Prairie Farmers and the Great Depression

Farmers Feel the Triple Whammy

By George Siamandas

© George Siamandas

CRISIS ON THE FARM

The record harvest of 1928 disguised long-standing problems in the wheat economy. Wheat was 60% of the prairie crop. And of that, 70% was exported. Suddenly, in the early 1930s, France, Germany and Italy put in quotas or embargoes. Prices fell and Canada held back its supplies of wheat waiting for prices to improve. They did not. Even the unified power of the pools did not help. They went bankrupt in 1930.

COLLAPSING WHEAT PRICES

In 1932 commodity prices plummeted. Due not only to drought but ironically to oversupply with huge surpluses being created by Argentina and Australia glutting world markets. A bushel of No 1 Northern went from $1.03 in 1928, to 47 cents in 1930, and 29 cents in 1932. Lower than any time in the preceding 400 years.

Farm income was cut to half in Sask. and Alberta and by 80% in Manitoba. Meanwhile farmers were caught in debts incurred in a more optimistic era. Farmers had been over producing and investing in still more land, mechanization, and better homes. Then the day of reckoning appeared at the worst possible time.

DROUGHT AND SEARING WINDS

Dust storms began in 1931. There was no rain through the June germination period. No rain by July 1, only blasting winds. Then a couple of years of respite but suddenly, 1936 was a scorcher with temperatures often warmer than 100 in the longest, hottest summer ever. The topsoil blew away after years of too much tillage. Millions of acres just blew away. In the years to come new ploughing techniques would be encouraged by Ag scientists.

Then 1937 saw even hotter drier winds. Lakes went dry and farmers cut Canada thistle for their starving animals. Swarms of locusts ate shrubs, the handles off a rake and the clothing on the line, even the shirt off your back. Gophers proliferated and some families survived by eating them. A penny was paid for each gopher tail amounting to over $1M paid out in Alberta and Sask. Prime Minister Bennett's promise to "blast into the markets of the world" proved false.

THE TOLL

The bad times had taken their toll and 250,000 people left the prairies between 1931 and 1941. In 1936 alone, 14,000 farms were abandoned. The 1937-year was the worst ever in the prairie economy. Many ended up on relief and to farmers raised on the virtues of hard work and independence, relief was a humiliation. Finally in the fall of 1938 the rains came. And finally so did federal help.

PRAIRIE FARM REHABILITATION ORGANIZATION (PFRA)

The federal govt established the PFRA to distribute money. Its main target was teaching farmers soil conservation techniques and establishing water conservation and management. It also provided an insurance plan for crop failures.

MARKETING WHEAT

The federal govt had tried to get out of the business of selling wheat and had failed. It re-established the Wheat Board.

RESULTS

No sector of the economy suffered as much or recovered as slowly. In western Canada this gave rise to new political movements and parties like the CCF in Sask. and Social Credit in Alberta. And to a permanent Wheat Board. But the risks of weather, international trade, and national politics remain as uncertain today as in the Dirty 30s.

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