Land Farming Techniques
Angus McKay was one advocate of a method of breaking land
that would increase soil moisture conservation. The furrow would still be turned
as shallowly as possible, with the plow adjusted to roll the sods into a flattened
position. MacKay recommended that these sods be
"backset," i.e.; turned back into their furrow after partial
decomposition after six to eight weeks.
Two or three inches of soil were left on the surface. Backsetting aerated the
soil while allowing the plant roots to penetrate down to the subsoil moisture.
Although backsetting improved productivity, it required great plowing skill and
did not appear to have been widely practiced.
MacKay attached equal significance to the need to deep
plow the summer fallow to a depth of between seven and eight inches before the
end of June. During the remaining growing season, weed growth would be
controlled through light surface cultivation. He warned that too much plowing
would lead to soil blowing: within a decade his warning proved to be prophetic.
Hardy Webster Campbell also developed
dry land farming
techniques. He emphasized using a sub-surface packer to compress the particles
of soil beneath the top soil, a process he believed would promote the freer flow
of water from the subsoil to the plant roots. Campbell felt that fallow land
should be disced in the late autumn, and again during the spring. He advocated
plowing the field to a depth of six or seven inches in June or July, then
packing with a sub-surface packer, and, finally, harrowing. All of these
procedures were to be carried out in a single day. The proponents of dry farming
believed that packing pulled moisture toward the surface to make it available to
the plants' roots, while harrowing the top soil helped retain that moisture now
closer to the surface, by breaking up the moisture's capillary flow and
providing a protective covering to retard evaporation. Campbell, who established
the Medicine Hat Experimental Farm in 1908, popularized his ideas through
lectures and pamphlets.
These techniques, however, soon began to mine the western
agricultural lands of their nutrients and stability. A series of droughts
beginning in 1910 only made the situation worse. By the end of the First World
War, the wheatlands of Alberta had become severely degraded in many districts.
The dryland farming system used frequent deep plowing,
subsoil packing and harrowing to produce a fine dust mulch on the ground
surface. It was this mulch that the system's proponents believed stopped
moisture loss through evaporation. In fact, the cumulative effect of these
tillage practices was to leave a loose top layer of soil that simply dried up
and blew away.
Kenneth Tingley. Steel and Steam: Aspects of Breaking Land in Alberta. n.p.: Friends of Reynolds-Alberta
Museum Society and Alberta Culture and Multiculturalism, Historic Sites and
Archives Service, 1992. With permission from
of Reynolds-Alberta Museum.