"Grassroots" History: Agricultural Land Use in Alberta

Article excerpt

Historians explore the past by focussing on human and institutional interactions. Here, political, social, economic and cultural forces comprise the primary interpretive vehicles for historical inquiry. In Alberta, and western Canada for that matter, agricultural development has been a major area of interest to historians, and predictably their focus has been set within political, economic and socio-cultural parameters. But, does geography, and in particular, land use patterns, have anything to tell us about Alberta's historical development? It is commonly argued that Alberta's prosperity in the second half of the twentieth century is due solely to the oil and gas industry. Yet, while it would be foolish to dismiss the importance of the energy sector (around 19 per cent of the GDP in 2000), it would be equally misleading to ignore the concomitant developments in agricultural land use in contributing to the Alberta of both yesterday and today.

Ranching comprised Alberta's first important land use concentration. Its survival on deeded and leased land in the south and south-east has furnished the province with ongoing commercial activity in the semi-arid brown soil zones, and in foothills areas unsuitable for profitable cropping enterprises. Although the open range years were over by 1912, ranching continued to form an important dimension of Alberta's economy. More significant than their 30 per cent share of provincial cattle numbers was the fact that ranchers supplied, nurtured and ultimately secured the crucial American export market for Canadian cattle. In the post-1945 period, the ranchers' attention to range management strategies and environmental imperatives reversed the ravages of the 1930s and ended a philosophy that saw grass as an ecological and economic constant. Ranchers contributed to Alberta in another important way. The ideological mantle, first worn by the ranching fraternity, and later shared by the oil and gas magnates, continues to define Alberta's political, social, and cultural profile.

Between 1900 and 1940, a specific type of agricultural land use was imposed on western Canada. While free land supplied the impetus for large-scale rural settlement, cereal crop agriculture furnished the economic lure. Here, the growing of oats, barley, flax, and rye paled before the appeal of wheat. The widespread fixation with "King Wheat" was unshakable. Impelled by the success of early ripening Marquis hard spring wheat, the area under wheat in Alberta went from under 50,000 acres in 1900 to almost nine million acres in 1940. In the latter year, the value of Alberta's wheat crop exceeded $71 million. This figure was ten times greater than the value of cattle slaughtered in the province in the same year. The rhetoric of dry farming justified wheat's presence in semi-arid areas. Potential for higher wheat yields formed the basis of early irrigation activities. The province's extensive gray soils were broken on the assumption that wheat would thrive, at least initially. Early ripening wheat primed the opening of the Peace River country to agriculture. Not surprisingly, the popularity of wheat remained unchallenged right up to World War Two. Acreage devoted to wheat rose steadily throughout this period despite farm abandonments and falling prices. For instance, wheat acreage in Alberta actually increased in the 1930s despite the "dust bowl" and the miseries of the Depression.

In this frenzy over wheat production, no thought was given to the fact that its widespread growth in the province might not be consistent with optimum land use practices. A look at contemporary Saskatchewan yields some very interesting statistical comparisons. In 1926, Saskatchewan had almost twenty million acres under crops; Alberta had about nine million. Receipts from field crops in 1920 totalled $249 million in Saskatchewan and $142 million for Alberta. At the outbreak of World War Two, Saskatchewan's revenues from field crops exceeded Alberta's by over $34 million. …