I really wanted to get a history of agriculture in Alberta, so I posed the question on Twitter as to who I should ask to blog for us. An overwhelming response was @LavoyFarmer and I’m so glad he agreed to guest post for us today! Terry James is a mixed farmer who lives near Vegreville, Alberta, on the farm his grandfather first moved to in 1917.  He studied agriculture at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, and worked for a number of years in the crop supplies industry.  Currently he is a full time farmer. Together with his brother and son, they farm about 2000 acres of grain land, and maintain a commercial herd of beef cattle.  

When the definitive history of agriculture in the 20th century is written, surely one of the success stories listed will be that of agriculture in Alberta. It is the story of how a group of immigrants overcame a harsh climate, a lack of infrastructure and a host of other obstacles to become one of the bread baskets of Canada. It is a story of technological achievement as well as of human drama that has even had geopolitical implications. In 1983 the leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, visited Western Canada. Here in Alberta, he met a dairy farmer whose dairy cows yielded an average of 4,700 kilograms of milk each year; more than double that of a comparable dairy farm in the Soviet Union. It believed this visit is one of the contributing factors that led to Mr. Gorbachev’s policy of perestroika, and the crumbling of the Iron Curtain.

Agriculture in Alberta is a relatively recent story. Unlike many other areas of North America, the aboriginal people of Alberta did not practice sedentary farming–they moved around, tracking the bison and other game, and collected native fruits and vegetables from wherever they could. It is not surprising that the earliest agricultural endeavors in the province emulated that model. Huge open rangelands made cattle ranching easy, and led to the rise of the cattle barons. Beginning in about 1881 and continuing through to the early 1900’s, ambitious businessmen, many of whom resided in Eastern Canada or Great Britain, were able to lease huge tracts of land on which they grazed cattle. Day to day work on these ranches was done by cowboys, whose culture Albertans are still associated with, even if it is far removed from the reality of most present-day Albertans. The beef industry though, remains vitally important to Alberta. Saskatchewan may be Canada’s wheat king, and Ontario might be the horticultural capital, but Alberta has always been, and still is Canada’s beef capital.  Interestingly enough, one of the more recent success stories is the addition of native bison to the livestock farms of Alberta.

Cattle ranching was the first large-scale agricultural enterprise in Alberta and continues to be an essential component of today’s agricultural economy.
Cattle ranching was the first large-scale agricultural enterprise in Alberta and continues to be an essential component of today’s agricultural economy.

The person often credited with being Alberta’s first arable farmer is Peter Pond. He established the first permanent trading post in Alberta on the lower Athabasca River, surprisingly far north, in 1778. Here it is said “he formed the finest kitchen garden….in Canada”.  Most early forts had a garden patch where they raised vegetables for their own use, and experimented with European crops. Oats and barley generally did well, but in most years, the wheat did not reach maturity. The cultivation of crops was to remain a relatively small scale enterprise in Alberta until after the completion of the Trans Canada Railway in 1885.

The railway, coupled with the Homestead Act, and aggressive advertising by the Canadian government led to a rapid settlement of Alberta beginning in about 1895 and continuing through to the early 1920’s. Settlement generally followed the progress of railway development. It spread north from Calgary to Edmonton, and then west from Lloydminster following the Great Northern Railway Line. Approximately every 8 miles along the railway, a settlement was established, a distance chosen based on the distance a team of horses could easily transverse in a day. The Homestead Act enabled early settlers of land to acquire a piece of land for a very modest price provided they made a commitment of time and effort to the cultivation of that land.

The development of high quality, early maturing wheat varieties enabled Alberta farmers to prosper by satisfying a growing demand in Europe especially during and following the war years.
The development of high quality, early maturing wheat varieties enabled Alberta farmers to prosper by satisfying a growing demand in Europe especially during and following the war years.

Check back tomorrow for Part 2 of this great piece by Terry!