Remembering the local harvest of 1918

The biggest challenge for farmers and ranchers remained weather

Another harvest is well underway.

While some crops seem to be doing relatively well, others seem to be suffering significantly from the long hot summer. One hundred years ago, in the summer of 1918, Central Alberta also experienced a drier than normal summer. However, the circumstances a century ago were very different than those faced by farmers and ranchers today.

Canada was embroiled in the horrific First World War, which had already lasted four years.

The vast majority of young men had enlisted for service overseas. Many had been killed or wounded. The tide of the War had finally turned decisively in the Canadian and Allies’ favour following the epic Battle of Amiens in early August 1918. However, it was still going to be a matter of months before final victory could be achieved and the troops could start returning home.

Consequently, there was a general shortage of labour to help with the harvest.

Moreover, almost all farms were heavily reliant on horses for the field work and transportation. The loss of horses in the war zones had been even more horrific than the loss of men.

With the military aggressively seeking replacements, extra horses to help with the harvest were getting scarce and those that were available had become very expensive.

The crop of 1915 had been one of the very best ever harvested on the western Canadian prairies. The harvests of 1916 and 1917 were somewhat smaller, but still pretty good. With the high prices for agricultural produce, brought on by the escalating wartime demands for food, farmers truly prospered.

With the spike upwards in agricultural income, farmers invested heavily in new land to expand production.

They increased their herds of cattle and other livestock. Large numbers also purchased the great new technological innovation – the automobile. However, mechanized farm equipment such as tractors did not become nearly as popular.

While automobiles presented huge challenges in terms of reliability (particularly in winter), the tractors of the time were much worse.

They were rarely up to the rugged field work for which they were needed. When they broke down, replacement parts often took several days or even weeks to arrive. Hence by 1918, only 10% to 15% of Alberta farms had tractors or other such equipment.

The biggest challenge for farmers and ranchers remained weather.

The summer of 1915 had been near perfect for the growing of grain crops. The summers of 1916 and 1917 had good levels of both heat and moisture. Then conditions began to turn ominous as 1918 progressed.

There were heavy showers around Red Deer on June 23rd, but that was the last significant rain for the next several weeks. There was little moisture throughout July and half of what did fall, came on one day (July 12th).

The days were generally warm to hot.

However, as often happens with very dry air, the daytime heat quickly dissipated overnight. Temperatures dropped to near freezing levels in the early mornings of July 3rd and 26th. On the latter date, some districts north of Lacombe recorded frost.

Hail is less common in dry years.

The officials monitoring hail insurance in Alberta reported that hail claims were roughly one-quarter of what they had been in 1917. Nevertheless, there was a bad hailstorm on Aug. 17th south of Red Deer with some farmers reporting up to 5cm. of hail on the ground. Needless to say, the crop loss in those areas was 100%.

A period of cooler weather, with more rain showers, set in a few days later.

However, most people agreed that the cooler, wetter weather had come too late to do much good. Harvesting was well underway by that time, with most farmers reported crop yields that were substantially lower than they had gotten in 1916 and 1917.

While crop yields were way down, high wartime prices for farm produce meant that incomes remained good. The price of hay in particular shot up to more than $12 per ton, a near record price.

Hence, while 1918 turned out to be a better year than many farmers had feared, few realized that the dry summer of 1918 was just the beginning of a prolonged and severe five-year drought.

While there was happiness that the horrific Great War was finally coming to an end, most people were unprepared for the very grim economic times which lay ahead once the War was over.

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