis. Although emergency services were available, many relied on the good will of neighbours to assist with grass fires. The oil industry was seen as a helpful resource during emergencies, as were Hutterian colonies. Some producers stored water tanks on their farms for emergencies and many neighbours would come out with shovels or other equipment to help fight a spreading fire.


Fortunately for many Shaunavon residents, the area surrounding the town is located on an important aquifer that provides a high quality and abundant source of water for the town and many producers nearby. Producers with ranches on the aquifer were rarely concerned about water. 


In some cases, however, water was the cause of problems. Unlike those in the neighbouring community of Eastend, which is located along the Frenchman River, Shaunavon’s location means residents are unlikely to experience flooding from creeks or rivers. The rolling topography of the area means that hilltop portions of fields are protected from the worst flooding. However, in recent years (particularly in 2010 and 2011), producers in the Shaunavon area experienced an unusually high level of precipitation for such a dry area. Although still less of a concern than drought overall, flooding brings unexpected challenges such as crop diseases. Some farmers felt less control over flood conditions than drought. Whereas they had learned to adapt to drought and knew how to hold moisture in the soil, there was little they could do about extreme precipitation. As one producer put it, “Nobody knew – down here anyway – how to seed in wet. We had never experienced that before.” Municipal governments also found extreme precipitation challenging and costly as roads and infrastructure were washed out. 


For others, the main problem was rapid fluctuation between dry and wet in the same season – a dry spring followed by an excessively wet late summer or autumn was extremely difficult for farmers. Extreme winter precipitation had also been a problem for many cattle producers. Some had lost calves during blizzards.


The combination of climate extremes with economic problems can create vulnerabilities for households and communities. Farmers expressed concern about the growing cost of inputs and implements, which led to higher debt levels. Several participants felt that larger and younger farmers – or any farm with high debt – would be most vulnerable to a flood or drought. Some participants had taken additional employment off the farm or ranch to provide financial assistance or security for the farm. Almost everyone we interviewed saw the oil industry as beneficial for the community, as it provided jobs or extra income for farmers with oil wells on their land.


Although informal social networks are strong in the Shaunavon area, residents are concerned about a lack of formal medical services. The town has a shortage of doctors. The hospital has had to limit its hours and is at times unable to provide emergency medical services. Most participants saw this as a distinctly rural problem, citing the difficulty of retaining doctors in small towns. In addition, despite the growth of Shaunavon itself, many farm families were concerned about the declining farm population in the surrounding area. Although this trend – known as depopulation – has many causes, there is a climate dimension. Many participants spoke about the weather uncertainty that is an inherent part of farming. The high cost of land and inputs to begin farming or ranching, the strong knowledge base required to do the work, a lack of public understanding and respect for what farmers do, and the uncertainty of a regular profit can make a career in farming challenging.


Despite these challenges, participants in the Shaunavon area used both traditional knowledge and new, innovative ways to farm and ranch successfully. Many were using zero-till practices and carefully planned rotation to preserve soil moisture and quality. Farmers and ranchers promoted the use of shelterbelts and many had planted trees. Ranchers were interested in preserving the quality of local creeks and water sources through fencing or solar pumps. These practices represent more than short-term responses to extreme climate events. Producers in the Shaunavon area are engaging in long-term planning to increase their resilience in the face of future flood and drought. A key goal of the VACEA project is to provide information and resources to help communities like Shaunavon adapt and prepare for climate events into the future.