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Farm Mechanization and Technology

The Prairie West transformed at such a rapid rate due in large part to what Grant MacEwan described as an agricultural revolution. The mechanization of farming through developments like the tractor, thresher, and seeder changed the prairie landscape by producing more crops at an accelerated pace. MacEwan contends that this agricultural revolution was so significant that it should draw comparisons to Britain's Industrial Revolution.

Throughout much of the 19th century, farmers painstakingly planted their crops by hand, a slow, burdensome task that required skill and precision. Simple mistakes such as seed spacing could ruin an entire crop. Hay was cut with a scythe and required physical strength and endurance. As farmers settled on the Prairie West, they sought improved technology that could increase production and save time. The first piece of mechanical equipment purchased was the cart or wagon, the latter being more costly. The plow was the next vital piece of equipment. Walking plows had been used for centuries and were efficient tools for working the soil. Farmers took immense pride in their ability to plow, and it was common for friendly competitions to unfold between neighbouring farms. Plow technology gradually improved with the steel plow being introduced in the 1830s while the sulky plow followed decades later. The sulky or riding plow was a major advancement in easing work on the pioneer farm, as it was designed with a shaft that was level with the shoulder height of a team of horses.

MacEwan asserts that the most spectacular machinery improvements belonged to harvesting equipment. The harvest was the most important time of the season and better technology improved production followed by agricultural output. Threshing was the season's grand climax, involving long hours, more workers, and specialization. Each community, by the late 19th century, had at least one threshing machine. Often, newspapers would report immediately if one had arrived in a community. At first, threshers were powered by horses, but they were soon replaced by engines. Grant MacEwan's father, Alex, owned a large threshing separator equipped with the area's first feeder and blower.

At the dawn of the 20th century, wheat production exploded: 63 million bushels were produced in North America in 1901 compared to over 300 million by 1911. The considerable increase in output can be directly attributed to improved technology and the creation of a new type of wheat. Marquis wheat, designed by Dr. Charles Saunders, was a hardy crossbreed variety that ripened faster than the Red Fife variety and was ready to harvest before the frost-filled evenings of September.

At the end of the 19th century, it took roughly 35 to 40 hours of planting and harvesting labour to produce 100 bushels of corn. A hundred years later, producing the same amount of corn took approximately three hours. The engine is what drove the agricultural revolution and has had a tremendous impact on progress in the West. MacEwan recognized that many Canadians were slow in recording this impact - agricultural history, according to him, suffered the same misfortunes that plagued Canadian history in its broader aspects.

Resources

MacEwan, Grant. Illustrated History of Western Canadian Agriculture. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1980.


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