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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 55/October 1899/The Wheat Lands of Canada

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 55‎ | October 1899


WHEN Sir W. Crookes, in his inaugural address as President of the British Association, startled a large number of people by stating that, unless some radical change was made in the present system of wheat cultivation, there would be a bread famine in 1931, because the world's supply of land capable of producing wheat would have been exhausted, there was undoubtedly a considerable feeling of uneasiness engendered, and more attention was paid to the address than is usual even to so valuable a contribution as the inaugural address of the President of that Association must always be. It was, therefore, with a feeling of relief that we found one person after another, well qualified to speak, coming, as it were, to the rescue, and pointing out that Sir W. Crookes's conclusions were not warranted; and in the minds of the majority, no doubt, the last feeling of uneasiness was dispelled by the able letter in The Times, in December last, in which Sir John Lawes and Sir Henry Gilbert, who are facile principes as scientific agriculturists, and whose opinions carry greater weight than even those of the President of the British Association, gave most satisfactory reasons for being unable to believe in Sir W. Crookes's predictions.

It is true that, in a subsequent letter. Sir W. Crookes stated that his remarks were intended more as a serious warning than as a prophecy; but, seeing that his conclusions were based on definite statements of definite facts and figures, it is difficult to treat them as other than prophetic.

In order, however, to establish the probability of a wheat famine in the near future it became necessary for Sir W. Crookes to seriously misrepresent and underestimate the wheat resources of some of the principal countries most interested in producing that cereal, and it is to a large extent by exposing the magnitude of these misrepresentations that the validity of his conclusions is called in question and disproved. The two countries which, with perhaps the exception of Russia, are most concerned in the wheat production of the future, and therefore in the correction of these misstatements, are Canada and the United States.

Mr. Atkinson, the well-known writer on economic subjects, took up the cudgels for the United States, and their case could hardly have been in better hands; but so far no champion has appeared on behalf of Canada; and while Sir W. Crookes may not have been alone in his views about the possible exhaustion of the wheat area in the United States, he certainly stood quite alone when he committed himself to the remarkable statements that are to be found in the address, in order to decry the capabilities of the Canadian wheat fields. I did not immediately reply to them myself, thinking that some one better qualified would do so, but this has not been done, and as I feel that they can not be allowed any longer to remain unanswered, I propose to deal with them in the present article.

Mr. Atkinson's defense has been criticised, in the March number of The Forum, by Mr. C. Wood Davis, who naturally upholds Sir W. Crookes's views, seeing that they appear to have been largely induced by his own figures and agree with his own ideas, but his argument in that article is more one of fault finding with the statements of others than an attempt to justify his own position. As a specimen of his style of criticism, Mr. Davis takes Mr. Atkinson to task for saying that "the present necessities of the world are computed by Sir W. Crookes at 2,324,000,000 bushels," and says that in no part of his address was an estimate of the whole world's requirements so much as mentioned; and yet, on turning to the address, we find that Sir W. Crookes said: "The bread eaters of the whole world share the perilous prospect.… The bread eaters of the world at the present time number 516,500,000.… To supply 516,500,000 bread eaters will require a total of 2,324,000,000 bushels for seed and food." The requirements of the whole world are distinctly stated here, for bread is required only for the bread-eating population, and therefore the requirements of that population are, as far as bread is concerned, the requirements of the whole world. Mr, Atkinson, however, is well able to take care of himself, and he and Mr. Davis can fight out for themselves the question as to when, or if ever, the United States will cease to export wheat; but it is amusing to find Mr. Atkinson charged by Mr. Davis, of all men, with dealing in "purely speculative computations," for if there is any one who has freely indulged in these same purely speculative computations it is Mr. Davis himself, as we shall presently see.

The value of the various calculations that statisticians indulge in is largely discounted by the fact that allowance is rarely made for changing conditions. Such has been the ratio, such is the ratio, and therefore in so many years' time such will be the ratio, is the burden of their calculations, so that while their figures for the past and present may be both correct and instructive, their calculations for the future are frequently of little practical utility; and it is this failure to allow for any variation in conditions that renders Mr. Davis's figures of so little value, and Sir W. Crookes's conclusions, which are based on them, of no greater importance.

It is surprising to find how much value Sir W. Crookes attaches to Mr. Davis's figures, and it leads one to the conclusion that he has either not examined them very closely, or shares with Mr. Davis a fondness for "purely speculative computations"; and while it is not seemly to accuse, as has been done, a man of Sir W. Crookes's standing and reputation of resorting to "bucket-shop" methods to support his conclusions, it is difficult to avoid thinking that the anxiety to establish those conclusions has not only led him to accept Mr. Davis's calculations without proper examination, but has also influenced the preparation of some of his antecedent data and led him to subordinate facts as a means to a required end. Since Sir W. Crookes thinks so highly of Mr. Davis's figures and upon them has based some of the most important conclusions of his address, and as Mr. Davis himself is so ready to find fault with the calculations of others, it might be well just here to see how some of Mr. Davis's own calculations have been verified and what amount of dependence should be placed upon his figures or on deductions from them.

In An Epitome of the Agricultural Situation, published by Mr. Davis in 1890, he predicted an annually increasing deficit in the world's wheat supply and the almost immediate inability of the United States to do more than grow enough wheat for home consumption, and, as a consequence, that "After 1895 we (United States) must either import brcadstuffs, cease to export cotton, or lower the standard of living," this latter prophecy being emphasized by being printed in capital letters. These predictions were made ten years ago—ample time, surely, for at least some evidence of their fulfillment to be apparent. But what are the facts? The Chief of the Bureau of Statistics, in his report on the foreign commerce of the United States for 1898, says: "The total exportation of meats and dairy products amounted in the last fiscal year (1898) to $167,340,960, against $145,270,643 in the highest year prior to that date (1894), while the value of animals exported in 1898 was greater than that of any preceding year; of wheat the exports of the year were the largest in value, save the exceptional years of 1880, 1881, and 1892. Of cotton the exports of the year were the largest in quantity in the history of the country.… Thus, in the great agricultural products—breadstuffs, provisions, and cotton—the exports have been phenomenally large, while the total of products of agriculture exceed by $54,000,000 the exports of agricultural produce in any preceding year of our history." So much for exports; now for the imports of breadstuffs. The total value of breadstuffs, both dutiable and free, entered for consumption in 1898 was $957,455, of which $628,775 were for imports of macaroni, vermicelli, etc., articles not in any case manufactured in the country. I have not seen any explanation by Mr. Davis of the failure of his predictions, but it is probable that he had them in mind when he wrote in The Forum (March, 1899), "Had not the herds of hay- and maize-eating animals shrunk greatly since 1892, thus rendering vast areas of hay and maize lands available for wheat production, we should probably have reduced the wheat area, instead of adding ten million acres to it since 1895." This, however, is a purely arbitrary assumption, unsupported by anything more substantial than Mr. Davis's personal opinion. In the same article he says: "But herds being insufficient for present needs must be added to in the measure of the existing deficit, as well as in that of the animal products and services required by all future additions to the population. This will necessitate and force a restoration to other staples of acres recently diverted to wheat." But, in the face of the figures quoted above, the evidence is clear that herds are not only ample for present needs, but afford a larger margin than ever of exportable surplus. If herds were insufficient, there would have been a curtailment of exports and an increase in the consumption of breadstuffs, but neither have happened; neither has there been any reduction in the standard of living. Is not the inference irresistible that the country was carrying a larger number of animals than conditions absolutely required, since farm animals have declined from 169,000,000 in 1892 to 138,000,000 in 1898, without in any way disturbing the conditions of food supply or reducing the exports of provisions? In 1890, Mr. Davis assumed that 44,800,000 acres of hay would be required in 1895 and 49,200,000 acres in 1900, yet in 1898, 42,800,000 acres were found to be ample for the needs of the country.

Do not the foregoing figures clearly indicate that it is not safe to assume that the area employed in the cultivation of certain staples at any given time, or the average of that area for any given period, must necessarily be the proportion always to be required for the cultivation of those articles, and that any calculations or predictions made on that assumption are liable to be completely upset by events unforeseen and unprovided for? Does it not seem probable that if Sir W. Crookes had examined Mr. Davis's figures more closely than apparently he did, he would have found that "average acre yields for long periods" are not "essential factors"; that "unit requirements for each of the primary food staples of the temperate zones" can not be so easily determined; that "the ratio existing during recent periods between the consuming element and acres employed in the production of each of such primary food staples" are not necessarily indicative of the ratio that will require to exist in the years to come; and that Mr. Davis's "scientific method" does not "enable him to ascertain the acreage requirements of the separate national populations and of the bread-eating world as a whole"?

In order to insure a famine in 1931 it was necessary for Sir W. Crookes to assume a given increase of population during the intervening period and no change in the existing conditions of wheat cultivation and consumption, and also to limit by hard-and-fast lines the sources of supply. It is to the manner in which Sir W. Crookes has limited and underestimated the wheat resources of Canada that we now propose to take exception; and it is difficult to understand how, with ample means of information available, he could have committed himself to the statements he has made. What does he say about Manitoba? "In the year 1897 there were 2,371,441 acres under cultivation in Manitoba, out of a total of 13,051,375 acres. The total area includes water courses, lakes, forests, towns and farms, land unsuitable for wheat growing, and land required for other crops." Now, the facts are that the total area of Manitoba is 73,956 square miles, and if from that area 9,890 square miles of water surface are deducted there remain 64,066 square miles, or 41,002,240 acres of land, so that even after making due allowance for forests, towns, etc., there are nearly three times the number of acres available than are given by Sir W. Crookes. Attempts have been made in vain to find out whence these figures were obtained, but there is apparently no clew; and while it is not to be supposed for a moment that the figures were purposely misstated, surely the important conclusions drawn from them deserved that some attempt at least should have been made to ascertain their accuracy. Sir W. Crookes claims to be indebted to the official publications of the Government of Canada, but it is certain that none of them ever contained the figures used by him.

"The most trustworthy estimates," says Sir W. Crookes, "give Canada a wheat area of not more than six millions of acres in the next twelve years, increasing to a maximum of twelve millions of acres in twenty-five years." Who prepared these estimates, and upon what are they based? Were they prepared by the same authority that supplied Sir W. Crookes with the figures of the area of Manitoba? If so, we may well dismiss them at once; but supposing that these estimates are, as far as the rate of increase is concerned, perfectly correct, and that the wheat area of Canada will be only twelve million acres in twenty-five years, there would still remain at least twelve million acres in Manitoba alone available for wheat. It is no exaggerated estimate to say that from sixty to seventy per cent of the land available for cultivation in Manitoba is well adapted for the production of wheat. Sir W. Crookes says that his area of Manitoba of 13,051,375 acres includes water courses, lakes, forests, towns, etc. Now, the water area alone of Manitoba is 6,329,600 acres, so that after deducting this area and the 1,630,000 acres already under wheat and making due allowance for the other conditions mentioned, he would have us believe that wheat-growing in Manitoba has already nearly reached its limit, which all who know anything about the province will unite in saying is absurd.

Now let us turn to the Northwest Territories, where, according to Sir W. Crookes, there is practically no amount of land of any consequence available for wheat, and let us remember that the same authority limits the wheat area of Canada to a maximum of twelve million acres. The area of the three provisional districts, with which alone we will deal, is as follows, viz.: Assiniboia, 57,177,600 acres; Saskatchewan, 69,120,000 acres; and Alberta, 63,523,200 acres (these figures being exclusive of water surface), making a total of 189,820,000 acres. Some of this large area is possibly not particularly well adapted for agricultural purposes, but a careful examination of all available data on the subject justifies one in saying that fully one half is suitable for successful wheat cultivation, while in eastern and southern Assiniboia there are some 20,000,000 acres, in the valley of the Saskatchewan 14,000,000 acres, and in northern Alberta 15,000,000 acres that are especially adapted for the production of wheat as a staple crop. The area is so large and settlement at present so sparse, that it is impossible to do more than give its capabilities in general terms, founded on the opinions of experienced men who have traveled over it. Professor Saunders, Director of the Experimental Farm at Ottawa, than whom there is no better authority on the subject in the Dominion, told me that, from what he saw of the country in driving over it, he became more and more impressed every year with the vast area of good land in the Northwest, and no practical man has ever traveled through those regions but has been amazed at the prospect of their capabilities.

But we have not yet reckoned with the rich and fertile province of Ontario. This province has a land area of 140,576,000 acres, of which 11,888,853 acres were under cultivation in 1898, and of this latter quantity 1,437,387 acres, or twelve per cent, were in wheat, being an increase of 163,860 acres over the wheat area of 1897, and of 62,573 acres over the average of 1882-98. According to the census of 1881 there were nearly 2,000,000 acres in wheat in 1880, but, under the influence of an unremunerative market, the area declined year by year until in 1895 there were but 967,156 acres so employed; since then, however, stimulated by a more profitable price, the area has increased by 470,471 acres, and an increase of twenty per cent upward is reported in the area for 1899. Fall wheat in this province is a very successful crop, having averaged in the last two years twenty-five bushels and twenty-four bushels per acre respectively, while the average for the period 1882-'98 has been 20.5 bushels per acre, so that nothing but a continuance of good prices is needed to largely increase the production of wheat in Ontario. In no part of the province, where agriculture is possible, has wheat failed to grow, but the area is so large that it would be unwise to put into figures the extent available for wheat cultivation, it being sufficient to show that a very large portion, if not indeed the whole, of the twelve million acres to which Sir W. Crookes has limited Canada could, other conditions being favorable, be supplied by Ontario alone.

The "trustworthy estimates" quoted by Sir W. Crookes limit, as has been stated, the wheat area of Canada to a maximum of twelve million acres under cultivation in twenty-five years; whence the estimates were derived or on what grounds they are entitled to be considered trustworthy there is no information; but is it of any consequence? Let them come from whatever source they may, are they not perfectly useless? The progress of wheat cultivation during the next twenty-five years does not depend upon any mathematical ratio of progression, but on the course of certain events absolutely unknown at the present time. The point is that Sir W. Crookes adopts these estimates and gives out to the world a statement, on the strength of them, that, in addition to the 3,500,000 acres at present in use, there are not more than 8,500,000 acres in Canada available for wheat cultivation—a statement calculated, if believed, to seriously damage Canada's prospects of settlement, and a statement that is as much at variance with the actual facts as it is possible for such things to be. Is it fair to the country for a man of such high standing and reputation to make such unfounded assertions? Five minutes' real consideration of the question would have convinced him that there are more than that number of acres in the province of Manitoba alone. The figures already given, which have been prepared from the most reliable available information, go to show that there are upward of seventy-five million acres of land in Canada especially adapted for the production of wheat, and this estimate is confined to those portions of the country which may be considered as essentially wheat-producing areas; and no account has been taken of the vast extent of land, not only in the provinces of Ontario and Manitoba and in the Northwest Territories, but also in the otherwise unnoticed provinces of Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and British Columbia, that is not only suitable for the production of wheat, but on which a large quantity of wheat will undoubtedly be grown, which, entering into home consumption, will increase the exportable surplus.

I am well aware that there are a number of people who will say that my figures underestimate the resources of the country, but I would rather that it were so than indulge in figures that seem too extravagant to be realized; and if, in the future, it appears that the wheat area is larger than I have stated, then so much the better for Canada. I do not mind how much evidence can be brought to increase my figures, as long as I am satisfied that they can not be truthfully reduced.

It is not intended to accuse Sir W. Crookes of deliberately misrepresenting Canada, but rather of almost criminal carelessness in the preparation of his case; but it is intended to accuse Mr. C. Wood Davis of the former offense and of intentionally garbling extracts from an official handbook issued by the Canadian Minister of the Interior in order to decry that country's wheat-bearing capabilities. By taking a line here and there which seems to serve his ends, and by leaving out everything that would have a contrary tendency, Mr. Davis, in his article in The Forum, makes it to appear that, according to the Minister of the Interior, the greater part of the Canadian Northwest is not only incapable of producing wheat, but is actually unfit for settlement, and summarizes his extracts by saying, "Available data do not show that any part of the Canadian districts named, except southern Manitoba and the eastern half of Assiniboia, is adapted to wheat culture, while they do show that over the greater part of these vast regions neither summer heats nor rainfalls are sufficient." This statement is false in every particular. The official handbook from which Mr. Davis professes to quote says of Manitoba that there are thirty-seven million acres available for active farm cultivation, giving therefore no warrant for the limiting of the wheat area to the southern part of the province. Mr. Davis quotes a line here and there about southern Alberta in order to convey the impression that that part of the country is good for nothing, whereas, while it is essentially a ranching and dairying country, producing a most luxurious and nutritious growth of native grasses, with a bountiful supply of water for irrigation purposes, by which means most satisfactory crops of grain and fodder are produced, it has never been contended that it is particularly well adapted for wheat-growing; but, on the other hand, Mr. Davis carefully omits all mention of northern Alberta, and has no room for the following remarks about it which appear on the same page of the handbook: "Northern Alberta is essentially an agricultural district; … the principal advantages of the district will insure settlement by immigrants who desire to engage in grain farming. … The rainfall in northern Alberta during the summer months is sufficient to insure good crops." Concerning the district of Saskatchewan, Mr. Davis quotes a remark about some of the wooded portion being unsuited to the immediate requirements of settlement, as if it applied to the whole district, and deliberately omits the following: "The southern half of the district" (Saskatchewan) "is traversed from east to west by the Saskatchewan River, and the valley of this important stream, with the country immediately adjacent thereto, has long been famed as a desirable field for immigration." With reference to precipitation, Mr. Davis has so garbled his extracts as to convey the impression that the handbook states that over the greater part of the Northwest the rainfall is not sufficient for the pursuit of agriculture, whereas what the book really says is, "So far as the Canadian Northwest is concerned, out of about two hundred million acres of land between the Red River of the North to the Rocky Mountains, available for agricultural and pastoral purposes, not more than about one fourth, or fifty million acres in all, require the artificial application of water."

Mr. Davis's attempts to prejudice the interests of the Northwest by remarks on the severity of the climate do not need serious attention; the experience of the inhabitants and the annual production of the country speak for themselves, and it is well understood that mere thermometer readings afford little indication in themselves of the nature of a climate, and that temperatures unendurable in some countries are enjoyable, salubrious, and advantageous in others. It seems difficult to believe that Mr. Davis ever wrote the following sentence, but having written it, it would be well if he would take it to heart: "Truly 'honesty is the best policy' in the employment of statistics, whether by scientists, by plain people, or by professional statisticians; while the ability to eschew bucket-shop methods, to read correctly, to state facts and to state them clearly, and to criticise with intelligence and entire fairness, is especially desirable."

Sir W. Crookes is not content with reducing Canada's wheat resources to an insignificant minimum, but he must also retard as much as possible the development even of the small area that he admits to exist, for he says: "The development of this promising area necessarily must be slow, since prairie land can not be laid under wheat in advance of a population sufficient to supply the needful labor at seed time and harvest. As population increases so do home demands for wheat." To say that prairie land can not be laid under wheat in advance of population, and that as population increases so do home demands for wheat, are mere truisms, but it is incorrect to say that therefore the development must be slow. The rate of development depends entirely upon the rate of increase of population, and that increase depends upon the price of wheat, and the area of production will increase concurrently with the demand. According to Mr. Davis—and we will assume that his figures are in this case correct—the population in the United States in fourteen years from 1871 increased forty-four per cent and the cultivated area one hundred and twelve per cent, and, if that was the case, no estimates, however trustworthy, could have provided for such results.

It has been perfectly true, as Sir W. Crookes says, that as the wheat area of Manitoba and the Northwest increased, the wheat area of Ontario and the eastern provinces decreased, but this was in consequence of the continued low price of wheat, which led the farmers of Ontario to turn their attention more and more to dairy and mixed farming, substituting hay and root crops for wheat and barley, until the province became a dairying rather than a cereal-producing country; but that this was a movement to suit the times, and that the area available for wheat is no less in consequence, is evidenced by the rapid increase in the wheat acreage in the last two years. The farmer produces what pays him best, and it is certain that before Sir W. Crookes's failure of the wheat supply comes to pass prices will have been such that every acre of land suitable for wheat and that can be spared from other uses will have been taken advantage of; and if this is not the case, then some other staple for food will have been substituted, which will necessarily change the whole economic situation as viewed at present.

It is also true that "thus far performance has lagged behind promise," but the reasons for this are the same, and in the low values we find a ready explanation of the apparent lack of progress. What inducement has the immigrant had of late years to take up land for, or the farmer to grow, wheat that he could hardly sell for the actual cost of production? And yet Sir W. Crookes would argue that because the land has not been utilized for this particular purpose the land can not be there, and that land upon which wheat once was grown, but which is now employed for other purposes, can never again be included in the wheat-bearing area.

Progress may appear to have been slow, but it has kept pace with the demand, and in any case has been considerably more rapid than Sir W. Crookes allows. He says, "The wheat-bearing area of all Canada has increased less than 500,000 acres since 1884," whereas the actual increase since 1880 has been over 1,100,000 acres, and since 1890 upward of 760,000 acres. The area under wheat in Canada in 1898 was 3,508,540 acres, so that Sir W. Crookes only allows for an increase of 2,500,000 acres in the next twelve years. Perhaps it will not be as much, but if it is not, it will only be putting the predicted day of famine still farther away, and will prove nothing more than the fact that the state of the market has not warranted any more extended cultivation.

The statements made by Sir W. Crookes about the wheat acreage in the States are as incorrect as those about Canada, for he says, in his letter to The Times of December 8, 1898, that "the whole wheat acreage in the United States is less than it was fifteen years ago," whereas the official figures for 1897 and 1898, which were before him at the time, told him that the wheat acreage in 1897 was 3,000,000 acres in excess of the average of the preceding fifteen years, and in 1898 was in the neighborhood of 5,000,000 acres in excess of any year in the history of that country. Do not the fluctuations in the wheat acreage of the United States in recent years prove conclusively that they were solely the result of the movement of prices, and had no bearing whatever on the question of exhaustion of land? Under the depressing influence of an unprofitable market, the wheat area fell from 39,900,000 acres in 1891 to 34,000,000 acres in 1895, but, under the stimulus of a substantial appreciation, increased again, in three years, to 44,000,000 acres. If, in spite of a rising and remunerative market, the area had remained stationary or shown signs of decrease, it would have been in order to call attention to the fact as indicating exhaustion; but when, in immediate response to a rising market, the area increases by leaps and bounds, the question of exhaustion becomes less and less one of actual probability, and more and more one of theoretical possibility. A precisely similar line of reasoning is applicable to the fluctuations in the province of Ontario, and goes to show just as clearly that the decrease in area has had absolutely no bearing on the wheat-producing capabilities of the province.

"A permanently high price for wheat is, I fear, a calamity that ere long must be faced," says Sir W. Crookes; but, with due deference to so great an authority, I believe that the day of a permanent high price for wheat is yet far distant. There will be appreciations undoubtedly, but the sources of supply as yet undrawn upon are so great that it will be long before those appreciations are of any prolonged duration; but in the meantime they mean periods of great prosperity to the farmer and therefore to the world. Is a higher price for wheat such an unmixed calamity, after all? Has the average consumer of wheat benefited by the low price of wheat of late years in proportion to the hardships endured by the producer? I think not. Let those who are qualified by literary and scientific knowledge point out if they will the possibility, or even perhaps the probability, of at some period in the future the time coming when there may be, if present conditions continue to exist, a scarcity in the wheat supply, and urge as strongly as they like the advisability of taking steps in good time to prevent such a calamity; but nothing is to be gained by frightening the world with predictions of evil based only on a series of unfounded assertions, mathematical calculations, and "purely speculative computations." When, if ever, the day of scarcity will come is unknown. That it is yet far off appears to be tolerably certain; but it is sufficient for the purposes of this article that it should be understood that Sir W. Crookes's statements concerning the wheat area of Canada are absolutely unreliable and incorrect, and that there are millions of acres of good wheat land waiting for occupation by the surplus population of the world, which, when under cultivation, will assist in deferring for many years the threatened day of famine.


Dr. Sven Hedin, in his account of travel through Asia, mentions as the most remarkable feature in the central region of internal drainage (in which the rivers drain into inland lakes) "the process of leveling which goes on unceasingly. The detritus which results from the disintegrating action of the weather, and the more or less mechanical agency of the wind and water and gravity, is constantly being carried down from the mountains all round its borders toward the lower parts of its depressions, and being deposited there. In this way the natural inequalities in the configuration of the ground are being gradually smoothed away." Mr. Curzon refers to the same phenomenon in the central districts of the Pamirs—the process being the exact reverse to that where the streams hew out deep ravines in their course to the sea-going river.