Prairie Comeback

A Maclean’s editor goes back West. He finds a different kind of boom, a victory over old foes

RALPH ALLEN January 15 1947

Prairie Comeback

A Maclean’s editor goes back West. He finds a different kind of boom, a victory over old foes

RALPH ALLEN January 15 1947

Prairie Comeback

A Maclean’s editor goes back West. He finds a different kind of boom, a victory over old foes


AS THE first blizzards of 1947 swept across the Canadian prairie provinces, they blanketed a world of upheaval—a world in which 2,400,000 people were making vast changes in their ways of thinking and preparing for vast changes in their ways of living.

Jim Kee, proprietor of a Saskatchewan village’s inevitable Chinese restaurant, was one of the few old settlers who would have preferred it otherwise.

“Laisin pie got new lecipe,” Jim grumbled one morning last November. “Twenty-three years

make laisin pie along bacon glease. Now farmer got so much money him Missus gotta eat Sat’y night supper in café. Missus say no use bacon glease, use lard. She no say where get lard.”

For a native of the prairies, coming backas I did in the early winterfor his first long look at the country since before the war, the sights and sounds were a blend of the familiar and the improbable:

A Red River Valley farmer carrying a money belt stuffed with $14,000 in cash as he trudged through the barnyard snowdrifts to liquidate his Thanksgiving turkey.

A mortgage company executive looking up from his filet mignon in Winnipeg’sgenteel Manitoba club

and announcing sadly: “Beginning next month, I’m out of a job. The farmers have bought me out again.”

Prosperous strangers debouching from the branch line traias all the way between Winnipeg and the Rockies, with brief cases full of mining stock certificates and selling lines rich with the elegant jargon of Toronto’s Bay Street.

Small-town station platforms crowded with big-eyed kids in toques and shoepacks watching the unloading of the first Christmas parcels from the mail-order stores.

Fine exciting signs and handbills in the village post office: “Fowl Supper Thursday. Basement of the United Church. Everybody Welcome.” “Big Dance, McDonald’s Hall Friday. Music by the Rhythm Four. Everybody Welcome. God Save the King.”

The price of a seat on the Winnipeg Grain Exchange down as low as $1,300 (from a pre-war high of $25,000)—while the Exchange’s 400-odd members spent their mornings gambling on rye and their afternoons playing dominoes and pining audibly for the return of the open market on wheat.

Political talk filled with spirit but little venom. In Saskatchewan a Socialist Government that hasn’t quite gone Socialist. In Alberta a Social Credit Government that isn’t really Social Credit.

In Manitoba a Liberal-coalition Government that isn’t quite Liberal . . . and most of the voters in each province still convinced that they’re getting the most honest and efficient Government in their history.

Movie queues and store queues on fhe Portage Avenues ami Jasf>er Avenues, and ».thousand Main Streets alive with the electric bustle of Saturday Night. The open plains flecked with the same rhabby, unpainted farmhouses that were there 20 years ago.

Good farm horses, the victims of a new' age of machinery, tumbling up crowded ramps into new processing factories, and bringing up to two cents a pound as fox meat or canned Sunday dinner for Europe’s hungry.

Each of these fragments of life on the western plains is either a cause or an effect of one main ground swell: There is more money on the prairies than there has ever been before.

The 1946 crop brought the 270,000 farm families of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta a cash return of a billion dollars, the second highest on record. Coming on top of the fat crop yields of 1944 and ’45 it took the West, out of hock for the first time since the onset of the catastrophic thirties.

In the last eight years, according to an estimate based on figures of f he Dominion mortgage and Investments Association, farm debt in the three

provinces has shrunk from $806 millions to $250 millions In the same period bank debits - meaning I he total volume of cheques cashed— has increased from a monthly average of $380 millions to y monthly average of $855 millions. Life insurance sales have tripled.

In spite of acute scarcities of the two things the farmer wanted to buy more than anything else -new' buildings and new machinery—retail sales in 1946 were up 114'Z, over the 1935-39 average.

Boom statistics are not exclusive to the agricultural West, but they make more news there than anywhere else in Canada. For, unlike the other great segments of the national boom, the boom on the prairies is not wholly a carry-over from the war. The war helped it by raising the prices of farm products, but this prosperity has another aspect.

In the factories and clearinghouses of the East, fresh money means essentially that Canadians are living on more lucrative terms with themselves and with the rest of the world. On the farms of the West, fresh money means that Canadians are living on more lucrative terms with nature.

“When we get a boom out here,” a Manitoba politician explained, “it doesn’t just mean that we’ve made a better deal with society. It means we’ve made a better deal with the earth and the air.”

At the end of the last decade the words you heard most on any prairie farm— and in any prairie

city, too, for economically the prairie city is still a suburb of the farm—were words of misgiving and naked fear.

The big words then were: drought, weeds, pests, debt, dust, relief - legacies, all of them, of the dry and desperate thirties. The big words now are mechanization, irrigation, diversification, industrialization, marketing. If they have a cumbersome and fuzzy sound, they are nevertheless words of hope and adventure, and their substitution for the dismayed epithets of the pre-war years is the surest guide to the restoration of the West’s morale.

IIow Long?

YET THE mood of the western farmers and of’ their dependents in the cities, towns and villages has little in common with the headlong, carefree optimism of the late and middle twenties, when the prairies hit their last cash-income peak.

The memory of what happened when that last crest disintegrated is both fresh and frightening . . . Wheat farms that produced 25 and 30 bushels to the acre in ’28 and ’29 producing one, three or five bushels to the acre in ’32 and ’33. The average’ price to the farmer down to 34 cents a bushel in 1932 and the farmer’s return at the elevator sometimes as low as 19 cents. Two million acres of settled land abandoned to the Russian thistle, the grasshoppers and the searing dust storms. For those who stayed, foreclosure or a hopeless burden of debt. It was a depression within a depression, a, depression deriving from the elemental failure of weather and soil.

And now, although his own perseverance, plus a lot of help from forces outside himself, has taken him off the cuff again, the farmer can’íjielp recalling the last cycle of plenty and asking thé big question he forgot to ask then. How long can it last£ The question is implicit in almost everything that is happening on the prairies. How long can it last?

Jimmy Gardiner was asking the big question when he signed a wheat agreement with Great Britain and approved a domestic policy which cost Canadian farmers a fortune in immediate cash but guaranteed them a floor price of $1.35 a bushel for No. 1 Northern Wheat for the next four years.

Tommy Douglas asked the question when he sent the best legal brains of his Saskatchewan Government to Ottawa to plead the validity of a new Farm Security Act which would protect the farmer’s house, barn and “homestead” Continued on page 43

Continued on page 43

Continued from page 8

quarter section from mortgage foreclosure in the years of crop failure.

E. C. Manning asked the question in almost the same language as his Alberta Government went into the courts to argue the constitutionality of an equally far-reaching social security measure called the Alberta Bill of Rights.

Stuart Garson asked the question in slightly different terms when he signed the Dominion-provincial tax agreement which he hoped would help Manitoba to tie its agricultural economy to an anchor of industrial development.

Carl Stimpfel, the big shambling Alberta dirt farmer who heads the Alberta Farmers’ Union, was asking the question last September when he induced 20,000 farmers to stage a month-long delivery strike for higher prices.

All these men and the measures they espoused sought one goal in common— to reduce the gamble of farming on the prairies and thus to reduce the gamble implicit at all levels of the region’s economy. The goal itself is as old as the history of the white man in the West. So far as anyone can see, it is still impossible of total attainment, but at least it looks a little closer than it ever looked before.

Palliser’s a Bum

Earning a living on the prairies has always been a gamble—more than that, a battle. To understand the nature of the battle, it’s necessary to understand the nature of the battlefield.

Its heart is the 100,000 square miles of semiarid wheatland called the Palliser Triangle—the centre of the true prairie, a wedge of light-textured brown soil that begins in the extreme southwest tip of Manitoba, angles northwest past Saskatoon and cuts south again through Alberta, paralleling the main roads and railway lines from Edmonton to Calgary. The Triangle was named for Captain John Palliser, an Irish explorer who surveyed the region more than 80 years ago and reported to the Government of Great Britain that successful farming there would be impossible.

To this day the half-million Canadians who live in the area would be hard put to prove either that Palliser was altogether right or that he was altogether wrong. One of them summed it up a few weeks ago like this: “Ten years ago Palliser looked awful good. Today he’s just another bum.”

It is on the light-bodied soil of the triangle and within its tight extremes of rainfall that the men who till the prairies have fought their bitterest battles, and it’s there that they have sustained their most dismaying defeats and achieved some of their most glittering victories.

The Triangle is ringed and partly overlapped by another belt of agricultural land, approximately equal in area—the black soil zone that begins in the Red River Valley just east of Winnipeg and sweeps westward past the Portage and Regina plains, along the bed of the North Saskatchewan River into Alberta and soutfi again just outside the foothills. This is the West’s most fertile land. Its crop yields are generally a little higher and less susceptible to drought.

The great bulk of the West’s 60 million acres of cultivated land lies in these adjoining brown and black soil zones, and of this 60 million cultivated acres, about 40 million normally are either sown to wheat or summer-fal-

lowed between wheat seedings. Wheat will always be the boss crop there.

The farmer’s explanation is as urianswerable as the college professor’s: “Wheat is tough and stubborn. You need a tough grain to live on the kind of rain we get. Five inches of rain between May and July can mean the difference between a new Ford and no shoes for the kids in September.”

North, east and west of southcentral plains the nonagricultural two thirds of the prairie provinces lie in a monstrous horseshoe. In the eastern part there are lakes the size of small provinces. In the north pre-Cambrian rock and a sweep of bush half a continent wide. In the west the granite rim of the Rockies. Even by the sparse standards of settlement on the prairies, this giganitic outpost is sparsely settled. Most of it isn’t settled at all.

This is the prairie Canadian’s battlefield. The battle itself has two main objectives—first to ensure high production and profitable prices for all the region’s agricultural products; second to free the prairie economy from its traditional bondage to wheat. At the grass-roots level, it still boils down to farmer’s unceasing struggle to stand off the resilient enemies that invade his fields physically—the winds that blow away his topsoil, the droughts that wither his grain, the plant diseases that make it unmarketable, the insects that devour it or cut it down before the harvest, the weeds that strangle it in the shoot.

Since 1939 the special hellions nature reserves for the purpose of tormenting prairie farmers have been fairly subdued. There has been no widespread drought or epidemic soil drifting, virtually no rust. Insects have made sorties into the drier areas, but no general invasions. Weeds have held their own or better, but weeds at least are something whose method and direction of attack are subject to some degree of prediction. And prices, though still not as high as most farmers think they ought to be, are high enough to allow a profit and more settled than they’ve ever been in the West’s peacetime history.

In short, things look so much better that Conditions has ceased to be a swearword.

To what extent can the people who live on the prairies take the credit for this happy state of affairs? After all these years of helpless subjugation to Conditions, has the farmer gained any conclusive degree of control over his own destiny?

West’s Face Changes

I asked the question in a lot of places. The best answer came from a farmer west of Regina. “We haven’t licked this country yet by any means,” he said. “But we’ve learned quite a bit about rolling with the punches.”

The phrase was no abstraction. Its new-found capacity for rolling with the punches has changed the West’s whole physical appearance within the last 10 years.

On the open plains black summer fallow—the endless sweeps of fields, painstakingly plowed, disked and harrowed until the last blade of growth is ground out of sight—has almost disappeared. Black summer fallow used tô be regarded as a half mark of efficient husbandry; the farmer who kept his fallow cleanest was giving his land the best chance to choke off weeds and store up food for the next seed crop.

But during the cruel dust storms of the last decade, the precious topsoil blew away from fallowed lands by the trainload and the township. Now, in the regions most vulnerable to winds,

more than 50% of the farmers leave a trash cover of uprooted weeds and stubble on their fields in the idle years lyetween seeding». To get at the topsoil the wind has to burrow through a protective blanket, of fibre.

Fields under cultivation often look different now too. Where soil drifting hit hardest 10 to 15 years ago, strip farming has become a virtual must of competent husbandry. In strip farming fields are seeded in narrow alternating ribbons of grain and fallow, the purpose being to surround each strip of fallow with a windbreak of grain.

Other new defenses have been erected against the grim and grimy spectre of drought. Under Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Act, an enactment of 1935, more than 30,000 farmers have carved dugouts in their land scoopedout pits that catch the melting winter snows and supply water for livestock and vegetable gardens whether it rains or not.

P. F. R. A. has taken a million and a half acres of the most hopelessly eroded grainland out of cultivation and converted it into big community pastures. The community pastures serve the double purpose of checking the spread of erosion and supplying neighboring cattle herds with cheap and handy grazing.

The defenses have tightened all along the line. Under the wartime necessity of raising more grain with less manpower, the prairies neglected weed control, but the scientists have laid the groundwork for a vigorous counterattack.

They’ve developed new and wonderful chemical weed killers such as 2,4-D. Most of these are still too expensive and bulky to be used on a wide scale, hut progress is being made toward reducing this drawback. Few agronomists are so optimistic as to believe that chemicals or any other man-made agency will ever wipe out prairie weeds, but there is a new and solid basis for hoping that their shadow will grow less before it grows greater.

Rust has ceased to be a factor in prairie wheat growing, thanks to the development and almost universal use of the resistant seeds, Thatcher, Regent and Renown.

Grasshoppers, which usually accompany dry spells, haven’t been seen in numbers for years. That’s no guarantee they won’t be back, but the pest-control experts are readv for them.

When You Win You Lose

Hut few of the immemorial problems involved in mass production of grain on the Canadian prairies can be solved out of a book or in a laboratory. The alliance between scientists and dirt farmers is still not half so cunning as the cunning of nature. For example:

The sawfly, a small, winged, antlike creature, lays its eggs in the hollow stems of wheat. The eggs hatch into larvae, which burrow down the stems to mature as flies in early summer. The best method yet devised to check them is to plow the previous year’s stubble under before the end of spring and break the sawfly’s life cycle before it can be completed. But the best method of combating wind erosion— strip farmingrelies partly on its effectiveness on not plowing the stubble under. What you make on the merrygo-round you lose on the peanuts.

Synchronized with all the dramatic bustle of a quarter of a million farmers testing new weapons against their ancient adversaries, there is one louder, clearer note. This is the clank and roar of the new machines that have already revolutionized the cost accounting of prairie farming, picked up

whole segments of humanity and dropped them down again in new homes and'new vocations, and traced the pattern of an ultimate revolution.

The heralded revolution of the combine and the tractor is not yet complete. That’s mainly because supply has fallen far behind demand. According to a federal survey, the three prairie provinces needed and were in a position to buy 70,000 new tractors and 37,000 new combines during 1945 and 1946. In the two years only 26,000 tractors and

11.000 combines were delivered.

Nevertheless, according to other

estimates, the open plains are being 80% machine-harvested already, and even in the rolling, more heavily wooded lands combines are taking off as much as 40% of the grain harvest.

Tractor plowing and combine threshing have slashed the cost of raising a bushel of wheat by as mucli as 50%, even though the cost of farm labor has risen from a pre-war $20-$30 a month to a $100 a month or more now. The manpower cost has been reduced even more spectacularly.

Still Import Harvest Hands

“Before the war,” a farm owner who runs a business in Winnipeg told me, “my 700-acre wheat farm used 21 horses and eight men to take off the crop. In 1941 I bought a combine and two tractors and my harvest labor dropped to one man and a 14-year-old boy. Last year the boy, then 18, took off the whole crop himself. Some days he and the combine put away 1,000 bushels, more than eight men used to harvest with binders and a thresher.”

Strangely enough, the effect of combine harvesting has not yet created a visible surplus in the prairies’ farm labor pool; in fact, the three provinces imported more than 3,000 men from Ontario to help take off the 1946 crop. Farm mechanization has been a gradual process, spread over more than 15 years, a factor which has diffused the shock on employment. And the return of more than 50,000 ex-servicemen to prairie farms has been largely cancelled out by the fact that, in many cases, the men they replaced were of advanced age and only too eager to retire.

For all that, mechanized farming has prevented Saskatchewan from regaining the population peak of 925,000 from which it began to recede during the depression. When the postwar shakedown is completed, it’s generally conceded that the middle prairie province will still be supporting fewer than

900.000 people, and that until some such visionary stimulant as large-scale irrigation becomes a reality, there will he little likelihood of an increase. Manitoba and Alberta, on the other hand, are both on rising population waves, although Manitoba hasn’t yet regained its pre-war peak of 729,000.

On the financial side most westerners seem to regard the position as encouraging. This year, for the first time in history, the grain grower thinks he can look four years ahead and make an accurate, government - underwritten forecast of the lowest price at which he will have to sell his wheat in the years between.

That isn’t to say that all grain growers, or nearly all, have much ' genuine affection for the much-dis-1 cussed wheat agreement with Great Britain. The individual’s opinion is apt to be largely conditioned by his memory. If he remembers selling No. 1 Northern at throwaway prices, he may still disapprove the GardinerWheat Board policy in some of its i details, but he probably approves the principle which, in return for a cash sacrifice now, assures him a floor price of $1.35 a bushel until 1950.

Carl Stimpfel, leader of the Alberta strike, put it this way: “Even the strikers weren’t opposing the theory behind the wheat agreement. If the Government had kept controls on the things the farmer has to buy, there’d have been no objection to controls on the tilings the farmer has to sell. All we want is a better relation between our selling and buying prices. We call it parity.”

But no matter what is done about the omnipresent problem of wheat prices, $1.35 wheat—or $2.35 wheat for that matter—-will never by itself take the hazards and headaches out of earning a livelihood on the western plains. So long as wheat is master, the margin between prosperity and depression in any given year will continue to be as narrow as the margin between a few hours’ sunshine and a few hours’ rain. Politicians and businessmen, no less than the men on the land, almost unanimously agree that the three provinces cannot even hope for real stability until they can expand their nonagricultural industry, develop their nonagricultural resources and diversify their agriculture away from wheat.

“I Can Fight Back

There are implacable limitations on all these objectives. Long freight hauls to the East, a widely scattered body of consumers in the West, and the relative scarcity and inaccessibility of mineral deposits make it unlikely that the prairies will ever attain anything approaching á prorated share of the Dominion’s industrial output.

Right now, with 25% of the country’s population, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta produce barely seven per cent of its manufactured goods. Their nonagricultural resources include whitefish and pickerel in the big lakes of Manitoba; copper, zinc, gold and silver along the Manitoba - Saskatchewan border near Flin Flon; furs, pulp and timber in the thinly peopled northlands of all three provinces; lignite coal and natural gas in southern Saskatchewan; oil, natural gas and Drumheller coal in Alberta; large stores of hydroelectric power, much of it untapped, spilling down from the North and from the foothills in the West.

But various as these nonagricultural resources are, they support barely enough people to fill a medium-sized city, and until and unless they can be more closely integrated with secondary industries, their role in the over-all economy will remain subsidiary.

Inflexible as are the terms on which it must be fought, this part of the West’s battle—the battle to shake off the almost universal vassalage to wheat —is going better than it went before. More significant still, the people who live there have come to understand the importance of winning it. “Fifteen years ago,” a Saskatchewan dirt farmer admitted, “I thought all I could do about bad times was curse or pray. Now I know that even though the odds are still stacked against us, I can fight back right here on my farm, and the politicians and businessmen can fight back too.”

Saskatchewan, most isolated and most truly “prairie” of the three prairie provinces, has always lagged behind its two neighbors in industrial development and continues to lag.

But both Manitoba and Alberta made encouraging gains industrially during the war and have held them through the reconversion period. The 1946 census will show that Calgary’s population jumped 10,000, that Edmonton’s population went up 16,000 and stayed up, the greatest increase for any Canadian city between Toronto and Vancouver.

The new census will show' that Manitoba went into the war with 1,200 industries and 60,000 employees, came out with 1,400 industries and 95,000 employees, and these were not warplant gains.

Industrialization has made import. ant progress, but the progress has been made almost exclusively outside the central wheat plains. Similarly, it is on the fringe of the central plain that crop diversification—the other great strategic goal of the prairies—has made the largest advances.

The West’s most spectacular exhibit of diversified crops still lies in Alberta’s 590,000 acres of artificially irrigated land, most of it in the green fields around Lethbridge and Taber. Artificial irrigation began in Alberta more than 50 years ago on private money and private development.

Since then a long and thorough test has proved that land which, without irrigation, Is good only for pasture or for growing grain at uncertain cash yields of $10 to $20 an acre, will produce from $30 to $100 an acre when it’s placed “under the ditch” and sown to sugar beets, field peas, or vegetables for canning. Land which under the uncertain natural rainfall of the region will support as few as three people to the square mile will support up to 60 people to the square mile on a guaranteed water supply.

“And that’s not all,” an irrigation pioneer pointed out. “A farm that’s under the ditch is usually a good place to live—not a place to dream about retiring from. It’s got trees and flowers, and paint on the buildings and lots of neighbors close by.”

One of the most hopeful portents is that irrigation is still relatively in its infancy. It’s true that more than 95% of the West’s settled farmland is probably fated forever to draw its moisture exclusively from the clouds. But experts estimate that at least two million additional acres can still be brought under the ditch by tapping natural draining systems for water that now goes to waste. A $15 million project, already under construction along the St. Mary’s and Milk Rivers with federal and provincial financing, will tap water for another 345,000 acres in Alberta.

Big Irrigation Projects

A still greater project, an engineer’s dream for more than 60 years, envisages backing up the North Saskatchewan River behind a system of reservoirs to bring a stabilizing belt of 134 million irrigated acres to the province that needs irrigation most of all.

The cost of the North Saskatchewan development has been estimated by federal engineers working under Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Act at $105 millions. An alternative development on the South Saskatchewan would irrigate 950,000 acres at a cost of $39 millions. Neither project has gone beyond the survey stage, but the fact that both are regarded by experts as feasible and financially sound is an exciting reassurance that the West is still a land of the future.

But importent as irrigation Ls, it


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isn’t the only road to diversification. During the war years hundreds of Manitoba farmers, who had always believed that their land was irretrievably committed to wheat and coarse grains, began experimenting with corn, peas, sunflower, sugar beets and an oil-bearing annual called Argentine Rape.

Confidence and Scepticism

The outcome was that almost wholly within the space of five years a capsule revolution took place. Wheat virtually disappeared from large sections of the fertile Red River Valley, notably in the lush lands around Morden, cultivated for more than half a century by careful Mennonite immigrants. What has happened there can’t, be expected to happen everywhere, for it was the product of local conditions favorable soil and climate. Nevertheless this successful adventure in diversification is of more than local significance. The new specialty crop farms employ more people per acre, show a higher profit per acre, and are supporting a little colony of processing factories that otherwise would never have existed.

Amid all the trappings of prosperity and progress, it would be easy to conclude that the Canadian prairies have already staked out their corner of the Brave New World. Easy—and dangerous. Their future essentially is still the plaything of those bulking though temporarily benevolent shadows, world markets, international finance, mean rainfall. Their present, in spite of a six-year flood of fresh money, has not liberated them from ways of living which, by national standards, are outdated by 10 to 20 years.

Prairie Farm Assistance Act, a modified form of crop insurance introduced in 1937, annually makes cash payments up to $2.50 an acre to prairie farmers whose crop yields fall below eight bushels to the acre. Last year 62,000 of the 272,000 eligible farmers needed P.F.A.A. assistance. This year more than 40,000 applied for help to P.F.A.A. In other words, in the second-best year the West has ever known, one farmer out of every seven had a whole or partial wheat crop failure, and was unable to pay the operating costs of his wheat acreage out of current revenue.

According to the last census, the average value of the 120,000 farm homes in Saskatchewan, together with their surrounding barns, granarais and other buildings, was $l,lr0. In Manitoba the average was $1,200, in Alberta just over $1,300.

Statistics like those, forbidding and close to home, play at least as large a part as the glittering statistics of cash income in shaping the prairies’ state of mind at the beginning of another year.

The state of mind is still a curious, though healthy, mixture of confidence and scepticism. Nearly everybody is thinking in new directions—thinking more mellowly toward the “money interests” of the East, thinking more tolerantly toward governments, thinking less fatalistically—and therefore more intelligently—about his own future.

But no one who lived on the prairies then has really forgotten the nineteenthirties.

Coming out of Winnipeg a middleaged farmer sat in the Pullman smoker, starting his first holiday since 1939. The talk turned, inevitably, to Conditions —Conditions and the big question.

“How long can it last?”

The farmer looked at the glowing bowl of his pipe for a moment and said: “That depends.”

“Depends on what?”

“God and the Grits,” he said. ★