The Dirty Thirties was the result of a “perfect storm” of two factors: a severe, multi-year drought and farming techniques inappropriate for dry-land farming in the Palliser Triangle.
The mixed-grass prairie of the Palliser Triangle appeared, at first glance, to be a fertile and productive land. And it was – for grass. It had adapted over thousands of millennia to the mid-continental regimen of periodic droughts, short but intense over-grazing by bison herds, and fires that raged across the landscape. They survived and flourished because their roots went deep into the ground, soaking up moisture and holding the soil intact in spite of the weather above ground.
These rich grasslands were perfect for cattle, and ranchers were the first to occupy the Palliser Triangle – once the indigenous people were restricted to their reserved lands. Huge ranches, such as the Matador, Turkey Track and 76, each encompassed hundreds of square miles and ran thousands of head of cattle. The disastrous winter of 1906 – 07, the winter with constant blizzards and no chinooks, was the beginning of the end of the giant ranches.
Enter the homesteaders. They were there to grow grain, and growing grain meant ripping up the prairie sod. And rip it up, they did.
Homesteaders brought with them the farming techniques and equipment they had used in eastern Canada and elsewhere where the soil and climate were different. They quickly discovered that prairie sod was tough. The horse-drawn moldboard plows were barely able to cut through the tenacious grass roots and left behind large sod blocks that often were used to build houses and stables. The next step was to work the soil with a disc to break up the sods and create loose soil in which wheat, oats, and barley could be sown.
Therein lay one of the practices ultimately leading to the Dirty Thirties. The disc chopped the soil and turned it over. That in itself was not bad, but repeated discing pulverized the soil, leaving it exposed to wind and air, drying it out and rendering it vulnerable to drifting.
Other practices exacerbated the problem. Crop rotation was not commonly practiced, leading to depletion of nutrients. Summerfallow – leaving a field unseeded for a year – was supposed to help restore soil nutrients. However, those fields were often disced several times in the course of the summer to remove the stubble of last year’s crop and any weeds or volunteer grain that might sprout. With no “trash”to hold down the soil, it quickly dried out, ready to blow away in the next wind
One final factor – strip farming was rarely used. Instead, fields as large as 80 or even 160 acres were the norm. Once the wind started blowing and the soil started drifting, there was nothing to stop it.
The stage was set for a disaster should the rains ever fail.
(For in-depth discussion of the factors leading to the dirty thirties, watch Ken Burn’s outstanding documentary The Dust Bowl, originally aired on PBS, or read The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan.)
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