CBC News Online | August 6, 2004
Woody Guthrie once sang, "This old world is a hard world, for a dust bowl refugee." The people of Canada's Prairies have been singing a similar tune lately, as they dust off their old albums and remember a time that’s looking all too familiar these days. Canada's Prairies are, well, dry.
As farmers in Manitoba and Saskatchewan wait for any sign of rain that might cure the drought on the Prairies, they remember a heritage that drove many from the land into the cities, or into the poorhouse.
The stock market crashed at the end of 1929, the price of wheat fell to below the cost of seed and the Great Depression smothered the Prairies with poverty and unemployment. On top of that, 1930 was the start of a 10-year period of drought and dust storms. The land turned to dust, sweeping away the rich prairie soil and, with it, the hopes and dreams of many farmers.
Unable to pay for their equipment and land, many were forced to move to the cities to search for new jobs. Farm incomes in the Prairies dropped from $363 million in 1928 to minus $10.7 million in 1931. On top of that, Canada's agricultural exports fell from $783 million in 1928 to $253 million in 1932. Wood export values fell by over 50 per cent during the same period. Between 1930 and 1940, the unemployment rate was constantly above 10 per cent.
Farming the Prairies
Those who stayed on the land during the depression and drought faced an environmental nightmare. The dust storms came in spring and summer when farmers had to be out on the land planting seed. After a hard day’s work, the dust would have sifted under their goggles and through their clothes, blackening their skin. Often, the wind would lift the soil and the newly planted seed, reversing all of the day's work.
These farmers also faced an infestation of grasshoppers and a weed called Russian thistle. The grasshoppers were so thick that they often clogged the radiators of cars and made the roads slippery. Chickens and turkeys ate the insects, giving a foul taste to the meat and eggs. There was no pesticide, and no way to control them. The Russian thistle piled up against fences and barns, often to 20 feet deep. By 1937, these conditions had reached their peak, and there was not even any hay to feed starving livestock, causing the price of cattle to drop to 3.5 to four cents per animal.
How they coped
Winnipeg was hit with extreme hardship during the 1930s. Its export product, including wheat, was now being shipped from British Columbia, due to the creation of the Panama Canal in 1914. It was no longer necessary for exports to be shipped through the Great Lakes, and Vancouver continued to surpass the Prairie province economically. Winnipeg's unemployment rate was the second highest in Canada in 1932, and the city was plunging into debt due to overwhelming demands for welfare.
So, the farmers improvised. Since the price of wheat was so low, the farmers planted new crops like oats, rye, flax, peas and alfalfa. They adapted to the dry weather with different tilling methods, crop rotation and artificial fertilizer. By the end of the decade, the fields of Manitoba were productive and the northern parts of the province were slowly developing.
In 1935, the Bureau of Economic Geology in the Department of Mines started an investigation to determine the groundwater resources of certain prairie areas. The introduction of the study states that, "Lack of rainfall during the years 1930 to1934 over a large part of the Prairie provinces brought about an acute shortage both in larger supplies of surface water used for irrigation and the smaller supplies of groundwater required for domestic purposes and for stock."
Don Lemmen, chief of hazards and environmental geology at the Terrain Sciences Division of the Natural Resources Canada, has another theory. He says that as far back as 1790, there was a drought so severe that it made the dormant sand dune fields in Alberta and Saskatchewan into active flowing sand. But it was land use practices in the 1930s that exacerbated the situation.
Back then, the farmers broke up the soil more than farmers do today, making it more vulnerable to erosion and wind storms. Now farmers don't till the soil as much and they leave a layer of stubble on the ground to protect it.
Lemmen, who spent seven years studying prairie climate, water and landscape, says that there is so much variability in these regions that they are very difficult areas to forecast.
He adds that severe droughts have generally occured on 40-to-50-year intervals, but global warming is disrupting this pattern.
"We do have to realize that over the long term, 10-30 years, we are going to be looking at stresses on surface water resources and if we’re making decisions now in terms of infrastructure and water management, we need to take into account that the climate is changing globally and plan for flexibility and efficiency to adapt to changes that occur." (Spring 2001, drought article, Alberta Irrigation Projects Association).
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