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Book review: Men Against the Desert

Printable version / Version imprimable

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Men Against Desert
By James H. Gray
Fifth House Limited, Calgary, 1967
263 pages

As I am writing these words, the state of California, one of the most productive regions on the planet, representing 30% of America’s food production, is facing a catastrophic drought touching 100% of its territory (see figure 1).The conditions of life there are quickly deteriorating, with farmers having to leave their land because of a lack of water, as many cities are now being told there is zero water availability for domestic or agricultural use. This situation could mean the end of industrial agriculture as we know it, and would result in a famine hitting the USA and other countries importing food from that area.

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Although this drought is, according to some experts, the worse drought in 500 years [California May Have Hit Its Driest Point In 500 Years, And The Effects Are Frightening, by Kathleen Miles], these conditions are not only the result of this year’s crisis, but they are the result of a policy of DE-industrialization that started immediately after the death of the great President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Aquifers are at an all-time low. Water has always been an issue for the western and central regions of North America, and while this vital issue was addressed many times already since the 1960s, nothing was done. Productive improvements of the land, the basis of any sane economy, were replaced by short-term profit as the economy was converted increasingly into a post-industrial ‘consumer economy’, wherein transforming the land became a sin under the quasi-religious authority of environmentalism. In that post-industrial-green context, no change to nature’s supposed ‘equilibrium’ is allowed, whether for lack of money or for an irrational fear of modifying “nature’s path”.

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The Palliser Triangle In 1857, Capt. John Palliser declared that region a wasteland, unviable for agriculture. Fortunately, Professor John Macoun refuted Palliser’s superficial analysis in the 1870s, which then allowed for the settlement of Saskatchewan and the development of the Canadian Railroad.

In James H. Gray’s 1967 book, Men Against the Desert, we learn that in Canada during the 1930s, known also as the “Dirty Thirties” because of the worsening drought conditions in the Canadian Prairies, a popular mentality totally different from that of today’s was dominant. This was a mentality that reflected a powerful optimism that man could totally improve the land and stop nature in its suicidal path towards destruction, even if financial means were lacking.

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George Spence (1880-1975) “Spence’s great contribution (…) was in the realm of idealism and not on the mundane level of practical reality. It was Spence who raised the sights of PFRA far above anything visualized in the beginning. Not only did he set off the agitation in southern Alberta that led to the construction of the $40 000 000 St. Mary dam project; he never permitted it to be shunted aside by Ottawa.”
- James H. Gray, Men Against the Desert

A national mobilization was launched at that time to transform the Canadian Prairies , more particularly the Palliser Triangle, a vast area stretching from Manitoba to Alberta, into a potential “garden of Eden”, instead of letting nature continue to degrade this region into a great desert. From the Dominion Experimental Farms to the long awaited creation of the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration, the 1930s for Canadian farmers became a hub for scientific discoveries that allowed the re-shaping of the new science of agronomy throughout the world, and developed a region that now feeds millions of people globally. Gray’s book is a must for any serious person who wants to end drought in North America and understand one of the greatest accomplishments in Canadian history.

It is therefore in order to deal with today’s crisis that we saw fit to publish a review of this book.

Creation of the PFRA: putting Science to work

The problem with drought is that it does not manifest itself in a sensational way. Once you’re facing a drought, popular opinion keeps repeating: “Next year will be the one. Rain will come back.” During the early 1930s, the Prairies were experiencing their worst drought in history, some farmers losing their crops up to 9 years in a row. When it wasn’t the lack of rain, it was clouds of grasshoppers that would eat everything in their path, or hail. The worst of all agriculture’s plagues was soil erosion.

The vast scope of the crisis made ‘practical-minded’ politicians reluctant to send significant help other than Relief Aid, especially in a Depression period. This began to change in 1934, when a major sand storm moved from the centre of North America to the East, hitting New York, Washington D.C. and even Ottawa. Finally, federal politicians could no longer act like ostriches. Discussions followed and measures were taken so that in 1935 the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA) was founded.

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Norman Criddle (1875-1933)

It is thanks to people like George Spence, who was Minister of Public Works for the Saskatchewan government that this project came into being. Spence was the first PFRA director, and it was this revolutionary institution which transformed the scientific workforce of the Dominion Experimental Farms (DEFs), founded in 1886, into a military-style organization going on the ground to make studies, implement solutions and teach farmers better ways to farm. $50 million were allocated over 5 years for this project1, which is no small feat considering this occurred during the Great Depression.

Some breakthroughs against grasshoppers, and finding the right kind of grass

Over the years, the DEFs had already made some progress on understanding how to fight drought. One of them was how to fight grasshoppers. Norman Criddle, an entomologist from Saskatchewan had figured out already at an early age through a series of experiments with horse manure that grasshoppers were attracted by moisture. He then used a poison named Paris Green mixed with manure to produce a potent solution to the grasshopper plague. That poison was then replaced by a more efficient one, sodium siloco fluoride, since other poisons were too dangerous, and would even kill livestock.

It was in 1932 that a Manitoba-wide campaign against grasshoppers was organized, followed by another one in 1934 in Saskatchewan and Alberta. The Alberta campaign was later proved the greatest success, saving about 40% of the total crop from destruction. Farmers had to wake up early to mix the bait, spread it at the right place, and hope for the best.

Criddle became Dominion Entomologist for Manitoba for 30 years in the 1910s, and wrote one of the first papers on grasshopper control in 1919. He was so well known that the Russian government of the time sent a delegation to his hometown Brandon to speak with Criddle “to obtain his advices about their own grasshopper problems. [1]

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Lawrence E. Kirk (1886-1969)

Another very significant breakthrough was done by Lawrence E. Kirk, when he, at the Forage Crops Laboratory in Saskatoon worked on finding a better grass to preserve pastures in the Palliser Triangle.

Fortunately, environmentalism was non-existent at the time, and scientists didn’t mind looking into other countries’ ‘ecosystems’ to provide the best seed possible for the dryness of Canadian Prairie climate. One of those seeds came from Siberia, called the Crested Wheat Grass. It took 15 years of experiments for Kirk to realize that this grass “thrived on adversity and couldn’t stand prosperity”. It did poorly in laboratories, but when planted in harsh conditions, the Crested Wheat Grass proved very strong and much better than any indigenous seed. It was also more efficient in Canada than in the United States, where it had been tested. Between 1937 and 1941, that seed was used on hundreds of thousands of acres where harsh winds had done much damage, providing land for pastures. It also found applications in underdeveloped countries.

Unlearning how to farm

“As the dust storms blew higher and wider and thicker across the Palliser Triangle it was most ironic that a coterie of dedicated agricultural scientists who knew how to solve the problem of wind erosion waited impatiently for the opportunity to do so. The question was not what had to be done. That question was answered. The question was how to go about the task, how to marry know-how to muscle and equipment in a massive campaign never before imagined, let alone undertaken.” [2]

Teaching farmers how to improve farming and mobilizing to apply those new methods often meant that farmers had to unlearn what they thought were self-evident practices learned from their parents or grand-parents. Gray gives a very exciting report on various developments made at the Swift Current DEF in Saskatchewan. Scientists like Sidney Barnes were deployed in answering specific questions regarding wheat growing and erosion. Certain methods like summer fallowing, a method of plowing the soil to conserve moisture in it while it is unseeded, were considered common sense, but didn’t prevent the soil from being blown away in dry years. H. W. Campbell’s official textbook Soil Culture Primer was challenged, and farmers were told to leave their field alone when at rest. There was no real need to plow according to the gospel of Campbell that had dominated popular thinking for so long, but rather to leave the field untouched. The fact that this made it look trashy, earned the technique the term Trash Fallowing. Dirt and dead weed would hold the soil together, and since the weed was dead, it wouldn’t suck up the moisture, but its root would hold the soil. Farmers were first very doubtful, but through time, they realized this was truly the best method. Additionally, for years, experiments were done on the design of discs and harrows to plow the soil in order to improve efficiency. It was through this process that such innovative designs as the Noble Blade was created, developed in Canada by American Charles S. Noble.

In Gray’s own words:

“In terms of money spent and projects completed, the accomplishments of the PFRA are impressive. In terms of the transformation of the Palliser Triangle from an arid, wind-swept and beaten-down countryside into a prosperous country in which the farmers have come to enjoy the amenities of civilized living, the accomplishments are also impressive. But what makes them so is not the sight of the land as it became after everything was done. It is the memory of what it was like before the first halting steps were taken to beat back the encroaching desert in 1935. The Palliser Triangle in 1935 was in truth well on its way to becoming the Great Canadian Desert. It was prevented by the fortuitous combination of the intelligent application of scientific knowledge, the incredible patience and fortitude of the people of the land, the dedication of brutally underpaid employees of the Experimental Farms and other governments departments, and a break in the longest siege of atrocious weather since, in all probability, the times of Joseph of Egypt.’ [3]

NAWAPA: the natural next step in the PFRA mobilization

Gray illustrates in a short paragraph what was the following step for the PFRA after the 1935-1938 mobilization:

“The many-sided exertions of 1937 – the tackling of the distress cattle problem, the multi-fronted campaign to fence the Community Pastures and give agriculture a new direction, the construction of the farm dugouts and small dams and stock-watering projects, caught the public imagination. Why not capture and harness the run-off water from the Cypress Hills? Why not build a water storage facility in the Pembina Mountains of Manitoba? Why not dam the St. Mary’s River in Alberta and duplicate the success that irrigation had achieved around Lethbridge? Why not dam the Natukeu Creek at Vanguard in the heart of the dust bowl and irrigate the land? And what about towns and villages? Why not create domestic water supplies for the small towns by damming creeks and rivers? Why not pump the water out of the South Saskatchewan above Elbow and divert it down Thunder Creek to Moose Jaw? So great did the volume of requests for help from the towns and communities become that Dr. Archibald had to recall the attention of the directors to the fact that the PFRA was primarily concerned with rehabilitation of prairie agriculture.” [4]

Gray shows that the population in the Palliser Triangle hadn’t solved all their problems, far from it, but they were inspired by what had been accomplished in so short a period of time. They demanded that more be done, to expand to real big water projects. Eyes turned to the St. Mary River and South Saskatchewan River, as first projects to irrigate the area and eliminate the effects of the drought. Unfortunately, the full potential of that region was never developed.

For example, Lake Diefenbaker, a man made lake in Southern Saskatchewan, whose construction began in 1959, still only uses 15% of its potential for irrigation today. More recently in 1972, the PFRA elaborated various dam projects that could be built on the Nelson River basin, increasing irrigation and production. Yet over the following decades, environmentalism, budget-cutting austerity and cultural pessimism have driven Canadians and Americans away from what generations earlier knew had to be done if our population was to continue to grow and survive.

After reading Gray’s book, it is evident that today, the natural next step following the fight against the Dirty Thirties, and tapping water from rivers, is obviously the North American Water and Power Alliance (NAWAPA). NAWAPA is the greatest natural man-made water infrastructure program ever designed which permits bringing water down south from the deep Yukon and Alaskan regions, to top quality soils in Canada, the USA and Mexico. This bold project puts water from precipitation back to work, instead of letting it flow wastefully into the Pacific and Arctic oceans. This project would solve the lack of water everywhere on the continent, bringing to civilization fresh water in amounts never imagined by the population of the 1930s. Additionally, controls for such flood ravaged regions in Canada as Calgary and Manitoba would be created along the way saving billions of dollars in damage [5].

Canadians in the 1930 through the 1960s understood the need for man to change nature, to improve it, and to allow an expansion of man’s mastery over the universe.

We need to relive that mobilization in order to get ourselves out of the economic crisis now sweeping across the globe. It is only by reawakening the courage and ingenuity expressed during such dark periods in history that we may now begin to ditch the bestial conception of man defended by environmentalists and monetarists alike, and rediscover the creative potential that is the true nature of humankind

Jean-Philippe Lebleu

Voir également la conférence-vidéo: La science du NAWAPA pour verdir les déserts


[1Approximately $600 million today, a sum relatively small compared to the trillions gulped into today’s financial bailouts.

[2Idem, p. 78

[3Idem, p. 195

[4Idem, p. 183

[5Floods raged through both provinces of Alberta and Manitoba in the Summer of 2013 destroying billions of dollars in property damage and putting the economy and peoples lives in a grinding halt.