Agriculture in Alberta: The History of Agriculture in Alberta

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 How did agriculture become the industry just described, in such a new land and in such a relatively short time? The first white man to cultivate the soil in what is now Alberta was Peter Pond, a fur trader who established an isolated post near Lake Athabasca. In 1779 he was raising vegetables in his small garden. More than half a century later, in 1857, the explorer Captain John Palliser travelled the southern Prairies and pronounced the land and climate unsuitable for agriculture. Soon after that, settlers began to move into the area and Palliser's contention was disproved.

But it was more than 100 years between Peter Pond's garden and any large-scale attempts at agriculture in what was then the Northwest Territories. Ranchers began to move into the southern areas between 1874 and 1880, mainly from similar country south of the American border. They found abundant grasses and a climate moderated by occasional Chinook winds in the winter, which made year-round grazing possible. Civilization in the form of the Northwest Mounted Police arrived when Fort Macleod was established in 1874. Surveyors had been working since 1871 on the mammoth task of dividing the Prairies into a grid system of townships (six miles by six miles), sections (one mile square) and quarter sections, in preparation for the allotment of the unbroken prairie to homesteaders.


It was not until the Canadian Pacific Railway reached the area in 1883 that settlement of any consequence began. By the 1890s a tide of immigration into the West was underway, peaking just prior to the outbreak of the First World War. Between 1901 and 1905, 40,000 homesteads were granted in what in 1905 became the province of Alberta. Homesteaders were given freehold title to their land in exchange for paying $10, agreeing to stay on the land at least three years, breaking a certain amount of land each year and building a house. The settlers came mainly from Europe (especially northern, central and eastern Europe and the British Isles). Some also moved from the eastern provinces and northward from the United States, where virtually all good potential farmland had already been opened up by settlers.

The early homesteaders relied on wheat as their main crop. In 1907 a new breed of early-maturing wheat, Marquis, was developed to replace the later-maturing Red Fife. Even so, drought, frosts, diseases and pests frequently caused crop failures. Farmers discovered they were better off diversifying, and mixed farms raising dairy cows, hogs and poultry as well as field crops became common. Animal populations on farms tended to fluctuate, rising when grain prices were low.

Although farming communities on the Prairies were in their formative stages, some of the mechanical revolution that was so quickly and profoundly changing the Western World was being felt in Alberta. Huge, clumsy steam tractors pulling multiple-bladed ploughs had broken some of the Prairie land starting about the turn of the century. Steam threshers, owned by custom operators and moved from farm to farm, saw their greatest use in the first two decades of the century.

By the time the 1920s arrived, general optimism about agriculture reigned. What had been the new frontier just a few short years earlier was rapidly developing into a productive agricultural area. The first irrigation projects in southern Alberta had been completed early in the century, and by the 1920s irrigation was widespread. Mechanization of farming was taking hold. The increased demand for food and the manpower shortage caused by the First World War, combined with the availability of new, lighter gasoline tractors, brought the steam era to a close and gave mechanized draft power a permanent place. Farmers were rapidly adopting automobiles for their personal transportation. The earliest recognizable versions of modern implements were appearing on farm fields. Immigration was still filling up the areas not yet cleared and broken. Farmers had formed their own co-operative organizations for marketing their grain, and were such a potent force politically in an area with a predominantly rural population that they formed a political party that ran the provincial government in the 1920s.

The Depression

But then came what is still known on the Prairies as the "Dirty Thirties". The Western Canadian economy was hit by the general Depression that followed the 1929 stock market collapse, by the resulting low commodity prices, and by a drought that caused crop failure after crop failure. Summerfallowing, the practice of letting land lie fallow for a summer and cultivating to control weeds, had been introduced in the 1880s to conserve moisture. The dry, improperly tilled soils drifted badly. Grasshopper plagues were common. Many farmers were forced off the land, to join thousands of other destitute people across the continent.

One result of the drought was the development of improved methods of soil conservation - strip farming, the planting of shelterbelts to break the wind's force, and new methods of cultivation conserving a protective layer of plant material on the surface of the soil.

As the 1930s drew to a close, the drought ended and the Second World War broke out, restoring prosperity to Alberta farms. Once again, farm products were in demand, especially livestock. Bacon was an especially popular item and the swine industry expanded dramatically.

Moving into the Modern Era

The process of mechanization resumed full-tilt with the labor shortage, strong demand and vastly increased industrial capability that accompanied the war. The tractor replaced the horse forever and the threshing crew gave way to the swather and combine, which could reduce harvesting to a two-person operation. Government funding was applied to the expansion of irrigation in the South. Locally-based organizations, which had begun springing up throughout rural Alberta during the 1930s, continued to install telephones in rural homes. Similar farmer-owned companies were spreading a network of electrical power lines. After the war, one-room schoolhouses were slowly replaced with modern centralized schools to which students were transported by schoolbus.

Since the war, farming has become more specialized, the farm units are larger, and the investment required is greater. A single piece of farm equipment, such as a combine, can today cost more than $175,000. Other necessary farm inputs like fertilizer, weed control, chemicals and fuels can add thousands of dollars to a farmer's bills. Farmers tend to be better educated than their homesteading forebears, often with specialized agricultural education from one of the province's three agricultural colleges or the Faculty of Agriculture at the University of Alberta. Such "high technology" innovations as automated feeding systems, embryo transplantation in livestock, electronic monitoring devices on farm equipment, and micro-computers are also finding their way onto the farms. Farm families are no longer isolated. The automobile, telephone, radio, television and now the satellite dish have ensured that farmers have access to education, health care, communications, consumer goods and services at a level comparable to city dwellers.

For more information about the content of this document, contact Duke.
This information published to the web on September 11, 2002.