DRIED but not OUT
H. G. L. STRANGE
The drought consumes us. There on high
The hills are parched, the streams are dry.
The drought consumes us. Still I strive,
And will not leave while I survive.
—Chinese poem from the Shi King Collection of Confucius.
DROUGHT is not new, either in China or Southern Saskatchewan or any other great agricultural area of the world, as authentic records reveal.
“There followed then the years of dwindling precipitation; five years of subnormal rainfall. . . Those parts of the area affected by these drought conditions— and let it be noted that the area is very wide and that it embraces very considerable portions of the wheat-producing country in both the United States and Canada— (were) accompanied and followed by increases of those weeds that thrive particularly in dry seasons. The drought conditions have also aggravated the soil-drifting, from which some areas have suffered. There was the grasshopper plague also to contend with, widespread in its depredations through the Northwestern States and Western Canada; but fortunately controllable by measures that might be taken by Government authority.”
The above is an accurate description of the present situation in Southern Saskatchewan. This, however, was not written about the present drought, but is part of the official report of 1922 of the Survey Board set up to consider the drought situation in Alberta in 1921.
It is safe to say that a similar report would have been made by any board about every ten or eleven years since the prairies were first populated had such a board been set up, for drought of greater or lesser severity has occurred in this area practically every decade since records have been kept.
The prairie soil is dried of moisture, but is not “out” and will not be, for the soil will survive.
The prairie farmer is dried of resources, but is not yet “out” either. He will strive as long as he can survive, just as the Chinese farmer poet determined to do several thousand years ago.
Can Western Farmers Survive?
DUT CAN the farmer of the drought area of the West survive? That, indeed, is the question; the real and only important problem. It always has been the only major important problem in connection with any condition of drought anywhere in the world.
The people—not the land. The land always survives. Land does not die. The rain, when it comes, always recuperates the soil and enables it again to produce fine crops.
But the people !
In all cases of great disaster that affect numbers of people, it is a common and very fine human emotion for the world to demand of its governors that something be done to ease or cure the harmful situation.
In almost desperate alarm, hearing of the several years drought in Western Canada and seeing or hearing of the sufferings of the people, many, out of the kindness of their hearts, have made bold and brave suggestions to cure the affliction.
Diseases, whether physical or economic, must be properly diagnosed before cures can be effected. Therefore a little background of the history of the southern part of the West might be helpful in aiding one to understand the present state of affairs.
Drought is Not New
ACCURATE knowledge of this country has really been acquired only recently. Four great explorations were made before the actual settlement of the great plains area of the United States and Canada took place, such plains being termed at that time the Great American Desert.
David Thompson of the Hudson’s Bay Company explored from Lake Superior to the Rocky Mountains between 1784 and 1807.
Next, Captain John Palliser, on behalf of the British Government, explored from Lake Superior to the Rockies, thence to the Pacific; also he explored a large portion of the Western region of America from 1857 to 1860. He made a detailed survey of the hitherto unknown Western Canadian prairie region.
Henry Youle Hind, on behalf of the Canadian Government, in 1857 and 1858 explored the Red River, the Assiniboine and the Saskatchewan.
John Macoun, on behalf of the Canadian Government, with various parties, between 1872 and 1879 explored between the Great Lakes and across the prairies; also he joined an expedition to the Pacific in search of a route for the Canadian Pacific Railway.
The detailed reports of these explorers are available.
They all agree that the northwest part of the United States, and an area extending into the southern part of Western Canada in the form of a great triangle with the apex just south of Saskatoon, are a semi-arid plain, mostly without trees, brush or shrubs, and in great part without any long or coarse grass. Hind and Palliser thought that the area was quite unfit, excepting in certain small districts, for profitable farming purposes. Macoun, on the other hand, thought that wheat might be grown.
The reports indicate, too, that the area always has been noted for recurring periods of drought, when scrub brush withers, lakes, sloughs and water courses dry up, and grass bums and wilts—all, however, to blossom again whenever the wet years return.
Thompson, about 1802:
“The great plains may be said to be barren for great spaces, even of coarse grass. . . Even the rivers that flow through the plains do not seem to fertilize the ground adjacent to them.”
“The central desert extends in the form of a triangle from a base on the 49th parallel (the international line) from longitude 100 (a point near Killarney, Manitoba) to longitude 114 (a point south of Pincher Creek, Alberta) and the apex to the 52nd degree of latitude (just south of Saskatoon). Outside of this area is the fertile plain.”
“No tree or shrub or even willow tree could be seen in any direction from our camp (near Moose Jaw Forks)
. . . The great prairie west of the Souris continues treeless and arid for a distance of sixty miles, is crossed by a river. Beyond this the prairie continues for eighty miles without tree or shrub, and this was the utmost westerly limit to which any of them (the Indians) had journeyed in their buffalo hunting expeditions.”
“There were at least 400 miles from Moose Jaw where there were no trees and scarcely a shrub.' . . In 1879 I found a parched surface, dried and withered grass. . .
In 1880 there were numbers of dried creeks on each line of travel... In 1894 the country was drying up, the lakes were disappearing, and many of the settlers were leaving the land. At this time nearly all the lakes and streams on the prairie had ceased to flow. We found the country everywhere dried up and the grass crisp and brittle... In all my explorations so far, we found the country extremely dry.”
Hind, in his report of 1860, included a map based on his own and Captain Palliser’s explorations, and on it he marked an area in brown which he termed fertile soil. South of that belt he considered it arid and unfit for general farming.
The Searle Grain Company recently published a map showing the wheat yield per acre of the different districts in Western Canada, leaving in white those areas that yielded less than four bushels to the acre and shading lightly those areas that yielded from five to nine bushels. The writer has superimposed upon this map Hind’s line of demarcation, showing the southern boundary of the fertile area. It is found that the triangular area considered by Hind and Palliser to be arid almost exactly coincides with the area in the West, principally in Saskatchewan, which this year has produced practically no crop.
In short, the records of the early explorers and those obtained since point to the fact that for a certain number of years sufficient rainfall occurs in this area to fill the sloughs, lakes and water courses and to make plants and shrubs grow in profusion, but that occasionally one or more years of less than average rainfall occur when sloughs, lakes and water courses dry up and shrubs and grasses die. Apparently these alternate periods have always happened.
These records would appear to indicate that the opinion, so widely held and voiced, that it is the growing of wheat that has destroyed trees and shrubs in the West, and that wheat growing alone has been responsible for the drying up of sloughs, lakes and water courses, is quite incorrect. (A wheat crop, of course, uses sot?te moisture that previously filled the sloughs, lakes and water courses. )
With all the above knowledge of the hazards of rainfall available, why did farmers go into this Southern area? Will the drought continue to occur in future, and if so, can anything be done that will be helpful?
Dry Land Produces Best Wheat
THE Canadian Pacific Railway and the discovery that high-quality wheat would grow in this semi-arid area, were the reasons farmers went there. The Canadian Pacific Railway itself went there, not because it was the best route from Winnipeg to the Pacific but probably because of questions of national high policy no doubt prompted by the Government of the day.
The wheat plant that produces a high degree of protein—high-quality wheat— seems to thrive under those conditions of semi-drought where other cultivated plants are unable to survive.
High quality in wheat is usually in inverse ratio to the moisture available to the plant; and without high quality the Canadian wheat industry, and all that it means to this country, would be a very small affair indeed. Low quality wheats can be grown more cheaply in other parts of the world than in W’estem Canada. High quality, therefore, is the only reason for the existence and persistence of the great Canadian wheat industry—and this wheat can best be produced, as has been said, in areas periodically subject to drought.
If, by some magic, man could increase the rainfall of the South country or could irrigate it all, then more wheat to the acre would be grown, but the protein content would be much lower and the industry would probably vanish because wheat of that low quality could not be sold profitably on the world’s markets.
Fortunately for the Western Canadian high-quality wheat industry, it is apparent that rainfall cannot be increased by any effort of man; also it is fortunate that largescale production of wheat on irrigated land is not profitable in this country.
Yet bold proposals have been made to plant vast areas to trees in order, so it is said, to increase rainfall and to conserve moisture. The United States, w'e are told, is to plant a stupendous shelter belt of trees, 100 miles wide and stretching from the Canadian border to Texas, 1,300 miles long, in order to minimize drought and prevent soil blowing.
In spite of all the publicity and political propaganda that has been put forth about this American belt of trees, the writer is bold enough to prophesy that such a plan will never be put into effect. Even should the belt be planted with seedlings—as might happen from political pressure to afford unemployed relief—the trees would not be maintained in cultivation until they reached maturity; and most decidedly, should by any miracle care be given to the trees until this occurred, the belt would be of no possible benefit whatever, either in the way of increasing rainfall, conserving moisture or decreasing soil blowing.
Tree Planting is Useless
BUT, SOME SAY, in the northerly parts of the West, trees and shrubs grow profusely and there is ample rainfall. If trees
are planted in the Sbuth, will not rainfall
Such an argument mixes up cause and effect. The trees grow in the North because of the rainfall; they do not make it. The trees do not grow’ in the South because there is insufficient rainfall. Were the rainfall sufficient, the trees would be there.
An internationally distinguished Canadian authority on meteorology was asked by the writer what effect the planting of trees over, say, half of Southern Saskatchewan would have on increasing rainfall in that area. He replied :
“About as much effect as one man poking his thumb into the air.”
A contention is frequently made that trees conserve moisture and thus make additional moisture available for crops. The evidence sometimes submitted is that in a clump of trees the atmosphere is cool and the soil unusually moist. True, trees do apparently conserve moisture, but for the use of the trees only. Not a scrap of the moisture conserved is available for the use of crops even a fewr feet aw'ay from the trees. It is a common sight, even in the Northerly semi-park areas in a bad year of drought such as 1924 for instance, to find crops immediately adjacent to trees and brush just as badly dried out as were crops miles away from any trees or brush.
As a matter of fact, in the drought area, trees require, in order to be kept merely alive, even more moisture than falls upon the area they actually occupy. It is a common practice and one recommended by authorities that, in order to make available to the trees some extra moisture, a strip of summer fallow shall be maintained on each side of even a narrow’ belt of trees.
In the opinion of the writer, trees will never produce any more wheat. Belts of trees around big buildings, even though laboriously cultivated in years of good moisture, in most cases perish when drought comes along.
“A Delusion Pure and Simple”
ANOTHER PROPOSAL has been to ■ build dams to hold back the spring run-offs from snow' water, so as to increase reserve moisture in the soil.
This, the writer believes, is a delusion pure and simple. Snowfall in the South country is much less than is generally supposed, and the bulk of it is evaporated into the dry air during the winter months. (Dams and dugouts to make water available for farm and home use are, of course, excellent wherever possible.)
Some outstanding work along this line has been performed for several years by Messrs. Bames and Hopkins at the Dominion Experimental Farm, Swift Current, where for a number of years the present Minister of Agriculture for Saskatchewan, T. J. Taggart, was superintendent.
The results of these intensive investigations reveal several facts not generally known, as foliowrs:
The roots of the wheat plant usually penetrate some five feet into the soil, and by harvest time the wheat crop has utilized every scrap of available moisture contained in the soil to that depth. Moisture stored up below the roots is not available to the plant. Contrary to general supposition, moisture does not rise in the soil, but rather tends instead to descend. Every crop produces a quantity of wheat practically in proportion to the amount of moisture available to the roots, either moisture already in the soil or that which falls during the summer and fall and growing season. It is obvious, therefore, that it would be impossible to store in the soil moisture that wrill be available for more than the one succeeding crop.
A crop of wheat uses up a great amount of moisture. It actually requires from thirty to sixty tons—not pounds—of moisture to produce one bushel of wheat, or between 1,000 and 2,000 pounds of moisture to produce one pound of wheat. A realization of these facts and figures will show of what little effect the artificial damming up of
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lakes and sloughs could possibly have on any increase in wheat production.
If, then, as the writer believes, trees will not increase rainfall, will not conserve moisture for crop use, and the dammingof sloughs and water courses will not increase subsoil moisture, what can be done to help the drought situation?
WHAT ABOUT soil-blowing though, some may ask?
When drought comes, it brings with it the comparatively minor but disagreeable trouble of soil-blowing—which. however, is not the factor that materially decreases the yield of wheat. It is the lack of rainfall alone that does that. Generally speaking, it may be said that in spite of almost anything that can be done, cultivated land that is summerfallowed, even immediately after breaking, will blow when rainfall is less than the average; but when average or better-than-average rain occurs, soil-blowing will be negligible.
From the earliest records, notably those from the Dominion Experimental Farm at Indian Head, it is revealed that soil always blew badly in years of less than average rainfall.
Soil-blowing, therefore, is not a major problem. It is an effect of the lack of rain, not the cause of the trouble. The mere stopping of soil-blowing, even if it could be done, will not produce wheat crops. It is onlysufficient rainfall that does that.
Trees and hedges, to the extent that they would grow and could be cared for in the drought area, would be no more effective—
at least, in the writer’s opinion—in stopping soil-blowing than in increasing rainfall.
Soil-blowing is the natural consequence of a system of farming that includes summer fallow. Summer fallow is a vitally necessary measure for the production of profitable crops in any semi-arid area. Therefore, if wheat is to be produced in such areas, soilblowing will have to be endured, and actually this can be done.
Soil-blowing does not harm the land seriously for wheat-producing purposes. But are the people harmed? Can they survive?
They certainly need help if Canada wishes to maintain in full flower this great highquality Western wheat-exporting industry.
The amount of wealth that the drought areas of Western Canada have produced, and which has been enjoyed by the whole of Canada including governments, has been stupendous since the days of early settlement. It has been stated, probably with truth, that no other similar-sized area in the world has produced per capita so much wealth from cereal crops in the same length of time.
Western wheat is taxed by at least three different agencies within each province. And then the Dominion Government taxes it many times in addition.
Tens of thousands of people besides farmers make a living from handling, transporting and marketing Western wheat. Tens
of thousands of other workers manufacture, transport and distribute goods, commodities and implements for the farmers who grow the wheat; and the governments tax, also many times, not only the wheat but these goods, commodities and implements for which the wheat is exchanged.
If Canada wishes to preserve these industries of wheat production and manufacturing goods purchased by wheat growers, it can be argued that money spent on helping the producer in the drought area to survive in good condition until the rain comes might be considered an investment profitable to all.
Help the People
BUT, IT MAY also be argued, vast sums even now are being spent on the relief of such producers. Perfectly true. No one at least is permitted to starve. There is a difference, however, between not starving and surviving until the rain comes with mental and physical qualities unimpaired, with buildings and machinery and stock in such a reasonable state of repair and efficiency that the farmer and his family and his equipment are ready to jump right in and produce the greatest amount of wheat that the rain will cause to grow when it comes.
The writer has made many trips through the affected areas during the drought years,
and has kept constantly in touch with the situation since 1930. Two well-known Western newspapermen have just finished an intensive investigation.
The writer agrees with their findings that there is a definite amount of, let us say, not quite acute suffering, but certainly lack of proper clothing, proper food, adequate housing, and proper equipment. This is no criticism of governments, particularly of the Provincial Government, whose resources are limited. It has done all that it could.
The writer merely wishes to make the point that if the people of Canada wish to do something for the drought area other than the minimum assistance now given to the farmers, the money and effort should be expended on helping the people who need it to survive in better condition, not in attempting to reclaim the land, which does not need it.
The one thing to remember is: Do not waste public funds on trees or dams, or on any other scheme that has as its aim the increasing of rainfall or the increasing of subsoil moisture. For these aims cannot be attained.
Money spent, however, on enabling farming families to survive, efficiently and well, until normal rainfall occurs again, will be money well spent, provided governments desire to make the expenditure and the taxpayers can afford it. In any case, it would cost but a small fraction of the amount required to install trees and dams on the large scale suggested; and there is no doubt that many farmers, when profitable years do come, would gladly repay at least part of any outlay now made.