When Captain John Palliser first reached the prairies he may have thought he had lost his way and discovered Hell, for what he found was a forbidding and arid region. He launched an expedition from 1857-60, sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society, to study the plains' agricultural potential. The area, which became known as Palliser's Triangle, is north of the American border, bounded by Cartwright, Man., Lloydminster, Sask., and Calgary and Cardston, Alta. Palliser reported an area ill-suited for civilization, a region of short grasses and shrubs and desert-like conditions where cacti grew along the coulee ridge.
Palliser noted a fertile belt surrounding the region, which Henry Hind explored on his own expedition in 1857. Hind's more favorable assessment asserted that the fertile strip along the North Saskatchewan Valley was larger than expected and had sufficient rainfall to sustain agriculture. He suggested that the biggest obstacle to settlement would be lack of markets, not geography.
During the 1870s, John Macoun, a Canadian botanist, bolstered hopes of annexing the area. He concluded that Palliser's Triangle was ideally suited for agriculture and would become successful wheat land because rainfall occurred when it was needed. He provided the agricultural justification necessary for locating the CPR main line through the prairie grasslands.
The possibility of an agricultural Eden gladdened expansionists. Although Palliser had submitted a report on the region's harsh conditions, the British government ignored it and encouraged settlement in the area, even as Mother Nature, with her recurrent droughts, encouraged staying away.
Despite explorers' and government's optimism, the hopeful pioneers who first broke the prairie sod struggled from the beginning. When conditions worsened in the Dirty Thirties, farmers watched helplessly as their livelihoods blew away in clouds of fertile topsoil. Thistles were all the parched earth could produce. When the wind abated, the sun burning through the haze was all but obliterated by swarms of grasshoppers that ate their way through every bit of vegetation in their path.
That drought lasted from 1929-37 and devastated 7.3 million hectares-one-quarter-of Canada's arable land, causing 13,900 farms to be abandoned. To cope, farmers tried fallowing (plowing but not sowing a field), crop rotation and shallow cultivation to preserve soil moisture, unfortunately leaving the soil vulnerable to wind erosion.
The drought that has been drying up prairie farmlands for the past three years is comparable to the Dirty Thirties. However, the lessons learned in the 1930s make the difference for today's farmer.
Drought is a complicated issue; it is not simply a matter of too little rain. It involves evaporation, transpiration, ground water and snowfall. Fully one-third of the soil's spring moisture comes from snowfall between October and March. But as farmers say, you don't lose your crop in January. Heavy snow in the winter doesn't guarantee good conditions in the spring. Conditions are further complicated by erosion, when and in what form precipitation arrives and the rate of snowmelt.
The Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration of 1935 provided financial and technical support for the drought-ravaged agricultural community. The organization instituted on-farm dugouts for watering livestock, strip farming to prevent soil drifting, seeding abandoned land for community pastures and tree-planting to protect the soil from wind erosion.
Modern farming encourages greater stewardship of the land, conserving the soil but allowing high crop yields. Disturbing the soil as little as possible during seeding, by using no-till or direct seeding, reduces soil moisture loss. Leaving crop residue on fields over winter traps snow, increasing soil moisture and offering protection from wind and water erosion. Crop diversification offers the possibility of profit from one product when another fails.
Mother Nature definitely holds the upper hand in Palliser's Triangle, but adapting to the environment and learning from experience has ensured that Macoun's prediction of a successful wheat-growing region would come true-with or without drought.
Laura Neilson Bonikowsky is a Research Editor with The Canadian Encyclopedia.