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Prairie droughts a recurring theme

Tom Steve, General Manager | Alberta Wheat and Barley Commissions

In the book, ‘Men Against the Desert’ published in 1967 by Western Producer Prairie Books, author and columnist James H. Gray chronicles the challenges faced by farmers in making Western Canada a major producer of wheat. That book is prominently displayed in my office as a reminder that farming on the Prairies is not for the faint of heart.

In 1857 Captain John Palliser, an Irish-born explorer and geographer, led a three- year expedition of what is now Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and concluded that a large part of the region was “more or less an arid desert and unsuitable for crops.” The triangular region consisting of brown and dark brown soils became known as the Palliser Triangle. Gray’s book highlights “a massive campaign by many dedicated Canadians” to prove Palliser’s predictions wrong.

Despite Palliser’s analysis, European and American farmers flocked to Canada in droves in response to the Homestead Act of 1872. The Act offered 160 acres of free land, provided farmers lived on the property and were committed to clearing and growing a crop on 40 acres of it.

Western Canada eventually emerged as the “breadbasket of the world” albeit with a seven-year interruption from 1930-1937 known as the “Dirty Thirties” which no doubt left many wondering if Palliser was actually right.

In today’s age of instant analysis on social and conventional media, the “experts” are contending that the current drought is unprecedented and a product of climate change. And yet the 1930s, 1961, 1988-89, 2002 and now 2021 are reminders that droughts in the Palliser Triangle are a fact of life.

As I write this column in mid-September, Team Alberta, consisting of the Alberta Wheat and Barley Commissions, Alberta Canola and Alberta Pulse, are engaged in discussions with the Government of Alberta on potential programs to deal with this year’s drought. The current suite of business risk management tools – Agri-Insurance, Agri-Stability and Agri-Invest – were designed to address the cycles when farm incomes are interrupted by trade issues, crop failures and low market prices. While well intentioned, they have not created a model that is reliable or bankable for the crop sector. And Agri-Recovery is largely untested for grain producers in addressing disasters.

If there’s a silver lining in all of this, the drought of 2021 has demonstrated that the efforts of farmers and scientists over many decades to prove that farming in the Palliser Triangle is a viable proposition, have paid off. Had we been farming this year the way we were in 1988 or 2002 I doubt there would have been much to harvest at all.