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Beef producers under pressure

COLLINGWOOD, Nova Scotia - Taking a sip from his coffee cup, Kurt Sherman looks out from the patio of his Collingwood, Nova Scotia, home at an uncertain future.

COLLINGWOOD, Nova Scotia - Taking a sip from his coffee cup, Kurt Sherman looks out from the patio of his Collingwood, Nova Scotia, home at an uncertain future.

When he entered the beef industry 30 years ago, he was looking forward to a long career on the farm, raising a family and providing quality products to his customers. After years of drought, closed borders, disease and low prices, he's wondering if it was all worth it.

"The stress level is incredible. When I started this, I had so much hope, but now I wonder why I did it in the first place. Maybe I should have been like others and went out west," Sherman says.

"There's so much stress at home because there's no money to operate on. The kids want to do things and it just hurts so much to tell them there isn't enough money."

Nowhere to go

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Sherman, with the Cumberland County Federation of Agriculture, says most local farmers have suffered in silence.

The trouble is, unlike other business owners who can cut their losses and leave, Sherman doesn't have that ability since the debt load he's carrying is too high, and there's really no other place to go.

"It's just about to the point of impossible, almost nothing is paying its way. Blueberries and sheep aren't bad, but I don't have enough of them," he says. "I'm just about at the point that if the clutch went out of the tractor or I needed a new set of tires I don't know where I'd turn. I have absolutely no credit left to work with. I've backed into it like quicksand."

Sherman hopes the government will announce a debt relief program that will allow him and others in a similar situation to get their feet on the ground and start over.

Another option would be a government buyout that would allow him to get out of the business, although he says that would be a last resort because he considers farming a way of life, not a job.

"I feel like I'm being held hostage. I can't pick up and go to Alberta, and I can't sell my farm because no one will buy it," he says.

Living on the edgeHe says he has approached government officials about his farm's financial mess on several occasions, and each time, he comes away feeling the same - that he and others like him are being treated like beggars looking for a handout.

"They say you're always going broke, that we're survivors. It's like a long slide off a tin roof; you know the edge is out there, you just don't know when you're going to fall off," he says.

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"It's been one thing after another that kicks the pins out from under. BSE put a steeper slant on our roof and we've been sliding faster."

A major part of the predicament facing farmers is their inability to compete with cheap imports from Mexico and South America. While they can't offer the same price, they argue they can guarantee a safe and secure product while generating spinoff revenues for other sectors such as fertilizer plants, insurance companies and veterinary services.

"It's not just the farms that are going to disappear, it's the fertilizer plants, feed mills and the machinery supply people. It's all going to come unglued," he says.

"People have to start questioning where their food is coming from, and we have to have a mechanism in place that ensures we get our share."

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