Threshing near Red Deer. (Red Deer Archives)

Threshing near Red Deer. (Red Deer Archives)

DAWE: The ups and downs of fall harvest

Another fall harvest is upon us once more. For much of September (at least so far), there has been great harvesting weather with several warm dry days. Moreover, regardless of all the diversification of the Central Alberta economy, for the past 130 years, agricultural has remained one of the key economic pillars. The financial ups and downs in that sector are quickly felt across the whole regional economy.

Unfortunately, Central Alberta’s farmers have faced some truly devastating years. The poor crop of 1919 followed by the brutal winter of 1919-1920 meant that farmers often did not have enough to feed their livestock, causing heavy losses of animals due to starvation and disease.

The closest the Red Deer area came to a total crop loss due to drought was in the harvest of 1922. Yields were generally so light that several oldtimers reminisced that a man had little trouble keeping up with the stacking of the sheaves coming off the binders as there were so few of them to collect.

On the other hand, there have been some absolutely magnificent harvests. One of the very best on record came in the fall of 1915. There had been heavy spring rains followed by a generally warm, dry summer and fall. Crop yields were wonderful. Moreover, because of the heavy demand for grain and livestock which accompanied the First World War, prices remained high. Local farmers experienced a financial windfall.

If there was one drawback to the banner year of 1915, it was the fact that so many young men had enlisted for the War, that there a significant shortage of farm labour to help with the harvest.

1927 brought some wonderful crops of grain and prices were good. Unfortunately, 1927 also brought some extreme weather to Central Alberta. Rocky Mountain House was almost completely demolished by a tornado in July. Terrific hailstorms hit many farmers around Red Deer very hard. Hence, what should have been a good harvest was often wiped out.

Fortunately, 1928 brought better luck. Oats were somewhat later due to wet spring weather. Hail was still a problem in a few localities such as Haynes east of Blackfalds. However, most crops were spared the damage by hail, excess moisture, or frost.

Growing conditions were near ideal. Crop yields were generally excellent. Harvesting began in the latter part of August. With the experiences of the past few years, farmers pushed ahead as fast as possible, before any sort of weather disaster struck.

J.E. Lundberg of Eckville made a trip back to Canada from the United States at the end of August. He wrote in the Red Deer Advocate that he was struck by the many miles of excellent crops from Southern Alberta all the way home to Central Alberta.

Other than a slight frost in some areas on August 27, there was no widespread local frost until the middle of September. By that time, early deliveries of threshed grain had begun arriving at the local elevators.

If there was a challenge, it was a lack of enough hired labour to help with the bountiful harvest. The Federal government tried to help out by bringing 3000 coal miners from Britain to work on the harvest. However, there were mixed results to the move. Some lacked the experience to be effective and efficient agricultural workers. Some felt that they had been promised much higher wages than they received once they started work in Western Canada. Vocal dissatisfaction ensued.

Usually, large harvests bring lower prices because supply is so plentiful. However, disastrous Communist government policies cause record low production across the fertile wheat belts of Ukraine and other parts of the Soviet Union. Consequently, world wheat prices remained high.

Moreover, with the boost of the new cooperative marketing implemented by the new Alberta Wheat Pool starting in 1923, nearly 70% of the near record crop was exported.

Good times on the farm were soon experienced in town. Stores experienced strong increases in sales. Farm machinery and farm supply businesses in particular recorded excellent sales as farmers invested their new income into their operations.

Hence, as the year drew to a close, almost everyone agreed that 1928 had been a very good year.

Michael Dawe is a Red Deer historian and his column appears on Wednesdays.