Prairie Drought and Recovery
The combined effects of economic collapse and prolonged drought meant that the Depression was felt more severely in the Prairies than in any other part of Canada. Restriction of the world export grain market, as a result of newly erected tariff barriers and increased foreign production, reduced the value of Prairie wheat by almost one-third between 1929 and 1932. At the same time a series of droughts between 1930 and 1937 brought about complete or partial crop failures over extensive areas.
Although there was yearly variation in the effects of the drought across the Prairies, there was little respite for south central Saskatchewan and the wheat crop there was severely and consistently devastated. Low wheat prices and low yields resulted in a steep drop in net farm income. In Saskatchewan per capita income plunged by 72% between 1928 and 1933 and returns from farming could not cover costs from 1931 to 1934 and again during the severe drought of 1937, when farmers in Manitoba and Alberta were well on the way to recovery. It was impossible for most Prairie farmers, and especially those in Saskatchewan, to survive without some form of government relief.
For many farmers packing up and abandoning their farms was the only way they could respond to the catastrophe surrounding them. The Saskatchewan government established a program to assist farmers who wished to move out of the drought area to northern Crown lands and even outside the province. The northern forest fringes posed a new hardship to many settlers who had no experience of bush clearing or practising mixed agriculture on damp, heavy soils. As the decade progressed, more assisted settlers chose destinations outside Saskatchewan. Between 1931 and 1941 almost 200,000 people left the Prairie Provinces entirely, resulting in a net loss of population.
By the mid-1930s it appeared that large areas of the prairie would be lost to agriculture. In April 1935 the dominion government responded with the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Act (PFRA) which established remedial programs. New agricultural practices, such as strip farming, cover cropping, and shelter belts were introduced. Submarginal crop land was fenced, re-grassed, and permanently converted into community pastures which counteracted the worst of the soil drifting. The limited water resources of the Prairies were more effectively utilized through development of water-holding and irrigation projects. The smaller of these water projects were most immediately beneficial to farmers while the larger and more expensive ones attempted to provide long-term solutions. In combination, water and pasture development enabled a diversification in Prairie agriculture through expanded livestock production.
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This piece includes a graph outlining the damaging effects of the Depression on farmers’ income, as well as a map that illustrates farmers’ interprovincial migration in order to survive.