Fighting more deserts

When I went to the barber in Swift Current in the summer of 1937 to get a haircut and shave, he said the haircut was OK but he had quit shaving people. I asked “how come” and he said he couldn’t keep an edge on the razor anymore. With the terrible dust and the shortage of water, he said sharp particles of sand got imbedded in the skin, or stuck to the surface somehow. Despite the extra honing he gave his razors, a couple of strokes down the side of a customer’s face took off the edge…

The statistics tell the story of the “Dirty ’30s” in Western Canada — miserable yields, negative net farm income and thousands of families forced to pack up and leave their farms. But somehow that quote from Olaf Field in James Gray’s 1964 book Men Against the Desert is even more effective in illustrating just how serious the drought had become.

The book’s title is no exaggeration. In the 1930s, much of Western Canada almost turned into a desert. It would not have been the first time that a long drought combined with poor farming practices had turned productive agricultural land into a permanent desert. That’s been the fate of large areas of the Middle East and North Africa.

It wasn’t the fate of Western Canada. Gray’s 1964 book is essentially a history of the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration. The acronym PFRA became so commonly used that many may have forgotten what the third letter stood for — rehabilitation. That’s what Western Canada needed, and it was achieved through hard work, ingenuity, dedication and good science on behalf of both of what we’d today call the public and private sectors. Government scientists and extension workers found and developed plants that could stabilize the drifting soil, and convinced farmers that leaving “trash” on the surface was better than having a perfect black summerfallow. In Prairie barns and machine shops, inventive farmers and blacksmiths perfected the rod weeder and the Noble blade and other tools that allowed better soil management along with weed control.

That heritage continues today through the modern western Canadian equipment manufacturers that continue to perfect the minimum- and zero-tillage equipment that have done so much to conserve Prairie soil. That equipment and the knowledge behind it is now being exported to other areas such as the Former Soviet Union, and it may help them spare the fate that almost befell Western Canada in the 1930s.

Beating back the desert is one of the greatest achievements in the history of Western Canada. It is therefore baffling that Canada would pull its support from the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, as it did last week, which ironically was Canada Water Week. It also comes just before National Soil Conservation Week from April 21-27.

The decision was not even communicated by press release and was only discovered on an obscure website. It has now gone well beyond that and has received international coverage, which is giving Canada — and Canadians — a black eye. Already the only country to have pulled out of the Kyoto accord, we have now broken ranks with 193 others on the issue of combating drought in areas such as sub-Saharan Africa. The reason can hardly be the money — a paltry $315,000 per year. All we seem to know is that Foreign Minister John Baird thinks the convention is just a “talkfest.” Well, so is the House of Commons, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile.

Exactly what the desertification convention was accomplishing is hard to know, and we don’t have any inside knowledge. What we do know is that combating desertification is one of the world’s most pressing issues, and it doesn’t make Canada — or Canadian farmers — look good if we’re not part of the battle.

It’s a good bet that neither Minister Baird nor Prime Minister Harper know about the victory in beating back the Prairie desert, but they should. It’s part of what defines rural Western Canada, to which the Conservative Party and this government owe much of its success, if not its very existence.

There is no place in the world that has more knowledge and technology to offer in the battle against desertification. The decision to withdraw from the convention may even go beyond purely humanitarian goals. Canada also has commercial interests in selling conservation tillage equipment and expertise overseas. Given that it comes on the heels of the announcement to disband CIDA and link overseas development to Canadian commercial goals, the withdrawal from the desertification convention is even more baffling.

Those in the farm lobby who have the ear of the government need to make a few phone calls to explain this, and suggest that a face-saving way must to be found to reverse this decision.

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