by Bruce Cherney (part 5of 5)
The detrimental effect of combines on the Harvest Excursions was evident as early as 1928. The Manitoba Free Press reported on August 30 that “a considerable number of the harvesters brought to the west from the Old Country and the east were finding it difficult to secure employment ... scores of harvesters carrying suitcases were to be seen walking the roads in search of work” and begging for meals.
“An entirely unexpected sale of harvesting combines is given as one of the reasons for so many excursionists being out of work.”
The excursionists from the Old Country were 8,500 mostly unemployed Welsh, Scottish and English miners, who had been promised jobs on farms during the harvest. The scheme to relocate the unemployed miners was cooked up by the British government abetted by a naive Canadian government. Essentially, Canada agreed to help the British solve their costly problem of handing out “dole” to out-of-work men in return for so-called “suitable” British immigrants.
It was a Dickensonian scheme similar in nature to the British government sending tens of thousands of alleged orphans — some weren’t, but were simply children who had poor parents or were the children of unwed poverty-stricken women — from poorhouses and workhouses to Canada to work on farms (boys) or as domestics (girls).
Many of the miners expressed a willingness to settle in Canada if they found employment, but their lack of experience — they knew absolutely nothing about farming and the hard work involved — often left them at a disadvantage when competing with farm hands from Eastern Canada, who prairie farmers preferred to employ on the wheatfields. Inexperienced men had to be trained and farmers were just too busy during the harvest to undertake this time-consuming task.
Despite many of the grain farmers being of British heritage, when they spoke of newcomers from the Old Country the contemptuous refrain was “Green Englishmen,” a fact related
in letters home and in journals by
Englishmen who had earlier came to the prairies with the intention of first becoming hired hands and then obtaining their own homestead.
Even settlers who had farmed in the Old Country, whether from England or another Western European nation, discovered Canadian farming methods were quite different, especially the growing of wheat and other grains under the semi-arid conditions of the prairies. In effect, they had to learn how to farm all over again.
In comparison, immigrants from Eastern Europe, such as Mennonites and Ukrainians, as well as settlers from the United States, were familiar with
dry-land farming techniques. It was an expertise they brought to their new country which greatly benefitted Canadian wheat production, although they also had to learn from their mistakes and evolve other techniques to cope with growing conditions on the prairies.
According to a Canadian government report, many of the British refused to work under the “50-50” system, an arrangement developed over time in the West between farmers and harvesters. Instead of wandering penniless about the countryside waiting for the harvest to begin, which could be delayed by bad weather or a slowly maturing crop, the hands were paid a “$1-until or $2-until” rate to pick stones, pull weeds or mend fences. Once the grain was ready to be cut, their wages increased.
“The British harvester saw it not (as) a helpful gesture on the part of one farmer but reaffirmation of what he had been forcefully told — that the whole scheme was a swindle.”
One Scot worked on a Souris farm for $4 a day until he found out some experienced Americans were earning $5. He deserted the grain field, collected another 11 harvesters from nearby farms also earning $4, and induced them to return to Winnipeg with the purpose of immediately returning to the Old Country.
When he was asked by a Free Press reporter if there weren’t jobs available, he replied, “Plenty of them but we don’t want them, we are going home.”
In fact, about 723 were shortly afterward sent home by the CPR and another 185 by the CNR (Free Press,
December 18, 1928). In total, 6,500 returned to Britain, although only about 2,000 disgruntled men were among their number.
A “puny” lad of 18 was reported as complaining that “all of Canada is bad” and “all Canadian farmers are foreigners.” Apparently, he couldn’t grasp the concept that he was himself a foreigner in a foreign land.
As a result of being unfit (some had old disabilities not discovered until their arrival at the wheatfields) or not wanting to work, hundreds of British harvesters had to be helped out in Saskatchewan as opposed to just three from Eastern Canada.
As an experiment to bring “suitable” British immigrants to Canada, it was a bust. Western Canadians discovered many of these men wanted to be pampered or “on the dole” rather than take part in the hard work required to bring in the harvest, even at $5 or $6 a day.
When they returned home, the British harvesters told English newspapers wild tales that they had been intentionally starved, and were used merely as slave labour and imprisoned in “iron cages.” As well, there were farcical complaints of “many hangings and suicides ... (were) common.”
But most of the British harvesters were pleased with their treatment by Canadian farmers and government officials, and 2,000 did express an interest in permanently settling in Western Canada.
When a similar program was conducted in 1923, 9,000 of 10,000 harvesters remained in Canada. The success of the 1923 scheme was attributed to the fact that the men were required to pay their own way to Canada, indicating they were willing participants. In 1928, the majority received free or heavily-subsidized passage, and among these men were many who crossed the Atlantic only for a lark or to see the country. When any of the 8,500 men demanded to be returned to the Old Country after their “holiday” ended, the British government bore the full cost of their passage.
Once wise to the mistakes made and the need for inexperienced men to receive at least some rudimentary training, the British government in 1929 offered a four-week course on “land clearing and the care of horses.” In addition, anyone wanting to become a harvester was required to sign a contract obliging him to remain in Canada for at least four weeks.
In contrast, all contracts between Canadian farmers and harvesters were verbal, with the farmer relying upon the goodwill of a hired man to remain on the job throughout the harvest season. The labourer in return relied upon the farmer to provide a good wage, good food and good lodgings as well as fair treatment. This traditional arrangement baffled many British harvesters, who would walk off the job in the middle of their “verbal” contract with a farmer, which was an extremely rare occurrence when Eastern Canadian harvesters were hired. The “strange” behaviour of the British harvesters resulted in rumours circulating that some of the more vocal agitators organizing the work stoppages were communists intent on embarrassing the Canadian and British governments.
But as a lure for British immigrants, the scheme’s days were numbered — change permanently swept the prairies in 1930 and harvesters were not a part of the new reality. As a result, no Harvest Excursion trains were scheduled by the railroads in that year.
Another factor leading to the demise of the Harvest Excursions was the arrival of the Great Depression and a subsequent drop in wheat prices — farmers simply couldn’t afford to hire labourers to harvest their grain. Although Manitoba’s economy was less dependent on wheat than Saskatchewan’s and Alberta’s, “the economic support of nearly 40 per cent of Manitoba’s population (during the Great Depression) virtually collapsed” due to the drop in grain prices, according to the report of the Rowell-Sirois Royal Commission on Dominion-Provincial Relations released in 1940.
Wheat prices had dropped to a low not seen in decades. No. 1 Northern wheat sold for a dollar a bushel in 1929, the year the Great Depression commenced, but dropped to 34-cents by 1932. In 1930, the price of wheat had declined by 53 per cent to around 50-cents a bushel.
“Fifty cent wheat eight per cent relief, with debts piling and pyramiding can mean nothing but economic stagnation,” said George H. Williams, the president of the United Farmers of Canada, Saskatchewan section, at a November 18, 1930, United Farmers of Manitoba conference in Portage la Prairie. Williams called for the Canadian government to peg the price of wheat at 81-cents a bushel. During the boom times in the First World War, the government did peg the price of wheat at $2.25 per bushel, but that was a response to a need to feed Europe at a reasonable price rather than as a benefit to farmers.
The only suggestion from Williams acted upon by the government was the passage of the Canadian Wheat Board Act, which was signed into law on July 5, 1935. As with the short-lived wheat board established by Ottawa in 1919, any losses incurred by the new CWB on its operations were to be absorbed by the federal government and any profits were to be returned to producers who delivered wheat to the CWB.
Another factor contributing to falling wheat prices was the massive influx of Russian wheat onto the world market. The Soviet regime in Russia needed cash and wheat was one of the few commodities available for export, but their actions only deepened the financial crunch for grain farmers throughout North and South America and Australia.
Canadian Farmers’ had difficulty finding a grain buyer even at the lowest price, whether local or international. Between July 1929 and December 1932, export prices for farm products had declined 70 per cent.
During the affluence of the Roaring Twenties, farmers gambled on ever-increasing prices for their crops, enabling them to buy more land and equipment with borrowed money from friendly bankers, which added to their accumulated debt. Decreasing commodity prices after 1929 brought on the realization that their gamble had not paid off, and the formerly friendly bankers became decidedly unfriendly toward farmers seeking loans.
As a result of the hard times, Manitoba farmers lost up to 50 per cent of their income. In rural areas, cash-strapped farmers seeking medical assistance were forced to pay doctors with chickens, jam or firewood.
Although there were no official Harvest Excursions in 1930, the first year of the Great Depression saw an informal exodus of men from the east hoping to find work on Western Canadian farms. Their quest was futile, since mechanization and the farmers’ own plight had made their labour unwanted and unnecessary. When Manitoba farmers did offer a transient harvester a job, it was at a lower than expected wage.
Any available farm work was usually filled from the ranks of the many unemployed local residents. The Free Press on August 21, 1930, reported a call for 120 men to help with the Brandon area wheat harvest, which greatly relieved “the unemployment situation” in the “Wheat City.”
In 1930, only a year into the Great Depression, there was still an expectation that the hard times would soon come to an end, which is why so many lauded the greater efficiency and cost savings provided by combines. The optimistic belief was that farmers could weather the economic storm by spending less to bring in their crops.
But the combine as the saviour of Western Canadian farmers was a false hope, since the economy only worsened as the 1930s progressed.
What O’Mayo and other advocates of the agricultural “revolution” may not have realized at the time was that modernization came at a price, especially for the communities dotting the prairie landscape. The contraction of labour requirements meant fewer people on the land. Also, the machines were only cost-efficient when used on a grand scale, resulting in larger acreages under cultivation by fewer farmers.
The revolution also ended the great flow of immigrants to rural areas. Henceforth, the vast majority of jobs were found in prairie cities and that’s where the people went, including the sons and daughters of farmers.
Senator Buchanan wrote that “the rush of harvesters is past and gone. Grocers in the little prairie towns are well aware of the fact. Clothiers know too, that the demand for gloves and woolens has fallen since the invasion of harvesting crews has dwindled in the face of the combine.”
Still, Buchanan believed farmers earning more income as a result of mechanization were better year-round customers for the grocers and clothiers. He claimed that with the machines would come “better schools; better rural social conditions; more contentment.” What he didn’t foresee was that the better schools would be in larger communities and the grocers and clothiers either moved to larger population centres or went out of business.
One individual who grasped the significance of modernization on the rural prairie regions was A.E. Ottewell, the registrar of the University of Alberta. In an April 7, 1930, speech to the Canadian Club of Winnipeg held at the Royal Alexandra Hotel (demolished, but formerly standing on Higgins Avenue next to the CPR station), Ottewell said the effects of mechanization would be far reaching. He said machinery was so rapidly replacing manpower on farms that he foresaw a time when only 10 per cent of the labourers then on a farm would be required. He warned that mechanization would displace skilled labourers, and that schools and social agencies would have to undergo radical changes to confront the problem of what he termed a “revolution.”
Ottewell provided the example of Montana where there had been 35,000 wheat farmers in 1915, but only 14,000 by 1929. Although the number of farmers was reduced by more than half, they produced more wheat at a lower cost.
Speaking to a gathering of scientific agriculturalists in Winnipeg, Dr. E.A. Grimes, of the department of agricultural economics, Manhattan, Kansas, said the introduction of combines affected the economic, social and political life of farmers in the U.S. Great Plains. The Free Press on August 29, 1929, reported that Grimes told the agriculturalists that the use of combines meant increased farm size and a reduction in rural population. He said fewer farm families resulted in schools having fewer pupils and towns having fewer customers.
Ironically, the very communities that begged for and then received train service have over the years witnessed the abandonment of the branch rail lines as trucks proliferated. In the 1880s, the CPR set up sidings every 16 miles, the distance a horse-drawn wagon carrying grain to the rail line could travel in a day. On the other hand, trucks can transport grain on prairie roads to far-off collection sites, making such sidings and many small communities redundant.
As distant terminals became the favoured method of grain storage prior to reaching world markets, local elevators, which in the past were the most identifiable images of the prairie skyline, have vanished to the point where only five “lonely sentinels” of another era remain at Inglis, Manitoba. The rural community has one of the last two elevator rows in all of Canada with the other in Warner, Alberta. The Inglis row was designated a National Historic Site in order to prevent the elevators’ removal or simply becoming scrap heaps suitable only for salvaging the odd timber or bit of rusted metal.
In a September 15, 1928, Free Press commentary, correspondent M.G. wrote about the first combine in the Carberry district used that year to harvest wheat, and the changes such machines would bring to prairie farming. He foresaw a time when stook-filled grain fields “will be a thing of the past,” something the writer said added “such charm to our autumn landscapes.”
“Gone, too, will be the threshing outfit with all the attendant excitement and thrill. Gone will be the separator, the engine, the water tank. Gone will be the ‘gang’ of some twenty-odd men who used to file in at meal-time, with jokes and friendly banter, and enormous appetites. Gone the long tables laden with tempting food as the farmer’s wife strove in amiable rivalry to outdo her neighbor.
“No more will the farmer’s children watch with fascinated eyes the foreman feeding with straw the engine’s fiery furnace. No longer will they stand in awe of the great flapping ‘belt’ ... Alas! ‘The old order changeth’ ... The binder was good, but the combine is better. What will 1948 or 1958 give us, in the way of improved machinery?”
What the mechanical improvements wrought was change on a scale the Carberry correspondent could not have imagined in 1928. Across the prairies are innumerable ghost towns and abandoned grain elevators, the victims of the progress brought on by motorized combines, tractors and trucks, as well as the automobile. The few remaining and steadily-deteriorating homes and shops of once thriving communities are a visual reminder of the price paid when the era of the great seasonal migration of harvesters ended.