Orchard in the Dry Belt

Emil Meili grows fine fruits in the heart of the drought area without benefit of irrigation

MATT O’CONNELL October 1 1939

Orchard in the Dry Belt

Emil Meili grows fine fruits in the heart of the drought area without benefit of irrigation

MATT O’CONNELL October 1 1939

I HEARD of Emil Meili’s orchard-in-the-dry-belt when visiting in the nearest city some sixty miles away. Agricultural men had come upon it unexpectedly at Coderre, Saskatchewan, while making an economic survey of the area and had been frankly amazed.

Coderre is in the heart of Saskatchewan’s driest region. There, in an orchard fourteen acres in extent, Emil Meili has grown apples, grapes, plums, cherries, strawberries, raspberries, and other fruits in profusion, without benefit of irrigation during some of the driest years on record.

1 found Meili a gentle-mannered man, probably in his late forties, who couldn't understand why the growing of fruit trees in the dry belt should occasion public surprise. A Swiss by birth, he began the cultivation of nondomestic plants and fruit trees because, frankly, he was not aware of the supposed limitations of the Western Canadian climate.

His farm today is listed as one of the very few strictly “A-plus” farms in the agricultural survey of that region; for the requirements of that category are very high. Yet the place was built up entirely during die drought years.

His fine farm home he built mostly singlehanded, from plans he drafted himself. The house is electrically lighted, from a wind-operated generator-and-ba11ery outfit. The machinery' sheds, barns, garage and workshops of this 640-acre farm are modem and well equipped. And it’s all been built and paid for since 1926.

You may think this man must have had a great deal of capital to do this in such a short period, against such odds of weather. Yet the fact is that Meili came West a few years earlier with only $50 in cash, two cows and one ox.

Nor had he any previous knowledge of horticulture. He simply decided that he wanted an orchard. He wrote for catalogues of nurseries located in both Canada and the United States all the nurseries that anybody in his district had ever heard of. He ordered as many different varieties as he could afford, and planted them on the bald prairie. Many of them died promptly, but some lived. And some of those that lived were he found out later—which hitherto were believed not to be even remotely adapted to the variegated hot-cold-and-dry climate of Southern Saskatchewan.

That started Meili off as an experimenter. Why should some nondomestic plants live, while others died? What could be done to improve the hardiness of the plants which remained? He decided to learn more about the theory of this new hobby. He wrote away for all the publications which the Provincial and Dominion Governments had issued on the subject. He procured nursery bulletins, and finally devoured technical volumes. Today he is versed in the science as well as the practice of horticulture—a science that has aided him in developing new' varieties of plants to fit the prairie climate.

In the Meili orchard today, many Ontario and British Columbia apple trees bloom and bear fruit. Mr. Meili says, however, that the Trail, Rescue and Hibernal varieties are most successful on the prairies. All the better varieties of crab apples are also grown without much trouble; such as the Olga, Dolgo, Osman, Linda, Sylvia. Adam and Amur.

Large sugar-rich plums are produced from the Pembina, Cree and Ojibwa varieties—which are crosses between the Japanese and Manitoba wild plums. Wild plums native to other parts of Canada have also proved they can “take it” 

• Assiniboia, Mammoth and Valley River plums.

Ruthless Culling

OF THE raspberries, he experimented with a half-dozen different kinds until he found one which proved itself best adapted to drought conditions—the Latham variety. Although he has only two or three small rows set aside for this particular fruit, enough for home use, I saw several cases of ripe raspberries waiting in his kitchen for home preserving. He estimated a yield of some 300 boxes. He already had harvested over 200 boxes of early strawberries.

The side of his two-story house is covered with wild grapes, and within the shelter of the orchard is a small vineyard where several different types of domestic grapes are grown. He has found the big blue Beta—a grape of very fair quality—most successful on the prairie.

Needless to say. this orchard-in-the-drought produces all the common berries, such as gooseberries, currants and saskatoons.

One of Meili’s favorites is his Tom Thumb hybrid cherryplum, which produces a fruit about the size of a ripe walnut. There are also Siberian walnuts, and two trees are successfully producing apricots.

When I visited his place he was debating about removing some Chinese cherry trees. After years of experimenting with different methods of tree culture, including grafting, he had concluded regretfully that the Chinese cherry was not adapted to the severe prairie climate.

“This fall,” he said, “I’ll take them out to make room for some varieties which I hope will produce a little better.” I looked them over. They were nice friendly trees, even if they didn’t get down to work and produce as much fruit as some of the more businesslike trees. “Do you need to cut them down?” I asked. “You’ve got 640 acres on this farm. Isn’t that enough room?”

lie shook his head. “Lots of room for good trees; not for duds.”

And that, in brief, is the secret of the orchard—ruthless weeding out of every variety that falls below par, plus the continual testing of new varieties.

Emil Meili’s experimenting and crossbreeding has not been confined to fruit trees. He tried to grow corn for table use, but could find no tyi>es suitable to drought conditions. He decided to develop his own variety. Starting with Golden Bantam, which he found matured too late for the West, and crossing it w;th Squaw, the result was crossed again with a Southern variety, and then with Golden Gem. Each year the best progeny were selected—a compulsory survival of the fittest. The resulting corn, he believes, is completely adapted to drought conditions. The ears are not large, but are so rich and milky that you can enjoy eating them raw. More than one visitor does just that.

The surprising part of it all is that this orchard and garden produces a crop in the worst dry years the prairies can offer. In 1937 there was so little rain in the district during the entire growing season that wheat crops for miles around were failures. Meili’s orchard was not watered; there is, in fact, no river or lake near by from which water can be pumped. But that year the orchard produced its biggest crop of fruit to date—-boxes of apples and crab apples, cherries, strawberries, raspberries, grapes and plums.

Cultivation is the Secret

HOW IS it done?

By the simplest method imaginable—plain cultivation. That, and selecting plants preadapted to the climate.

As you travel through Central Southern Saskatchewan you will find many farms where the owners made vain attempts to start tree belts. Today, after years of drought and drifting dust, many of those trees are dead. Many never survived the first year. Why? Poor, unsuitable varieties? No, that’s not the reason. The trees used in tree belts usually come from Government nurseries, have been grown in the West, and are fundamentally adapted to the climate. The failure is due to lack of cultivation.

The trouble is that Western fanners have been growing their trees and vegetables in much the same way they have grown their wheatintensive cultivation and preparation of soil before planting; after planting, leave the soil alone and let nature take its course. That happens to he the only correct way to grow wheat. Rut you can’t grow trees that way, at least not in the West. Proper planting is only the beginning. The soil surrounding each tree must be kept free of weeds and grass; it must be kept loose and porous, so that ! whatever rain comes will he able to get j down to the roots. Further, some authorities contend that the topsoil, when in a j state of mulch, is less subject to drying out.

Examination of unsuccessful shelter j belts invariably shows lack of cultivation.

I Frequently the drifting soil has piled up ' until it envelops a foot or more of the tree’s trunk; and it is obvious that the comparatively light prairie rainfall cannot penetrate a blanket of dust twelve to twentyfour inches deep.

Emil Meili tested this theory on his own place, just to make sure. He set aside a small group of trees, giving them no cultivation. He allowed the soil to pack down; and if grass or weeds wanted to grow there, he didn’t interfere. Result: most trees grew thin and died under such treatment, while the rest of the tree helt and orchard, where each plant enjoyed cultivation and plenty of space, flourished.

There is nothing mysterious in the fact that a properly cart'd for tret' will withstand drought. Drought is a fluctuating j condition, affecting primarily the top few j inches of the soil; whereas the roots of some trees will go down forty feet if necessary to secure their moisture.

The only time that artificial watering enters the picture is upon planting or replanting a tree or shrub. Meili digs a big hole for the roots of the plant, hauls water from the well or a slough, or even uses rain water, and “drowns” the soil in which the plant is to he placed. This gives the plant a start on its way, until the roots have developed enough to sustain it. That first watering is its last.

This is Meili’s tested recipe for a successful tree belt in the prairies: Plant caragana for a quick shelter hedge; caragana being completely suited to the climate, provided it is cultivated sufficiently to prevent drifting soil from choking off its moisture supply. Poplar, next, is excellent for a quick start on the trees. Poplar dies out after fifteen to twenty-five years, but by that time there are other slowergrowing trees ready to take its place. The Siberian crab also makes a good hedge.

Once you have a good windbreak of shrubs and trees, it is easy to grow any number of different fruits and vegetables. 'Fhe shelter is necessary to protect the tender plants from the drying winds. But the main thing—which cannot be overemphasized is continuous cultivation. And allow plenty of room on all sides.

Each year Eastern Canada ships out trainloads of fruit and vegetables to farmers and townsmen on the prairies. This food has been needed. During the drought years whole districts have found it impossible to grow enough to eat; they either, had to import food or starve.

“At least.” says Emil Meili, “we could grow enough vegetables for the local market - not right away maybe, but within a few years time.”

I wanted to know why Westerners haven’t been doing that.

“You know why as well as I do,” he grinned. “They’ve tried and failed. It’s not a question of blaming anybody. They’ve become discouraged by poor varieties-the same as I had—that failed year after year because they weren’t adapted to the climate. Also our farmers got sidetracked by methods of planting and cultivation that are practiced elsewhere but won’t work here.”

Shelter Belts Necessary

COME authorities disagree with the sug_ gestion that vegetables can be grown in the drought climate. One noted Eastern horticulturist told me: “It’s ridiculous.

You cannot grow vegetables in a total drought year, because vegetables need water. Maybe cucumbers could get by under semi-desert conditions. But who wants to live on cucumbers?” -

The answer to this is that there is no such thing in the Canadian West as a total drought; there is always some rain In fact there is more precipitation in Southern Saskatchewan in an average year than in Northern Saskatchewan. Yet the North is generally regarded as a moist climate; the south is the “dry helt.” The catch is this: Though Southern Saskatchewan usually receives more precipitation, it also loses more because of an abnormally high rate of evaporation. In the North, there are trees to reduce wind velocity, as well as lakes and rivers to maintain humidity. These factors are lacking over most of the southern part of the province. The sun is hot. the wind is dry and gets a clean sweep across miles of level treeless fields.

This means that vegetables cannot be grown in a bad drought year unless the rate of evaporation is cut down. The only way the individual farmer can do that is by his own shelter belts, with trees and shrubs to protect the garden soil from the wind. Moreover, drought is not entirely a j larix of rainfall; it is also an unsatisfactory distribution of rainfall throughout the year. Because of the high rate of evaporation, it is necessary to get rain every so many days, or crops die. Shelter belts, by lowering evaporation, permit the plant to survive a longer period without additional moisture. Trees and hedges also help by holding the snow during winter, thus producing excellent moisture conditions the following spring.

To be effective, trees or hedges should be planted on all sides of the garden. I noticed that Meili had his vegetables scattered all through his orchard and nursery, where the wind couldn't get more than a twentyor thirty-yard sweep in any direction.

By providing adequate protection for farm gardens, the West, Meili claims, should be able to grow enough fruit and vegetables for its own requirements.

“In a few years,” he says, “you’ll see some of the finest orchards in Canada in this district. Maybe we’ll even be exporting fruit.”