Reflections of Ponoka: The traditions and tools of early agriculture

As we proudly celebrate Agriculture Week one must appreciate that all aspects of our massive agricultural industry

This unique display at the Fort Ostell Museum features some of the artifacts

This unique display at the Fort Ostell Museum features some of the artifacts

As we proudly celebrate Agriculture Week one must appreciate that all aspects of our massive agricultural industry, whether big or small, from yesterday or today have always been the vital lifeblood and heart of our rural and urban communities for countless centuries. A very early definition explained farming as ‘the tilling of the land and the rearing of cattle as the chief employment around the world since the beginning of time.’

Of course an overwhelming wave of change and progress has been made in the agricultural revolution along the way, and going into the 19th century farming or husbandry was boldly taken for granted and depended upon as the cultivation of animals, plants, fungi, and other life forms for the purpose of food, fibre, biofuel, medicinal, and other products that were vitally required to enhance and maintain human life in our rapidly growing population. The agriculture industry was and will always be the key development in the rapid, success, and survival of human civilization.

The humble beginnings of agriculture in this area occurred in the 1870 to 1890’s, with large scale ranching operations that roamed across thousands of acres throughout the prairies where there was an abundance of grasses and a climate moderated by occasional Chinook winds in the winter, which made year round grazing possible. That amazingly colorful history featured massive cattle drives under the direction of hardened ranch hands who drove their precious herds to market to assure food, stock, and revenues for a steady influx of immigrants and new settlements.

It was not until the Canadian Pacific Railway reached this area in 1883 that the settlement of any consequence really began. By the 1890’s a tide of immigration coming into the wild west was underway, eventually peaking just prior to the outbreak of the First World War, where between 1901 and 1905 some 40,000 homesteads were granted in what in 1905 would become the new Province of Alberta. Homesteaders were given freehold title to their land in exchange for paying $10.00 and agreeing to stay on the land for at least three years, during which they were required to break a certain amount of land each year as well as build a house. Thousands of new families invaded this fertile land of opportunity, basically coming from Europe, and British Isles, the eastern Provinces of Canada, and the United States.

These early pioneers faced relentless hardships and challenges, breaking their land, planting and harvesting their crops with simple tools like the scythe, plow, and machinery that was worked by hand or pulled by horse and oxen. In the beginning they relied on wheat as the main crop, and in 1907 a new breed of early maturing wheat called Marquis was developed to replace the later-maturing Red Fife. Even so, drought, floods, hail, fire, frosts, diseases, and pests would frequently cause crop failures. These hardy and large farm families quickly discovered that they would be far better off diversifying in order to survive, and added mixed farming to the day-to-day operation, where they could raise dairy cows, hogs, poultry and field crops, as well as planting large gardens and utilizing everything that nature had to offer them from the land, forests, rivers, and lakes. The grain prices often fluctuated, but the animal populations grew, and despite the ‘depression prices’ of 1913 would help to supplement the dinner table as well to provide trade items and the funds that were always required to provide their vital year round supplies and livelihoods.

By the time the 1920’s had arrived general optimism about agriculture reigned, bolstered by the introduction of the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration as well as the formation of a number of Wheat Pools. The first irrigation projects in southern Alberta were completed and really caught on, and it was at this exciting time that the mechanization of farming was taking hold everywhere. That era will never be forgotten with the noisy arrival of the steam and gas tractors, gang plow, threshing machine, and on and on, which eventually contributed to huge production surpluses, and the unprecedented boom and promotion of cultivation across this province. It is an amazing fact that between 1901 and 1931 that land under field crop in Alberta went from 1.5 to 16.4 hectares.

But then, with great fury came what is still known on the Prairies as the ‘Dirty Thirties’, where the western economy was hit by a general depression, the stock market crashed, commodity prices fell, drifting soil and severe droughts caused crop failures. Summer fallowing came into practise to preserve moisture, but grasshopper plagues were common, and many farmers were forced off their land to join the thousands of other destitute people across the Province. As the horrific 1930’s drew to a close, the drought ended and the Second World War broke out, finally restoring prosperity to Alberta farms, with products in great demand, especially livestock and bacon, which dramatically expanded the swine industry. The process of mechanization resumed full-tilt with the labour shortage, strong demand and vastly increased industrial capacity that accompanied the war. The tractor replaced the horse forever and the threshing crew gave away to the swather and combine, which could reduce and streamline harvesting to a two-person operation. Telephones were installed in rural homes along a vast network of electrical power lines, one room school houses were slowly replaced with modern centralized schools to which children were bused, and an exciting new generation was upon us. Farm families were no longer isolated, and the automobile, telephone, radio, television, satellites, the computer, and on and on have ensured that farmers have complete access to education, health care, communications, and the consumer goods and services that they need to run their rapidly growing farm and ranching operations.

We extend our sincere appreciation to our past and present generation of farm and ranch families, as well as to all those who work in and provide the supplies and services to all aspects of our lucrative agriculture industry in the Town and County of Ponoka. Your sheer determination and dedication will always be the mark of your skills and successes, and your ongoing effort to combine work and play as good neighbours and citizens is a true benefit to your community.

 

 

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