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When farmers fight

All kinds of situations can lead to heated conflict between farming neighbours.Talking things over is often the best solution

It began the summer Grant’s pigs started running through David’s wheat and into his vegetable garden. There were a half dozen of the little porkers, razor backs with nary a streak in their bacon but they could wreak more havoc than a herd of buffalo, David muttered. If he chased them out of his cabbages once he chased them out a hundred times.

This was in the days before the Line Fence Act and the Stray Animals Act, not that far from a time when livestock roamed free around homesteads scattered across the Prairies, which may have accounted for Grant’s laissez faire attitude or it may have been that the pigs didn’t run through David’s crop a 100 times a year. Maybe it was more like 50, or 20 or five.

But it was around this time that Grant stopped speaking to David. He stopped dropping in for coffee and a chat. He changed from a chummy pal into a dour man who wouldn’t acknowledge his former friend’s presence if they were the last two humans dividing the last bean on the last day of the planet. At first David tried to laugh it off. He tried to jolly Grant back into the easy, neighbourly rapport they’d both enjoyed. But Grant was having none of it. After a while David stopped referring to Grant with any hint of a smile on his face or in his voice.

Many summers passed. Eventually Grant went out of pigs and David’s cabbages flourished. Then late one summer David got sick. He got awful sick, awful fast, and when the towering maples in the shelter belt he’d planted as a young man shivered, leafless, into the last days of October, he was gone.

At the funeral, the Legion formed an honour guard. One by one the WWII vets, stiff with age, marched up to the casket and saluted — including Grant.

Sadly, David and Grant’s story is not unique. Like any other people, farmers do not always live peaceably with their neighbours. They may disagree over stray animals, chemical drift, property lines, the proximity of livestock and a variety of other issues.

It’s not you, it’s me

Sometimes the obvious issue is not the real issue, or at least, not the only issue. Farming is a challenging occupation. In other businesses, sellers can set their prices, but in most instances, farmers are forced to be price takers. A single weather event or a livestock disease can wipe out a year’s profit. Unfortunately, having more than their fair share of stress in the workplace doesn’t exempt farmers from many of the same stresses that their urban counterparts deal with. And accumulated stress has its own effects.

“When people are stressed they react differently than they would normally,” says Kathy Daviduk, resource agent with the Saskatchewan Farm Stress Line at the Agricultural Knowledge Centre at Moose Jaw, Sask. “In a lot of situations, the conflict with another farmer will be one more thing to handle but there are already a lot of things going on with that individual which makes them less tolerant. There could be relationship issues. There could be financial issues. There could be family issues that are causing a lot of stress and this is just one more complication.”

Let’s talk

Sometimes, like Grant, we stop talking to people we’re having a disagreement with but we don’t stop thinking about it, turning the situation over in our heads. Sometimes we assume things that may or may not be true.

Counsellors at the Stress Line encourage callers to talk to the person they’re having the dispute with. “I think the first thing you try is have people talk because sometimes they just haven’t sat down with each other, and maybe they don’t know what the other guy is thinking.” says Rick Bjorge, assistant director of regional services at the Agriculture Knowledge Centre at Moose Jaw, Sask. “This is the first thing that needs to happen. It may end up being a legal situation but number one is discussion with each other.”

Some conflicts are common enough to have already been addressed in legislation. When it comes to stray animals, at least two provinces, Saskatchewan and Alberta, have provincial legislation which lays out procedures to be followed.

Saskatchewan and Alberta’s Line Fence Acts deal with conflict over a shared fence line. Who pays for it? Who maintains it? Where do we go to settle disputes over it? Ontario also has similar legislation, the Line Fences Act. All three outline specific steps to be taken to resolve these issues.

Other fairly common disputes include:

Disagreements over custom work or land rental payments. Ideally people should have these things sorted out on paper, Bjorge says, but that doesn’t always happen and disputes arise. Farm management agrologists or farm business management specialists can be helpful in clearing up these situations. Lack of information can result in hurt feelings and a misplaced sense of being wronged. “People may have ideas that don’t reflect what is happening in the industry. A neutral party can give an objective view.”

Disputes involving pesticides. For disputes involving chemical sprays between neighbour and neighbour or between farmer and applicator such as spray drift, look for a provincial pesticide investigator with your provincial ministry of agriculture.

Disputes involving drainage. Bjorge and Daviduk advise talking to your local municipal office and also the Watershed Authority or Watershed Management officials in your province.

Mediation may be the answer

In Saskatchewan the Dispute Resolution Office is not a free service but it can be helpful if other methods fail. Check with your provincial Stress Line to find out if mediation for farm disputes is available in your province.

And some conflicts will require the services of a lawyer.

“We won’t recommend anyone specifically,” says Daviduk, “but sometimes we do say, maybe you do require some legal advice.”

After emphasizing again the importance of at least attempting to talk to the other individual involved in the dispute, Daviduk and Bjorge offered some general guidelines for farmers dealing with conflicts with other farmers.

Ask yourself these questions. How much stress is this causing you? What can you control? What can’t you control? What is important to you? How big of an issue is this? Are you able to get what you need, versus what you want?

Weigh the positives and the negatives of different solutions. Try to set some priorities. In some situations the resolution you can get may not be the ideal resolution. Not everything works out exactly as you’d like it to work out.

But, can you live with it?

Editor’s note: this article originally ran in “Small Farm Canada.” It is reprinted here with permission. †

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