Quest in Roots:
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FORTY YEARS OF FARMING - (1945-1985)
Farming is a profession in which people, since time began, have usually had to make the best of a less than perfect situation. As I recall the war years, this was especially so. New machinery was very scarce and the machinery on farms was old, and poor, as few replacements had been made du~ing the depression years of the 30''s. Parts that required replacement were kept in fair supply, but others needing replacement because of accidents were something else. I can recall an incident where an inexperienced hired hand from Montreal, drove his load of sheaves into the threshing machine, too fast and too close and hit the feeder, breaking the main shaft that the feeder knives rotated on. A new shaft was not available. The broken shaft was removed and a new one made from a discarded seed drill axle. In around two hours we were threshing again.
This sort of improvision was a frequent occurrence in those years.
After the war a big change or revolution in farming began, very slowly at first, but it picked up momentum, what an enormous revolution it has been.
One big change that occurred after the war, which made a real impact on farm life was Manitoba Hydro, (In those days it was called, "The Manitoba Power Commission"), rural electrification program.
The idea on a more modest scale was in the planning at the time the war began, but because of the war it was set aside. Towns like Neepawa, Minnedosa and Carberry had received hydro power in the mid 30''s.
Before then they had depended on locally owned power plants. Villages like Brookdale and Wellwood had none. When the war ended, Manitoba Hydro had determined, with the help of rural municipalities, that there were 50,000 farms in Manitoba. They planned a 10 year program whereby about 5,000 farms and the surrounding villages would be offered electric power each year. Men returning from war service were offered jobs and received training for pole crews, line crews, yard crews, etc. They worked throughout each summer up one road and down the next. Other men returning from the services went into business for themselves as electrical contractors.
Villages like Brookdale, Oberon, Moore Park, Ingelow, Mentmore and Wellwood all had grain elevators and so received three phase lines, and were wired and received power slightly ahead of the rural areas. This whole area was completed in 1947.
Let us pause to imagine what conditions were like in farm and other rural homes before the days of electrical power. Some people had their own direct current, 32 volt plants for years but all they provided was power for lights and a motor or two to pump water or possibly run a washing machine or clean grain. The vast majority of farms had no electricity whatever. This meant no running water, no bathrooms as we know today. To cook a meal, or bake bread, or iron the clothes or even boil the kettle a fire had to be built in the kitchen range - even if it was the hottest day in the summer. There were no refrigerators, freezers, air conditioners, nothing automatic, no T.V. etc. Most people had a battery radio, but it was a far cry from today''s much more efficient and better sounding electric radio. It required a six volt "wet" battery similar to an automobile battery, and called the "A" battery, also three large dry batteries each containing 30 cells and producing 45 volts, a total of 135 volts, were known as "B", batteries, and two smaller "C" batteries. If it was thundering anywhere in the province you could not hear anything for "static", a noise that drowned out any reception. After a few weeks the "A" battery needed recharging in town and often in a few months the rest needed replacing.
Instead of today''s refrigerators, one usually had a screened cupboard in the coolest area of the basement, where milk, butter etc. could be stored between meals. A few had ice wells where huge blocks of ice were packed away in sawdust during the winter and kept over as much of the summer as possible. Either a piece of ice was remo.ved an.d put in a kitchen ice box or food was stored directly In the ice well. For lights there were candles, kerosene lamps, kerosene lanterns for taking to the barn, and sometimes a gasoline lamp. Most people owned at least one two cell flashlight, similar to those in use today.
During the 50''s, and into the 60''s, farming was carried on in conjunction with summerfallow, much as it had been from 1910. It had progressed from working the land with horses, to tractors, and better cultivators, but otherwise not too much had changed.
After summerfallow the first crop was always the best. The second crop was not so good, and the third was poorer still. If a fourth was attempted it was often so poor that it was plowed down and the field was summerfallowed again. Phosphate fertilizer (11-48-0) was in common use, but it also was less effective on each succeeding crop after summerfallow.
Many farmers believed that summerfallow was necessary to store moisture, and this was true, in small measure, especially in very dry years.
Newer fertilizers containing more nitrogen were introduced, such as 16-20-0 and 27-14-0, but were not too successful. The breakthrough came with nitrogen fertilizer such as 21-0-0 and 34-0-0 applied broadcast with spreaders available from fertilizer dealers. These spreaders made it possible to apply much heavier rates of nitrogen and made continuous cropping acceptable.
Weed control had always been one problem that summerfallow had helped solve, especially with weeds like wild millet and lambsquarters, so with less summerfallow some weeds increased. About the same time grain surpluses which had necessitated quotas during the war, and again soon after it began to build up again. Each year there was a build up of grain carried over on the farm because of inadequate quotas. This grain carryover plus an intensified weed problem kept some farmers out of continuous cropping for several years, and forced others back to summerfallow on occasion.
Other farmers turned to new oilseed crops and peas to help solve the grain surplus problem because they were more saleable, they often did not need a quota, and were known as, "Cash Crops". These crops didn''t help the weed problems, in fact one had to have a relatively clean field in order to be successful at growing them. Then came a new pre plant chemical called "Treflan". When it was sprayed on the soil and worked in and seeded a good clean crop of rapeseed or peas could be expected. In fact farmers no longer needed to have a clean field for these crops. They could now select their weediest field and clean it up considerably while at the same time producing a good cash crop.
Thus chemicals became another factor in continuous cropping. So many new chemicals have been licensed since "Treflan", that one can hardly keep them all clear in one''s mind. They are hazardous to handle and precautions in using them are being increasingly stressed. To end this section on cropping, it has now been proven conclusively, that besides being completely unnecessary, summerfallow is harming our soil at an accelerating rate, and should not be practised. Delivery quotas are still with us, but for the past few years it has mostly been possible to deliver all of a crop, sometime within the year it was grown. This is only reasonable. It isn''t necessary to have a system that could absorb a crop as it was harvested, and then sit idle the rest of the year. Most farms have enough grain storage for one crop, as a result of the past carryover years.
Over the past 40 years farm machinery has undergone dramatic changes like everything else. In 1945 most tractors were on steel wheels. A few combines and swathers were in use, also on steel wheels, and all were pull type. Most of these pull type combines had a motor on them to provide power for threshing, as in those days tractor power take offs were not too satisfactory. Early tractors did not have a "live" power take off, such as they do today. This meant that if the operator came to a heavy place in a swath or wanted to stop for any reason he disengaged the power to the combine when he disengaged the clutch, an entirely unsatisfactory arrangement. Many farmers still used binders, stooked and threshed. As the war ended and new tractors and combines began to appear on dealers'' lots, they were on rubber tires and had electric starters and lights. By 1985 farm machinery has all become very much larger, and heavier and unbelievably more expensive. As an example, I attended an auction sale about 1947. The farmer had a full line of machinery and it all sold well. He was jubilant. He had received over $4,000 for everything. Today that would not buy a cutting attachment for a combine. A large tractor then, Charlie Swanson''s 4 Wheel Drive Tractor and Air Seeder 1983 50-60 horsepower, is one of the smallest sizes being sold now. Three and four speed transmissions were common then. Eight and 12 with power shift are the way they are now. Diesel tractors were extremely rare then, now gasoline powered tractors are not available new. Standard equipment on today''s tractors that did not exist 40 years ago, includes hydraulics such as power steering, power shift, three point hitch, remote implement control.
Operator protection and comforts such as quiet cabs, with air conditioning, clean air filters, radios, tape decks, roll over protection, immensely better seats, hour meters, monitors, all take their place on the modern tractor.
Combines and swathers have undergone similar changes, most are now self-propelled. Even the pull type models have little similarity to the early models as regards to capacity, serviceability or efficiency.
Many machines exist now that had not even been invented 40 years ago. Balers for example have evolved from an old stationary model square baler, powered by one horse walking round and round - the hay was forked in and the bales tied with wire.
They were only used for hay that had to be shipp~d by rail. From this, balers have gone to automatic pick up balers, and bale handling has been mechanized completely, only to have the large round baler make them appear obsolete.
Grain augers have gone from a 16 foot, six inch P.T.O. truck auger, to today''s carriage auger capable of handling a large truckload in a few minutes.
Tractor attachments like front end loaders, snow blowers, brush and grass cutters, rototillers, post hole diggers, post drivers, bulldozers and ditchers, have all added immensely to a tractor''s usefulness, and labor saving abilities.
New types of tillage equipment have develop~d.
New types of seeding and fertilizer banding equipment are still being perfected. One ~f the '':1~1n features of new tillage and seeding machinery IS Its ability to cope with last year''s stubble and s~raw which has been left on the field. Its purpose IS to work, and leave the straw cover on top as much as possible. The old moldboard plow has long ago been set aside.
Changes in farm grain trucks, also need mentioning. Forty years ago motor trucks became a very necessary means of getting the grain from the fields to the bin. Hydraulic hoists to tip the box, became a necessity, along with the new portable augers. As elevators closed, and rail lines vanished, in more recent years, larger and newer trucks ha~e replaced the old ones. The present day farm truck IS indispensible not only for hauling to the e!evator, but for its work in the fields at both sowing and harvesting.
All weather roads were another achievement during this time period. At its beginning only the main highways were kept open dunng the winter months. Attempts were made to keep lesser roads open but on a normal winter they were abandoned one by one as the plows could no longer make it through deep cuts that had blown full of snow. It was usually possible to get from Brookdale to Carberry by automobile, but the road to- Neepawa was less reliable. I can remember periods of several weeks, several times, no one was able to get to Neepawa, and in March 1956 we were completely isolated for some time. The trains were all that were able to keep going. Even in summer travelling could be difficult as very few roads were gravelled. If it looked like rain you raced home to avoid driving on a mud road. A lot of things had to change before it was possible to establish a school bus system such as is in place now. .
While a great many aspects of crop production have undergone vast improvements there are difficulties that seem impossible to control, the weather for example. Drought or insufficient rainfall at the right time is one that has always been with us and except in areas where irrigation can be freely practised it probably always will.
Frost or even insufficient heat units over the growing season as experienced in 1.985 is an?th~r difficulty that is hard to combat. Hall protection IS only possible through insurance. Excessive rainfall during the harvest season, and occasionally even during seedtime, can seriously delay planting or harvesting and put a crop in jeopardy. Grain drying has been developed over the years to the point where it can save a major portion of a crop from being lost. Grain dryers at first were small batch dryers. They were fine when small quantities of tough or damp grain were encountered. Continuous dryers were faster, but they required more careful operation and supervision, and did not adapt well to automation. Present day models seem to be batch type automatic, that largely look after themselves.
Some of the larger farms in some areas are fitting an automatic dryer into a complete grain handling system. Such installations take a lot of the work out of grain drying, but even so, it is still extra work and a lot of extra expense, because of machinery overhead and the amount of propane gas consumed.
In order to justify such overhead expense as dryer and handling system, even if it is only a few hoppered holding bins, the trend now is moving to straight combining the standing crop. The idea is to thresh as soon as the combine will reasonably handle the material and then dry the grain. This saves the swathing operation and prevents grade losses whi~h result when swaths lie out in the rain. A year like 1985, just experienced, can also mean the difference between getting all of a big crop in and losing a part of it.
Along with new crops like rapeseed and field corn, grown in large fields come new insects like fleabeatles and corn borers. Even people who have never grown these field crops, find it next to impossible some years to grow corn, radishes and turnips in their gardens. Grasshoppers are not a new pest, but can still be very troub!es?me a~ the peak of their cycle, which usually coincides WIt? a drought cycle. Pesticides are available for controlling all of these insects but at a high cost.
Farm expenses, the high cost of new machinery, repairs, chemicals, fertilizers, fuel, land taxes etc.
brings me to the final topic I was asked to comment on - bankruptcies. Let us go back in time about 25 years. The 50''s had just ended and there seemed to be a need for learning more about farming. The old methods did not seem to be working as well.
Problems were arising in farming. The Manitoba Dept. of Agriculture, the University of Manitoba and others all realized this, and many short courses were set up for farmers to learn to handle all the changes that were upon us. I attended some of these and learned something of special crops and many of the things I have already mentioned. We quite often encountered a speaker who urged us to "get rid of our old fashioned ideas of paying for everything as we go". "The idea was a carryover from the 30''s". "It was certainly not the way for now". We were urged to become more efficient, buy more land, buy more new machinery. Inflation was upon us and prices could only go up. To get into debt was the way to go. As I look back now this was good advice, if anyone heeded it then, but I think very few did. Farmers were not and are not a terribly impulsive group. After several more years had passed and the wisdom of this advice became clear, some farmers tried to catch up to where they might have been if they had moved sooner. They may even have influenced their sons to grab at the opportunity they had missed. Some very large mortgages were assumed. Interest rates, of course, were the bank prime plus about two per cent. In hindsight we know that the strategies which had been so successful from 1972-77, had disasterous consequences in the differing environmental conditions of 1979-83. As interest rates shot up and real income declined because of rising costs, and slipping grain prices, many were hit hard. Some were in a hopeless situation. Governments tried to help but some of these measures did more harm than good.
For example when more credit was made available, land prices went still higher. If farmers had better crops or prices, and got in a buying mood, prices of machinery and everything went up. Many price increases were not justified. It looked more like when the money was there, someone always set out to grab it.
Eric Forden has a very good article on farm debt in the March 10, 1986 issue of "Grainews", starting on page 26. In it he states that for every bad loan there is a bad loans officer. He stresses that more education is needed both for loan applicants, and loan officers. Loan officers have been trained in finance not in farming and are not competent to judge a farming operation. Many farmers have made purchases of land and machinery, with little regard as to whether that purchase was able to pay its way for them.
In another article in the February 1986 issue of "Reader''s Digest" on the farm financial crisis a particular paragraph caught my eye. I will quote it as follows. "Unfortunately farmers haven''t upgraded their ability to manage the money side of the business as fast as they''ve picked up technical knowledge. Even if they had, unstable interest rates, still far above historic levels, are especially tough on farmers because of their big debt loads, and dependency on unpredictable weather and market." Unquote.
Looking ahead at farming, I can see no light at the end of the tunnel. It has often been said, "that farmers are in the unfortunate situation of having to buy everything they need, at high retail prices, and sell everything they produce at wholesale or less, and they also must pay the freight both ways." As time passes this situation only seems to get worse. It appears some entirely new concepts of production or transportation or both, will have to be discovered if our situation is to improve.
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