Canada: The Story of Us

How a new kind of wheat grass saved the Dust Bowl from drought

During the 1930s, drought ravaged the prairies, turning once fertile farmland into the Dust Bowl. Then Dr. Lawrence E. Kirk developed a new kind of wheat.

Fairway Wheat Grass "renewed hope in the hearts of thousands."

Scientist Dr. Lawrence Kirk tested his new wheat on the farm of James Rugg in 1937. (Canada: The Story of Us)

"Few Canadians have ever played so large a role in changing the face of the earth as Dr. Lawrence E. Kirk." —  James Gray

The Great Depression was a social and economic disaster that sent shockwaves around the world. Unemployment in Canada rose to 29 per cent (in some countries, it was as high as 33 per cent). International trade slowed to 50 per cent of what it had been and the worldwide GDP fell by about 15 per cent.

In Canada, the Prairies are hit hardest.

In the 1920s, 60 per cent of the crops grown in the Prairies are wheat and 70 per cent of that wheat is exported. In the 1930s, European countries place quotas and embargoes on wheat imports — the price for wheat plummets by about 90 per cent and Canada's breadbasket is hurled into a downward spiral. And that's before the weather turns ugly.

"The Dust Bowl" is born

Throughout the 1910s and '20s, the Prairies see good rainfall and relatively moderate winters. But the 1930s bring four of the driest calendar years since 1895.

As large-scale farming expanded on the Prairies, farmers replaced indigenous grasses with wheat crops. But when they removed the grasses — which had strong roots that held the soil together — they also removed the land's erosion protection. When drought hits, the soil turns to dust and blows away. Desertification and frequent dust storms lead one Kansas City Associated Press editor to name the North American Prairies, "the Dust Bowl."

Mass exodus from the Prairies

Over 250,000 people leave the Prairies in the 1930s. In 1936 alone, 14,000 farms are abandoned.

Over 250,000 people leave the Prairies in the1930s.

Families who remain resort to cutting thistle — not high in nutrition — to feed their cattle and hunting gophers to feed themselves. Biblical swarms of locusts attack crops, gardens and clothes (there are reports of swarms so large they obscured the sun). Deportations increase, with the hard-hit and unemployed finding easy scapegoats in immigrants.

All seems lost. But an agricultural scientist is already hard at work on a botanical solution.

Fairway Wheat Grass: a super seed that saves the Prairies

Enter Dr. Lawrence E. Kirk: he's been working on drought-resistant and winter-hardy wheat grass at the University of Saskatchewan for decades, well before anyone had ever heard of the Dust Bowl. Prior to the 1920s, he had worked on a wheat grass to alleviate feed shortages in Palliser's Triangle (a large semi-arid steppe region in the southern Prairies that suffered from frequent drought).

Kirk's discovery starts with a happy accident: he stumbles upon a selection of seeds in the drawer of an office desk he inherits. The seeds are crested wheat grass seeds, imported from Russian Siberia, which is similar in winters, annual precipitation and flatness to the Prairies.

Kirk gives the crested wheat grass a whirl. At first, the results are wildly disappointing. The grass does poorly, despite his painstaking care. But then he has a realization: what if the wheat grass is doing poorly because of his TLC?

But then he has a realization: what if the wheat grass is doing poorly because of his TLC?

To quote Kirk, this is "a grass that had to be treated rough." Crested wheat grass, like some sort of plant introvert, works best when left alone by both farmer and nature. It thrives with little moisture and terrible winters. There's a point in mid-summer when the wheat grass turns brown and appears to die, but it's actually getting stronger. The plant's root systems are going deeper and deeper—like a dirt submarine—searching for moisture.

Crested wheat grass thrives in conditions when even 75 per cent of western rye indigenous to the Prairies dies. The wheat dominates native weeds and sustains little injury in extreme frost. Through cross-pollination, Dr. Kirk develops a new strain of the grass with a lush leafiness that grazing animals love, but that also self-pollinates. He calls this magical wheat grass 'Fairway' and sets out, with the aid of Canada's Experimental Farm Service, to multiply the seed stocks for distribution.

The Effects:

Introducing a foreign plant can be risky and often comes with new, unforeseen challenges. But the Fairway wheat grass is soon hailed as the greatest Prairie heroes of all time.

Using the newly formed Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA), Kirk distributes the Fairway seed to farms across the Prairies. Between 1937 and 1941, over 260,000 acres of land (an area slightly larger than Hong Kong) in Palliser's Triangle is stabilized by Fairway wheat grass.

Not only do the Fairway seeds renew crops and grazing lands, the Regina Leader-Post reports that it, "renewed hope in the hearts of thousands in that section of Saskatchewan."

Fairway wheat grass was a major factor in bringing the Dust Bowl back to normalcy; even now, much of the Canadian Prairies is covered with the hardy crop.

Lawrence Kirk literally changed the look of the Canadian Prairies. As historian James Gray notes, "few Canadians have ever played so large a role in changing the face of the earth as Dr. Lawrence E. Kirk."