Overview

After the stock market crash of 1929, things got even worse for Saskatchewan farmers. Drought, a grasshopper plague, and low wheat prices forced many people off of the farms. The 1930s were known as the ‘Dirty Thirties’. Sixty-six percent of the rural population was forced onto government support.

A mother and father and their kids have loaded up the car and are moving.

The terrible living and farming conditions forced many people to move off of their farms.

When the Prairies were settled, they were experiencing more rainfall than usual. However, the southern Prairies often experience long periods with very little rain. A drought is a period with very little or no rain that can last years. In 1930, a drought hit that would last almost 10 years. This drought devastated farms.

Saskatchewan became known as a dust bowl because of the blowing soil.

Plowing

The southern Prairies are flat, but full of natural plants and bushes. When the Prairies were settled, farmers cleared away many of the natural plants to make farmland.

The farmers in the 1920s used the agricultural process of plowing deep into the fields to break up any plant roots left and to bring the moisture to the surface. Bringing the moisture to the surface of the soil was good for the plants, however, the extra moisture often evaporated into the air. After years of heavy plowing, the soil had no moisture left and without any rain to add the moisture back into the soil, it was extremely dry.

A dark feeling photo shows a sparse row of trees in black topsoil.

Pioneers experienced a drought that lasted almost 10 years in the 1930s.

A team of two horses are pulling a plow to break Prairie topsoil. A farmer is walking behind the horses to operate the plow.

This deep style of plowing caused the soil to become dry and blow away.

This is a plow that farmers would be using to break up the soil.

Summer Fallow

Summer fallow is where the farmer does not seed a field for a growing season, so no crops grow on a field during this time. This was believed to help the soil keep moisture, reduce the number of weeds in the field, and help with pest and disease management. However, once the drought hit and the moisture disappeared, there was nothing to keep all of the topsoil from blowing away.

This is a summer fallow field that has been harvested the year before and not seeded for the next year.

Dust Storms

There was so much soil being blown off the fields that Canadians experienced dust storms that blacked out the sky, often called ‘black blizzards’. These dust storms blew the soil everywhere. The soil would blow into people’s homes regardless of what they did to stop it, covering everything in a thick layer of dust. That is why people started turning over their cups in the cupboard – to prevent dirt from getting in them.

Dust storms that blackened the sky, often called ‘black blizzards’ created terrible living conditions for homesteaders.

These dust storms were relentless as the terrible winds rarely stopped. People even experienced dust pneumonia from inhaling too much dust which caused a very painful cough. The dust drifted high enough to cover fence posts in some places and left patches so bare that nothing could grow.

A man is struggling to walk across his homestead because the dust storm is so bad that he can barely see. He is covering his eyes so dirt does not get into them.

Pioneers had to work through terrible dust storms during the drought to get keep their families and animals healthy.

A doctor and a nurse are helping a patient who is laying in a hospital bed with a bandage on his head.

People were becoming ill from inhaling too much dust.

Battling the dust storms was difficult for people and for animals. The dust was everywhere and was causing health issues.

Soil Erosion

The loss of all this topsoil made farming extremely hard. Imagine trying to grow a plant in loose, dry soil that keeps blowing away. The soil that was blowing everywhere is called the topsoil. The topsoil is the nutrient-rich section of the soil where the plant grows. This loss of soil is called soil erosion. Losing significant amounts of soil during the 1930s was tragic.

A train is stopped in a small town next to a train station and two elevators.

PHOTO CREDIT: WESTERN DEVELOPMENT MUSEUM

Dust storms would whip soil around and leave mounds of dirt in some fields and serious soil erosion for other settlers.

Years of no rain took a heavy toll on the farmers. Water is essential to growing healthy plants. Without water, the crops would wither and die or produce only a very small amount of seeds. Farmers were losing money and struggling to grow their crops and their gardens. Many farmers could not afford to buy food.

A train is stopped in a small town next to a train station and two elevators.

PHOTO CREDIT: WESTERN DEVELOPMENT MUSEUM

This topsoil has been blown around and has piled so high, that you can barely see the top of this tractor tire.

Grasshopper Plague

Living conditions in the 1930s were already harsh for farmers and yet, they had a grasshopper plague to deal with as well. There was a sudden invasion of grasshoppers. There were so many grasshoppers, they were hard to see through. At night, the grasshoppers would land on buildings and cover them like wallpaper. During the day, the grasshoppers ate any of the plants that were managing to grow during the drought.

A grasshopper plague occurred in the 1930s.

The farmers had to fight back by making their own grasshopper poison. They would put the poison in pails and spread it by hand. As the grasshoppers continued to take over, the farmers built their own mechanical spreaders. The spreaders were attached to the back of wagons and trucks so the poison could be spread more quickly.

Farmers are using a wagon pulled by horses to attached a large metal barrel to pour grasshopper poison into it to spread on fields.

In 1934, these farmers attached a grasshopper bait spreader to the back of this wagon.

These brothers that live near Antler, Saskatchewan have put a bait spreader on their wagon to help combat the grasshoppers.