Saturday, December 1, 2012

A story from the origins of the PFRA

the legacy of misguided agricultural policy is all over Palliser's Triangle
I've been writing and talking to people for months now about protecting our community pastures and their legacy of balancing the needs of local livestock producers with ecological values. That fine balance is particularly at risk if any of the 62 federal pastures are sold to private interests, but even if they are leased it could well be upset. Without specific programming to reduce invasive species like leafy spurge and many others, and without a long term vision that uses cattle as a management tool to ensure ecological health, the land will degrade and species at risk will suffer.

But there is another story that I have not taken the time to tell. The community pastures were created in response to a public policy disaster that led to an ecological crisis: the dust bowl of the 1930s. By then, the Canadian and American governments had for fifty years been encouraging immigrants and easterners to move West to begin cultivating their piece of the plains, even in its driest regions with the poorest soils.  A lot of lying went on in the race to fill up the lands that Captain John Palliser in the 1850s had declared unsuitable for agriculture of any kind. Palliser's Triangle we call it still, but when the big dry hit in 1931 and the winds started to blow, thousands of settlers found that they had been duped into farming land in the Triangle that should never have been broken. Native grassland has a built in resiliency to help it withstand drought. The old-growth grasses hold onto the light soils no matter how dry it gets, no matter how the wind blows, as long as they are not grazed too hard.

When the Saskatchewan and Federal governments witnessed these new settlers suffering on land that they had been misled would be good for growing grain, saw them struggling for enough food to support their children never mind getting any to market, they came face to face with the consequences of their own ill-advised public policy. Like many Saskatchewan people, my family has its story from the Dirty Thirties. My father, now 81, remembers his father declaring that their farm on the edge of the Great Sand Hills, near Hazlett, was producing fewer potatoes than he had planted in the spring. Before the decade was out, they had packed up and moved north to take up subsistence living in the bush near Emma Lake.

The PFRA, or Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration, was founded in the teeth of this crisis. The Federal Government decided that it could help conserve some of the blowing soil and provide well managed grazing lands for local cattlemen, as well as water management by forming large pastures out of some of the land with the lightest soils. Many families had to be re-located to create the pastures. The government declared their lands unfit for farming and then moved them out. As necessary as that was, the resulting dislocation sometimes led to more suffering and disarray and the families were unfortunately not compensated adequately.

For good or ill, this is our history and we have a responsibility to honour the better parts of it by continuing to improve our public policy as it is applied to these fragile grasslands. The rich legacy of the PFRA is in its attempt to finally get it right, to try something else with the land, see what results and then adapt as necessary. Over 75 years that model has helped the pastures system evolve into this country's best example of ecologically sustainable agriculture. The very origins of that system should be a cautionary tale for us warning us to be careful what we do with the land that our forbears finally realized was best left to grow grass.

In times of climate change when our neighbours just south of us on the American plains have been suffering through drought, we should if anything be expanding the reach and vision of the public policy that has been guiding the PFRA from that crisis to today's superb management model. That alone should urge us to find a way to continue and improve on the PFRA tradition--whether it is a partnership of private and public with non-profits, or entirely under government control. And I have no doubt that a PFRA-like model could be made more efficient and run on a cost-recovery basis, and perhaps even turn a profit if revenue from carbon credits, grazing fees, and access for resource development were put into the equation. (We need an enlightened agricultural economics person to help make the case for such a model running the pastures as a group and with both grazing access and conservation in mind.)

pronghorn, by Hamilton Greenwood

I am going to leave this post with a moving testimony I received out of the blue one day in my email. It is from a woman named Georgiaday Hall. A member of the Native Plant Society of Saskatchewan, Georgiaday lives in Winnipeg but her family's history is under the soil of the Swift Current-Webb PFRA pasture, west of Swift Current. I will let her tell the story in her own voice, which vibrates with feeling for the land and the injustice of her ancestors being urged to homestead in a place unfit for cultivation:

My history goes back to a community pasture in Saskatchewan so I am attached to it.  I am an advocate of wild life- plants and animals. I am concerned over what happens to PFRA pastures.  I feel my story might be of benefit to those who love nature.
My grandfather, a widower, came to Canada in the early 1900s with hope for a better future.  He  had his four young children sent to him in 1913.  He bought a Homestead north of Beverly and Webb Saskatchewan and planted his first crop in 1915.  This Homestead should never have been assigned to him because the land was unfit for farming.  Years later his Homestead and those of the neighbors were deemed unfit for farming and made part of the present community pasture.

The family went broke.  The children were hungry, shoeless, shabbily dressed and often cold.  There wasn't any help for this family. The police came and took my father and his brother.  They were separated and my father at age eleven was placed in the Children's Shelter in Regina.  (Embury House)

When my father turned twelve he was placed on farms to work as a cheap laborer.  The farmers were to make sure he got to go to school but he was kept at the farms to work.  He was to receive a small wage and he did not.  He ran away from four farmers in all.  Sometimes the police caught him and returned him to the farmer and he was severly punished.  His life was forever changed by not being allowed to attend school.

Today there are oil wells on my Grandfather's Homestead.

My father and his siblings were never compensated for the hardships and loss of family they were forced to endure.  Now I believe my voice should be heard.  I represent my father.

My father loved nature.

I believe this community pasture should be left as it is with the care of the PFRA or assigned to groups who believe in the preservation of land for wild flowers and wild animals.  I also believe a cairn should be placed in the above community pasture to honor the Homesteaders who were unknowingly assigned land unsuitable for farming.

However, if  the present government wishes to change this then I believe I should be given the former Homestead of my grandfather in compensation for the hardship and neglect my father's family experienced in the early 1900s.  I wish to preserve it for native plants and animals as a legacy in honor of the Homesteaders mentioned.


I have documents to prove all that I have written.  I appreciate all of the people who are trying to preserve land for the plants and animals we share this earth with.

Georgiaday Hall

yellow coneflower

No comments:

Post a Comment

Share this post

Get widget