Poison Gas Expert to Winning Wheat Farmer

Showing what can be accomplished in four years by a man who knew what he wanted—then went and got it.


Poison Gas Expert to Winning Wheat Farmer

Showing what can be accomplished in four years by a man who knew what he wanted—then went and got it.


Poison Gas Expert to Winning Wheat Farmer


Showing what can be accomplished in four years by a man who knew what he wanted—then went and got it.

LAST winter two Englishmen from Alberta, with no farming blood in their veins, with no farming traditions to live up to, and with no farming education to speak of, produced the best wheat and the best oats grown anywhere in the world.

The International Hay and Grain Show, held annually in Chicago, the fountain head of such honors, named these men champions. It is admittedly the last court of appeal.

To it come the best of the world’s graingrowers, struggling for pre-eminence. The competition is keen almost to bitterness; for the winning means much. It means for the successful entrant a world supremacy in his field, and a world demand for his product. There is nothing, can be nothing, fortuitous about it. The best must be better than the best of hundreds of eager growers the world over; and the best was produced by two virtually untrained men from the rolling prairies of Alberta.

Less than five years ago neither of these men had dreamed of growing grain for seed. J. W. Biglands, of Lacombe, Alberta, had been a grain grower. Oats were his specialty; just average, every day oats such as any good farmer might produce, good enough for most purposes—good enough for Biglands until he got the idea of growing pure-bred registered seed.

That stuck in his mind. No one was going to turn out anything better than he could turn out in his own chosen field. But it was not only that, it was the appreciation that as you got higher up in the scale you got a new and wider market for-your product. It was that, more than anything else, which decided him. He went at this problem of producing a better product with a bull-dog determination that two years later made him world champion in oats, an honor that he carried off again last year.

It was the same qualities of grey-matter and a dogged determination that gave to Major H.G.L. Strange the same position in wheat.

Five years ago Major Strange had seen a bit of life, but it had not included any definite knowledge of the farm.

Five years ago, in fact, he had never seen a farm save as they see it who look across the farm fences, and in the fullness of their ignorance, say: “farming’s the life.”

By profession Strange was a gas engineer, a profession about as far away from farming as any of which one can think. He had been trained at the Armstrong and Whitworth shops at Manchester. While he does not mention any early evidences of brilliance, there must have been something of a flair there for, with his twenties yet before him, he went to Honolulu, with the Honolulu Gas Company. He was with them twelve years, in the latter years as general manager of the Company.

Then August, 1914, broke on an unbelieving woild, and Strange packed up his few possessions and returned to England, just as tens of thousands of other Englishmen foregathered from the far corners of the earth in those sober days. He was in the army as soon as he could get there and, when frightfulness had to be met with frightfulness, H. G. L.

Strange, Major of the Royal Engineers, was given charge of much of the work of the poison gas offensive corps. It gave a varied army experience. He was brigaded at different times with the Imperial, Canadian,

Australian, French, Belgian and American armies, with special service with the Flying Corj5s and Grand Fleet. He won the Military Cross,

Above: Selecting the best seed heads from one of the seed plots. Centre: The World’s finest fall wheat. Below: A view of the various seed plots.

was twice ment'oned in despatches, wounded three times, and finally mustered out with the, not too comforting, information that because of wounds and the effects of gas, his old employment was closed to him, for some years at least; that he had better “go look for an open-air job, till the gas fumes got out of his lungs.”

Only One Element of Chance

THAT was the preliminary training of the man who a few months ago was acknowledged as the premier seed wheat grower of the world. He had no farm life anywhere in the background; he was a man born and bred to the cities, with an immediate background of almost four years of war in its most harrowing form.

What is a gas engineer, a little battered and frayed, to do in a world turned topsy-turvy, and with the only occupation he knows closed to him? An interesting and poignant problem that many men have solved in many different ways, but none, perhaps in a way more strikingly original.

There was one element of chance in it. An English syndicate wanted to make an investigation of the financial possibilities of investments in agriculture in the United States and Canada; and Strange was chosen to make that investigation. That was in 1919-20. A fairly general sur-

vey of the field with this in view led him to the conclusion that whatever fields of investment there were at that time, agriculture might be counted out without the fear of missing a good bet. There was one stray scrap of knowledge that stuck out, however, and caught his attention every time he stopped to think of the not too promising agricultural outlook of the moment. It was the simple fact that there was a continual and extending demand for northern grown seed. It was this bit of knowledge that determined his course.

From that point on there is not any element of chance in the thing, anywhere. Major Strange had not been taught the elements of farming, but he had been taught to think and to reason along the lines of first principles and that is helpful whether the undertaking be farming or engineering. He soon sensed that his life work was going to be to grow grain for seed. The farm, of course, was the first consideration, but not just a farm. That farm had to have a number of conditions that are not common to all farms. He enumerated them somewhat as follows: newness of country, available unbroken land, general prosperity of the district, soil suitability, freedom from weeds, reasonable rainfall, moderate price, accessibility_both to the railroad and to sources of information. That decided, he set out to find such a place.

He found it near Fenn, Alberta. There was not everything he had asked for in its perfection, but as near to everything as any known farm was likely to provide. He could purchase 1,000 acres five miles from a railroad where the soil was eminently suitable. The rainfall, figured over a period of years, while slightly low, showed no seasons of excessive drought. It was a generally prosperous section, no mortgages having been foreclosed for years past, the price was reasonable, and the governmental experimental stations and universities were within reasonably easy access.

That farm was bought in June, 1920. It was already in crop to an average run of oats, wheat and barley. That was where Major Strange, champion wheat grower, got his start less than four years ago. But Major Strange, the engineer, does not by any means pass out of the story. The wheat grower inherited from the engineer a capacity for clear and sound thinking and a methodical nature, the ability to make decisions and to unearth information.

There is one stock question that everyone who meets Strange and has heard of his record puts to him sooner or later. It may as well be put here, for the answer is vital.

“How were you able to attain this success with a total of only three and a half years of experience?”

His reply is simple: “I am using the hundreds of years of experience that is available through the researches of the various colleges and agricultural schools and farms throughout the country. It is on tap there for anyone to use. All I have done is to have sufficient common sense to ask for the information I wanted and, perhaps, the necessary assurance to bother the man or department in question until I got what I was after.”

Accessibility to those very schools and colleges was one of the items necessary to the farm he had in mind. He had planned to get his information ; to get it just that way. It is on tap, as he says, for anyone to use, but the average farmer does not think of it; which may be the reason why Major Strange is the world’s champion wheat grower, while the average farmer is still just an average farmer.

Major Strange started out with his definite plan. He found his farm, all started and directed toward grain raising, after the ordinary fashion of

Major H. G. L. Strange, four years ago in charge of the Poison Gas Offensive Corps, to-day one of the outstanding farmers of Alberta. Below: His wife, the city girl, who Was a partner in her husband's success.

probably ninety per cent, of the West. He did not plan to be apart ofthat ninety per cent. He had his own theory on that subject.

“The success of agricultural work depends,” he claims, “as it does in every other form of work,

on what reward can be obtained for the products. But contingent upon this is inevitably this qualification, that this reward is relative to whatever reward that man can afford to take, who lives at the lowest scale.”

Low-Priced Competition

STRANGE looked over his average crop of wheat and oats and barley. He pondered the case of the farmer in India and Argentine and Russia, and he decided that being simple souls, they would probably be contented to wTork for less reward than he would himself. That, in the light of his own reasoning, put him in a rather unfortunate situation. “I decided,” he says, “that, as quickly as possible, I had to get into raising something where I could apply my education and training, where probably I had a little the better of the Indian or Russian farmer, where I could get myself out of competition with this low-priced man. The raising of registered pedigreed seeds, animals and poultry was the result of an attempt to solve this problem.”

In speaking of his work Major Strange always uses the pronoun “we”; it represents a very real partnership, between himself and his wife. When Major Strange was buying that farm at Fenn, Alberta, Mrs. Strange was taking a course of studies at the University of California at Berkeley. Berkeley, a place of some fifty thousand people, was about as near to a farm as she had ever been. London, Paris and New York; it was in these places that she had lived her life. During the war she was secretary to a high official in the Admiralty, and later in the Quartermaster General’s department of the American Army.

Mrs. Strange moved from Berkeley, California, straight to Fenn, Alberta, to a thousand acres of open prairie, to a shack and three granaries, to the problem of feeding, satisfactorily, seventeen persons, when she had previously never cooked even an egg. To live in a shack with no stove, with the beds covered with snow in the morning, with the mercury sometimes thirtyfive below—that may be nice to write about, but it is certainly unpleasant to

endure. But Major Strange is grand champion seed wheat grower of the world, not because of any outstanding ability, but, as he says himself, because a little English city girl had, in common with so many others of the Eng-, lish race, the spirit to endure.

When you search for the reason' for the success of the Strange partnership, you have to figure that spirit in, that strain that grits its teeth and sticks, and looks ahead and plans, and sees yet undiscovered possibilities.

“I know, beyond the shadow of a doubt,” says Major Strange, “that the wonderful combination of soil, freedom from weeds, long hours of sunshine, rain in the growing season, and dry weather at harvest, is worthy of a far higher money yield to the acre than any crop we are at present using can provide. I have seen how intelligent search has always provided such a crop; fruit and grapes in California, apples and pears in Oregon and Washington, alfalfa seed in Idaho. I am certain that such a crop will presently be found for Alberta, thafwill put us in a class by ourselves. Meanwhile my aspiration is to produce an absolutely reliable strain of Marquis wheat, Victory oats, Grimm’s alfalfa, Boon timothy and white Albertan peas, that I can guarantee beyond the shadow of a doubt to be pure to variety.”

To win a world championship after less than four years of farming experience means more than haphazard thinking, more than haphazard work. It came as a result of one man’s decision as to what department of the work he had chosen offered the maximum promise of success, and it grew from the calculated determination to discover every agency that could assist, and to use those agencies to the fullest extent. He did turn to these agencies, and found them ready to help.

A Triumph for Co-ordination

’ i 'HIS is not the chronicle of a lone-hand success. It was the result of the combination of various efforts.

“Anyone could do. it,” says Major Strange, “nothing marvelous about it at all that an untrained man should in four short years step out to the head of the procession.”

Major Strange emphasizes very forcibly the part that all these agencies played in his success. He enumerates them; first his wife, to whom he gives the full half share of credit.

“Whatever was done, we did it,” he says.

Other contributing factors include the Dominion Seed Branch, the Canadian Seed Growers’ Association, the Alberta government’s seed cleaning and marketing organization, the Alberta Seed Growers’ Association, and last, but by no means the least, the Alberta Crop Improvement Association, which in turn is the child of the Field Husbandry Department of the University of Alberta. It is this association that has been responsible for providing the growers of registered seed with their “starters” in pure line registered stock.

There is just one thing to be said in this connection.

Continued on page 42

Poison Gas Expert to

Winning Wheat Farmer

Continued from page 20

and it is this. With all these agencies operating for the benefit of the grower, it remained for the individual definitely to set out to make the best of them. That is where the individual equation comes in. There were plenty of other growers who had the same soil, the same sunshine, the same rain, and the same assurance of help, who did not win this championship or come anywhere near it, so that it still remains, despite anything else that may be said, a tribute to the vision and determination and judgment of the individual.

Perhaps of all these the vision is the most important. Major Strange started out to make a better wheat than had ever been known before. He started handicapped by an initial lack of knowledge. It is always possible, however, to know what has been done. That much he learned and learned, too, what were the things desired in the future development of this strain of wheat: stiffness of straw, to withstand high winds, resistance to disease and to aberrant types, and of course prolific yield.

With these factors in mind, he set to work a little more than three years ago to get as near to the ideal type as he could. He pictured to himself what this ideal type should look like. With this picture firmly in his mind, he made a definite and comprehensive survey of his fields and selected therefrom the forty or fifty heads that in all his survey came the nearest to that pictured ideal. The seed of each stem was planted in a different row, so that each had the opportunity to perform for itself.

When these were fully grown he selected and staked the ten best rows, and from each of these rows five of the heads that came the nearest to the ideal he had set for himself: fifty heads of the best, from the best to go on with next year, and so the process of selection went on for three years.

Every year Major Strange went to the International Hay and Grain show, and studied the best there, improving his pictured ideal as he came to know more of those qualities that make two grains of seed so similar to the uneducated eye but so vastly different in their potentialities.

When he left for Chicago last winter, he left, knowing as well as though the matter had been decided long since, that nowhere in the world was there better grain than he had to show. There is something stimulating in that absolute confidence, a confidence so manifestly justified.

“Even a boy,” say those who know, “could have told the difference between the champion seed and the reserve champion (or ‘runner-up’) but a blind man couldn’t,” It was there in the clear amber hardness of those grains.

Winning Against Montana

IT WAS not an easy win. Montana, eager for the wheat dominance of the continent, is competing strongly, taking our seed and adopting our methods, and growing them under conditions of soil and climate that are almost identical. The wheat growers there produced a sample just as large, just as plump and just as uniform as the best, but that pictured quality was not there, that essential hardness that lifted this Canadian sample, the dream of a city-trained man, to a place of world pre-eminence.

It was not easily done. It was the

product of resourcefulness, of careful planning, of unending vigilance, to prevent the incoming of some errant strain that might offset the work of these years. There is a complete set of machinery for every operation, including threshing, on the farm, and none of it ever leaves the farm. Extraordinary pains are taken in the cleaning of the machinery between different kinds of crops; while, in order to ensure efficient grading, a special machine for this purpose has been imported from France. Enthusiasm, plus grey matter, .plus a homely common sense that helps stabilize and govern that grey matter, and there you have it. And Major H. G. L. Strange coming home with the ribbon of the world’s finest wheat in his possession says, “I am far from satisfied. I’m still experimenting and seeking for a crop that will place me still further out of competition, and will give me a correspondingly higher yield per acre.” That is the way of all progress.

The average reader may think that it is a light thing to improve a strain of wheat or oats; he may think of it as a matter of casual interest to the agriculturist, and of very little moment to anyone else. But the average reader will be wrong in so thinking. Major Strange has grown the premier Marquis wheat. It is perhaps worth remembering that only a little more than fifteen years ago Marquis wheat became known to the western provinces. Up to then Red Fife was the almost universal Spring wheat. Dr. Charles E. Saunders, of Ottawa, working with the Cereal Division of the Experimental Farm, by a series of selections and eliminations and cross breedings, in many ways similar to the methods used by Major Strange, developed this Marquis wheat.

“Nothing much in that,” says the casual observer, “except for the farmer. What’s the difference, anyway, between one wheat and another?”

That is just the point. There is a difference, something more than a name and a changed appearance. There are new qualities. Marquis matures earlier than Red Fife. It can be grown farther north, and so extends the limits of those almost limitless wheat fields. It lodges better than Red Fife, and consequently makes easier and cheaper the process of harvesting. It is less susceptible to shattering, under heavy winds, and all the waste that this entails.

In a comparison with Red Fife, the variety that it has largely supplanted, a five years’ average shows that Marquis has outyielded Red Fife by approximately four bushels to the acre.

“Nothing much of interest in all that,” says the casual observer, “except to the farmer. What has Saunders or Strange or Biglands that anyone would really be interested in? They have not built a big industry or made a huge fortune.”

Its Dollars and Cents Value

WHAT Strange and Biglands have done, it is yet too early to say. That they have done something of far-reaching consequence goes without saying; that the 1 development of their winning may be more far reaching than anyone could even dream, is well within the bounds of possibility. We do not know these things, so let us consider for a moment the thing we do know, the case of Dr. Charles E. Saunders and his Marquis wheat.

Last year, 21,665,535 acres in Canada Continued on page 44

Continued, from page 42 were sown with Spring wheat. More than ninety per cent, of that was Marquis.

Not counting in the other advantages, the loss that might have come from frost to a later maturing crop, the more expensive harvesting, the loss from wind shelling-forgetting all about that, and taking the five year average of over yield between the Red Fife of other years, and the Marquis of to-day, and note what has been the result. Say that instead of four bushels to the acre the excess of yield was only two, then last year the wheat yield of the West was greater by almost thirtynine million bushels than had Marquis not been grown. This represents twenty or thirty million more dollars in Canada alone, in one year. No, Dr. Saunders did not make a fortune, not for himself, but he helped make a fortune for Canada, for those twenty or thirty millions yearly help every man’s business and touch every man’s life.

Across the line Marquis was not known in 1913. By 1918 it represented sixty per cent, of the total Spring wheat acreage— 12,000,000 acres in 1921. Millions for the United States, too. And Argentina is growing it, and Sweden and many other countries. Millions for them, also.

You can not tell what Strange has done. You know that he has taken Marquis wheat, and made it better than it has ever been before. You know that Biglands has taken Victory oats, and for two years has grown a finer quality than has been grown anywhere else. Out of either of them may grow another Marquis. Something new and vital, that may overturn the agricultural customs of a continent, and pyramid productivity upon productivity.

Or it may be in the less spectacular, less easily checked labor of establishing a quality, and making that quality available. For these two men are not mere dilettante experimenters, they have not carried off the honors with a pocketful of seed, grown in a garden. Strange could deliver about three carloads of that same seed. Biglands could deliver almost twice that amount. They have a reputation in the province as first class farmers.

Biglands is one of the best plowmen in the province and he has a son almost his equal. It was in 1921 that he started

growing registered grain for seed purposes, and to win a world’s championship twice since that time is a distinction that anyone can appreciate. Professor G. H. Cutler, of the Field Husbandry department of the University of Alberta, who has been perhaps in closest touch with the work of both these men, says:

“Mr. Bigland’s oats are nothing short of a work of art. They represent the very highest type in quality, plumpness, vitality, high weight, relatively small percentage of hull, perfect color, and a uniformity so perfect that one might imagine that each kernel had been measured from the other.”

Mr. Bigland is a good farmer, farming a great stretch of prairie, and pinning his faith on the one grain crop.

If you were writing a Who’s Who, Major Strange’s record would run something like this: Championship in Spring wheat, International Hay and Grain Show, Chicago; winner of fifteen of the twenty-five awards for Spring wheat at the same show; first prize for field peas. At the Alberta Provincial Fair he took all the first and special prizes and the grand championship, in his class, and, in addition, first for registered barley, first for registered peas, first for registered oats, and the special prizes for the best two registered crops counting the field score and the score for threshed grain, which is the test of good farming. He is the premier breeder of black hogs and Barred Rock hens in the province. In addition he is president of the Alberta Seed Growers’ Association, representative for Western Canada on the Dominion Advisory Seed Board and secretary of the Alberta Poultry Breeders’ Association.

It is idle to argue from these cases that any or every man can succeed on the western prairies. There is ample evidence in disproof. But any man can succeed as these men have succeeded, who brings to that work the same qualities of vision and energy of judgment and understanding, the ability to weigh facts, to get and assimilate information, who has the backbone to struggle and the courage to endure. Such can succeed on the Western prairies, can do again what these men have done, whatever his early training. But, for that matter, he could succeed anywhere.