Over 100 years ago there was a land rush on the northern plains of North America.
The arrival of railways suddenly opened vast tracts of land to settlement and agriculture. The world responded with a flood of humanity.
These days we think of the romantic image of homesteading families from all corners of the world, arriving to stake their modest claims on this challenging landscape.
Under the Dominion Lands Policy, 160 acres cost just $10, but to prove up on the land those farmers were required to build a home, usually of sod or logs, and break 40 acres of land during the first three years.
With the horse-powered equipment of the day it was an enormous undertaking that wasn’t for the faint of heart. An entire mythology has sprung up telling the tale of those days. Largely forgotten to the mists of time however, is another competing vision of the day — the bonanza farm.
They were large operations, almost exclusively investor-owned. There weren’t a large number of them, most estimates say there were less than 100, on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border. By the scale of the time however, they were enormous, ranging from 3,000 acres to over 100,000.
They were made possible by a confluence of events. New and efficient farm machinery such as steam engines and threshing machines first began to appear in the 1870s. Land was cheap and abundant. Markets, especially in the eastern portion of North America, were growing quickly, and the railways created reliable transportation for both farm inputs and farm produce.
Relying on hired management and labour, the bonanza farms were a straight efficiency play, leveraging their vast scale into lower operating costs through bulk buying and better prices through market leverage. However, it was one of those things that worked better on paper than in practice.
Moving off the balance sheet, these original corporate farms found out what you all know. On a farm, things rarely go to plan. Mother Nature is always ready to intervene. Markets are fickle.
Arguably their largest challenge was labour. They still relied on humans to operate that equipment. Some of the biggest required a crew of 1,000 for the field operations alone, never mind the too-often-overlooked role of the women of these farms. It was no small job feeding that many mouths.
In the end, the challenges proved too large and the model of the farms too brittle to survive the real world, and almost all of them were consigned to history. It happened very quickly too, with virtually all of them springing into existence and dying over the course of a single generation.
Left in their wake were the section farms, the biologically efficient mixed operations that relied almost entirely on family labour and proved to be very durable when compared to their larger cousins. But even they have, over time, disappeared.
In a lot of ways they were victims of their own success. The best operators found efficiencies and grew; others over time left the farm as the postwar wave of urbanization began.
At one point, more than a third of Canada’s total population was farmers, and in parts of the Prairies they made up more than half the total population. Today that figure is of course dramatically smaller and farm populations continue to decline.
In 2011, according to Statistics Canada, Canada’s total farm population was 650,395 compared to a total population of 32,746,505 — or just a shade under two per cent. Since then Canada has added another 2.4 million to its population, which has, in all likelihood, further diluted and muted the scale of the farm population.
As the remaining farms have grown, the question arises — are the Prairie farms of today uncomfortably similar to the bonanza farms of yesterday?
They’re certainly approaching the same scale. Modern tools such as chemical weed control, fungicides, herbicide-tolerant crops and advanced farm equipment have helped make this possible, as have other production-enhancing efficiencies. Zero tillage and minimum tillage, for example, reduced time, input and labour costs.
But underneath they’re also struggling with many of the same problems. Their efficiency has led to many growing fewer crops in tighter rotation, setting the stage for Mother Nature’s intervention. Weed control tools are increasingly under attack. And the same Achilles heel that brought down the bonanza farms has surfaced to haunt Prairie agriculture today: a labour shortage.
Nobody knows what the ‘perfect’ farm for this region looks like, and it’s probably going to be constantly evolving, based on changing tools and technology.
What will the farm of the future look like? Nobody knows the answer to this.
But one question does loom for the large and successful farms of today: will history repeat itself?