Progress, crisis, and stability: making the northwest plains agricultural landscape
This research traces the nature and impetus of agricultural landscape change from 1910 to 1990, within the northwestern transboundary plains of southern Alberta and Saskatchewan and northern Montana. Using information gleaned from aerial photographs, field survey reports and maps, government staff personal correspondence, agricultural statistics, land settlement records, and local histories, this dissertation describes an evolutionary and regionally-contextual process of landscape transformation. The temporal pattern of landscape change in the northwestern plains region was not linear. The greatest landscape changes took place between 1910 and 1930 when mixed grass prairie was converted to an agricultural landscape over a relatively short breaking-in period that followed initial agricultural settlement. After 1930, landscape changes were more evolutionary. Incrementally, more land was tilled, with little alteration in basic field arrangement and farming systems. Aerial photographic evidence suggests that a common declensionist historiographical narrative of Great Plains anthropogenic land degradation, culminating in the 1930s drought disaster, doesn’t apply to the northwestern plains. Rather, the timing of settlement, coinciding with widespread adoption of farm-based mechanization, and a pre-existing understanding of environmental limits to agricultural viability, impelled northwestern plains farmers to independently adopt scale economy and efficiency principles promoted by government agricultural economists from the 1920s to the 1980s. Furthermore, farmers adapted specifically to regional land and weather conditions using locally-derived soil management innovations. Farmers and in-the-field federal government staff cooperated on research that led to the spread of innovative and successful dryland farming techniques. Government agents of both Canada and the United States played an important role in testing and publicizing the local adaptations. This work establishes a new timeline for northern Great Plains history and reveals the importance of regional context in place history. In the northwestern plains region, the 1930s were not a turning point in the agricultural land use history, but rather a time marker coinciding with the maturing of a highly-mechanized, scaled-up, and responsive ‘modern’ agricultural system.
landscape, environment, agriculture, Saskatchewan, Alberta, Montana
Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)