It is impossible to ensure that rain will always fall but farming practices appropriate to dry-land farming can help to mitigate the effects of drought. The Dirty Thirties were crucial in bringing about those changes.
Some farming practices more appropriate to dry-land farming had long been known. By the 1890s, the Dominion Experimental Farms had recommended the use of summerfallow – leaving a field fallow for a year to conserve soil moisture, and cultivating it to destroy weeds. Experiments had determined that crop yields on summer fallow could be as much as twice that of crops sown on stubble.
Abe practiced summerfallow as early as 1915: “June 15, 1915: Plowed and harrowed summerfallow in am” and again “June 23, 1915: Plowed summerfallow with two outfits. Finished summerfallow in pm.” However, the commonly-used implements – discers, plows and harrows – pulverized the soil and left no cover, allowing the soil to dry out and leaving it exposed to wind erosion.
Two enterprising Alberta farmers independently invented cultivating equipment that effectively killed weeds with only minimal soil disturbance. In 1913, a farmer took out a patent for what he called a rod weeder – a rotating rod dragged under the soil surface. In the 1930s, Charles Noble created a horizontal V-shaped blade that also worked under the soil surface. Unfortunately, neither equipment came into common use until well after the Dirty Thirties.
By the mid-1930s, the situation in the Palliser Triangle area was so dire that the federal government formed the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA). One of PFRA’s first steps was to assess the suitability of land for agriculture. Where a quarter-section (160 acres) produced fewer than 350 bushels (or about 2.5 bushels/acre), PFRA encouraged farmers to relinquish the land to the Crown in exchange for Crown land elsewhere. Under this program, several hundred farmers moved from southwestern Saskatchewan, and some 500,00 acres of relinquished land became community pastures, one of which was in the hills south of Meyronne.
PFRA also promoted the concept of strip farming and the planting of windbreaks, usually caragana or Manitoba maple (box elder), along the edges of fields. Both practices served to deter wind erosion. Furthermore, windbreaks caught snow to increase soil moisture.
Abe adopted strip farming as can be seen in his 1936 crop diagram for the “home” section. However, he oriented the strips east-west, parallel to the direction of the prevailing westerly winds. This did nothing to prevent wind erosion. Not until about 1960 did my father, who now ran the farm, reorient all the fields to north-south.
The Palliser Triangle has experienced brief droughts of one to three years duration since the Thirties. Modern farming practices have, by and large, mitigated the effects of drought. Farmers use air seeders to plunge the seed deep into the ground where soil moisture remains. They practice “zero tillage” to leave trash on the fields to prevent or reduce erosion, but that requires the use of herbicides to control weeds and fertilizers to improve crop yields. This has led some to ask, “Are these good farming practices?”
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