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"Grassroots" history: agricultural land use in Alberta.

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. This differential between the two provinces in cereal grain production becomes even more meaningful when livestock statistics are taken into account. In 1940, Saskatchewan approximated Alberta in cattle and hogs numbers, as well as in livestock receipts off farms.

The conclusions are obvious. The fact that Alberta was less wealthy than Saskatchewan, had fewer people, and grew far less wheat, might have told agricultural officials something about the way land in "God's country" was being used. It did not.

In retrospect it is understandable why a system which introduced uniform homestead land grants, regardless of climate and soil types, should see agricultural potential in equally universal terms. The West was perceived as crop country pure and simple, and the crop that brought in the most money was wheat. A belief in the fact that it could and should be grown everywhere underpinned agricultural thinking for more than two generations. As the homestead system spread westward across the North-West Territories after 1905, Alberta and Saskatchewan were indistinguishable as far as prospective farmers were concerned. The assumption that Alberta matched Saskatchewan's suitability to wheat was reinforced by the rich chernozemic soils between Calgary and Edmonton which were the first to be opened to agricultural settlement. The belief that all of Alberta was suitable for wheat cultivation was a logical extension that ignored vital climatic and soil factors. Short growing seasons and excessive moisture particularly in areas in the lee of the Rockies precluded extensive wheat cropping. The gray luvisolic soil zones that cover much of the province are acidic and nitrogen deficient, and unsuited to wheat cultivation. Similarly, the low organic and moisture content in the brown soil zones are not compatible with consistent wheat production. As a result much of Alberta's potentially cultivatable land was ignored or misused, while wheat, when used as the dominant crop, often did not yield good returns. The notion that Alberta was wheat country like Saskatchewan was wrong.

A profile of agricultural Alberta in 1936 tells its own story. Occupied farm lands totalled about 40 million acres. Of this, 22 million acres were described as unimproved, consisting of 15 million acres of natural pasture, five million acres of woodlands, and 1.8 million acres of marsh or wasteland. Of the 12 million acres devoted to crops, over 80 per cent were sown to either wheat (7.5 million acres) or oats (2.5 million acres). Less than half a million acres were devoted to cultivated hay. Beef cattle numbers were around 800,000 or about the same as they were in 1916. This emphasis on cereal grain crops with a minor role for beef cattle clearly placed Alberta as a lesser mirror image of Saskatchewan.

The change in attitude towards wheat production, and ultimately land use in Alberta, dates to the 1940s when the federal government, anxious to produce more meat for war torn Britain, introduced incentives to grow feed grains. The pivotal crop in this development was barley. Although recognized early in scientific agricultural circles as a prime feed grain, barley was not integrated into farming operations in the province. In 1930, for example, wheat acreage exceeded that of barley by more than ten to one. In the ten years from 1940 to 1950, however, the area sown to wheat dropped by a quarter to around six million acres. Barley acreage on the other hand doubled to around two million acres. This emphasis on feed grains continued after the war, and through time, barley has narrowed its acreage gap with wheat. Although figures vary from year to year, barley acreage averages around 70 per cent of that devoted to wheat, and in 1971 actually exceeded it. Of further interest is the fact that barley is easily the most popular crop grown under irrigation in Alberta. In 2001, barley acreage comprised over 20 per cent of the crops sown in Alberta's thirteen irrigated districts.

The move towards barley was accompanied by other important land use adaptations. The entrance of canola onto Alberta's cash crop stage marked one of the most important land use developments over the past forty years. This oilseed crop thrives in Alberta's climate and medium textured soils, and has grown from virtually nothing in the early 1960s to become Alberta's third most popular crop. In 2001 for example, 3.7 million acres were in canola not far behind barley (4.3 million acres) or even wheat (6.9 million acres). The adoption of canola is Alberta's best example of land use modification with respect to cash crops.

Yet, changes in land use have occurred elsewhere. The use of legume-based forage mixtures both on newly-broken land, and in rotation with cereal grain crops, redefined the productivity potential of the nitrogen-deficient gray wooded soils zones. In other areas, hay crops and tame grasses replaced cereal crops while annual legumes are being used increasingly instead of summer fallowing. Fall rye and winter wheat are other popular annual grazing pastures. This rationalization of land use in the province led to the emergence of the beef cattle industry as the most dominant sector in Alberta's agribusiness.

Alberta's modern beef cattle industry bears little resemblance to the struggling industry that fought so hard to survive in the first half of the twentieth century. In 2003, Alberta was the largest beef producing province in the country, accounting for 5.2 million head or 39 per cent of the national total. The feeding industry, anchored by the irrigated areas of southern Alberta, finish over 70 per cent of Canada's beef cattle. More significant, however, is the ascendancy of beef cattle production over wheat in the overall provincial farm economy. In 2001, Alberta's cash farm receipts were $8.31 billion. Of this amount, beef cattle accounted for $3.96 billion and exceeded wheat values more than fourfold ($0.92 billion). In 2002, the value of Alberta beef exports was $1.6 billion, almost double that of wheat. That wheat holds only an 11 per cent share in a province that accounts for 23 per cent of national cash farm receipts is the most powerful statistical indicator of how land use in the province has changed over the past fifty years.

Clearly, Alberta's place as the dominant beef producing province in the country cannot be linked solely to increased consumer demand. It must also be measured against its ability to capitalize on this demand. The presence of intensive feeding operations, sophisticated breeding programs, technological change and the enduring popular appeal of the ranching industry tend to divert attention from the most important factor explaining the phenomenal growth of the beef cattle industry. Changing land use patterns clearly show the shift from straight grain farming and loose mixed farming practices to activities directly related to beef cattle production. Since 1936, Alberta has increased its productive farm acreage by over 10 million acres, much of which has been devoted to cultivated hay. The popularity of barley and legume-based forage crops has enabled livestock operations in the gray wooded soil zones. In 2000, the 5.7 million acres in hay crops and the 4.3 million acres under barley were in support of the beef cattle industry. A further 21 million acres are devoted to pasturage. Farm specialty has become increasingly devoted to beef cattle. In 1996, almost half of Alberta's 54,626 farms were beef operations. Less than 6,000 were wheat farms.

The rationalization of Alberta's land use can be seen elsewhere. The importance of livestock feeding is manifest in the irrigated districts where about fifty crops are grown on 1.3 million acres. Not surprisingly, approximately 60 per cent of the acreage and about half of the crops have relevance for livestock feeding. Safflower is grown in the dry soils of southern Alberta because of its potential to control soil salinity and for its long tap root that can utilize water from irrigation recharge areas. Canary seed and buckwheat help offset the negative effects of over-abundant soil nitrates. In cooler wetter areas, field peas and fava beans are being grown as protein replacements for imported soy meal in livestock feeding. The Peace River area has emerged as Alberta's (and Canada's) pedigree forage seed producer. As a result of these land use modifications, the agricultural profile of Alberta bears little resemblance to the pre-1940 era when wheat was dominant.

A good perspective on this demographic land use shift can be gauged through another comparison with Saskatchewan. Certainly, some parallels can be noted. Both provinces have moved heavily into canola production, and it would appear that Saskatchewan is moving towards greater land use diversification along the Alberta model. One can understand why, given the success of Alberta's land use rationalization policies. For example, from a position of relative parity in the early period, Alberta now has twice the number of beef cattle as Saskatchewan. In 2000, Alberta's farm receipts at $8 billion exceeded Saskatchewan's by $3 billion, a situation unimaginable seventy, sixty, or even fifty years ago.

One telling land use statistic explains it all. In 1996, both provinces had about 30,000 farms specializing in either wheat or cattle. Saskatchewan had 8,952 cattle farms and 20,192 wheat farms; Alberta had 24,718 cattle farms and 5,942 wheat farms. The profitability of beef cattle over wheat is an important contributing factor in understanding the wide economic differential between the two provinces.

The success of an agricultural economy is predicated on several factors, most of them market driven. In this sense it is true that Alberta adopted different land use policies in an effort to capitalize on the high demand for beef both domestically and in the United States in the post-World War Two era. It would be a mistake, however, to see these adaptive strategies solely in terms of the market. Without the land use potential, Alberta could never have risen to its premier position in the national beef cattle industry. Very early in the twentieth century a few visionaries noted wisely but vainly that Alberta was "mixed fanning" country. In many ways, the slow realization of this fact provides a meaningful backdrop to the story of Alberta's historical development.

Author's Note: The statistical information used in this discussion was obtained in the various Census of Canada and through access to the Alberta and Saskatchewan governments' official web sites

Max Foran is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Communication & Culture at the University of Calgary. He has written extensively on various aspects of western Canadian urban and rural history.

His books include: A Short History of Western Canada (with J.W. Grant MacEwan, 1968); Calqary. An Illustrated History (1978); Calgary, Canada's Frontier Metropolis (with Heather Foran. 1982): The People's Painter: The Life and Works of Roland Gissing (1988); Earning Our Stripes: Fifty Years in Canada (1989); The Chalk and the Easel: Stanford Perrott. Teacher; Painter (2001); and Trails and Trials: Markets and Land Use in the Alberto Beef Cattle Industry, 1881-1948 (2003).
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Author:Foran, Max
Publication:Alberta History
Geographic Code:1CALB
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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