Now: Look on the bright side but remember the past; Then: Despair

Issue date: November 21, 1929.   The stock market collapse  of 1929 
was a harbinger of much worse times to come on the farm.


Today’s young farmers have an attitude toward farming and life that grew out of the wave of good fortune they have experienced in the past decade.

It’s similar to how frugality was instilled in prairie farmers and their descendants in the wake of the Great Depression of the 1930s.

“People tend to anchor on recent experiences, which serves as a cue when thinking about a problem,” said Murray Fulton, professor at the University of Saskatchewan’s Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy.

“If all you’ve known is prosperous times, it’s very difficult to think about worlds that aren’t like that. You can think about them but you don’t give them enough weight, attention. You essentially tend to ignore them and you make decisions as if those things are not going to occur or in high probability.”

On the other hand, Fulton said the group that went through the 1930s had a different mindset.

“They were primed in a different way and I think would make very different decisions,” he said.

It’s generally understood that the Great Depression was an era de-fined by desperation and frugality. It was a time one’s needs and wants were a matter of straight-forward survival, especially on the Prairies.

The New York stock market collapse of Oct. 29, 1929, is generally seen as the beginning.

Farmers on the Canadian Prairies were especially hard hit by the collapse of wheat prices, which soon led to the policies of the Canadian Wheat Board.

Meltdown and ensuing mayhem in world financial markets coincided with widespread drought .

Dust bowl conditions prevailed as farmer’s savings and spending shriveled up.

Farmers who stayed on their farms were not considered unemployed. Two-thirds of the Prairies’ rural population was on relief.

For the sake of their hungry families, many farmers swallowed their pride and accepted emergency handouts such as dried salted fish from the Maritimes and apples from Ontario.

The Dirty Thirties shaped Red Williams, first as a boy and then as a man. It affects him still.

Born in 1925, Williams grew up on a farm at Shamrock, Sask., near the heart of the dust bowl.

“One year my father didn’t get enough seed back to plant his next year’s crop. To make feed to carry the cows through the winter, my father harvested Russian thistle,” he said.

Etched in his memory is the day he and his father were walking to town using the railroad. Williams said he begged his father for a nickel to buy a bag of popcorn that came with three shiny marbles, but to no avail.

It was many years later that his father, who remembered the incident, explained why.

“ ‘I didn’t have five cents to give,’ ” he said. “You can imagine having the responsibility for a family and not having one coin in your pocket,” said Williams.

Williams, a former professor in the University of Saskatchewan’s agriculture college, agrees with his children when they accuse him of still having a depression mentality.

“You’re very careful about what you buy. If you absolutely don’t need it, you don’t have it,” he said.

There’s no question for him that it’s a different attitude for young farmers today. He said their appetite for innovation and risk taking is better re-warded than it was for entrepreneurial farmers of the 1930s, who made due with fewer resources.

“They were salt of the earth, hard working and knew their business right down to the details, except that new ideas that were being pushed in to increase productivity were very hard to accept. They weren’t trusting,” he said.

“For example, my uncle used to absolutely refuse to have fertilizer. It was just beyond his thinking.… Till the soil and that was it. To tell him that (the soil) was running out was heresy. That’s the kind of mentality in those days. My Dad was the same. They learned their lessons sitting on the back end of a plow and that was all you needed to know.”

According to Fulton, disbanding the Canadian Wheat Board and phasing out federal Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration programs signal that many of the impacts caused by the Depression may have run their course.

“Today, we’re seeing adapting and changes. In the credit union system we’re now seeing large credit unions being formed as mergers take place. There are also mergers taking place in the retail sector,” he said.

“A legacy on the environmental side was the formation of the PFRA. One could argue that the PFRA was actually really critical in the subsequent development of zero tillage. They had that mandate of finding alternative methods of cultivation.”

Twenty-seven-year-old Brennan Turner agreed that the mindset of his grandparents’ and parents’ farm generation largely does not exist in his generation today.

“This is a broad statement, but my generation is about instant gratification. We have social media. You tweet, you Facebook. If you’re not happy with what’s done immediately, why then you just move on if you don’t get what you want,” said Turner, founder of FarmLead, an online grain marketing service based in Saskatoon.

Turner agreed that the older generations were more skeptical, particularly about new technology.

However, while older generations are perhaps less trusting, younger generations are perhaps too trusting.

“I don’t know if it’s a technology thing. Maybe part of my generation has come to trust the internet … maybe faster to trust something. Again, that instant gratification. If it works for me, I’m going to do it again and again,” he said.

“I think my generation is more open to change. More open to listening. More open to thinking how things could benefit them.”

Turner grew up in Foam Lake, Sask., hearing first hand accounts passed down from his grandparents and parents about the day-to-day hardships and lessons learned from the Depression.

“As my grandfather literally always said, ‘always expect the unexpected.’ That’s been passed down the generations. I carry it with me to prepare for the rainy day. Don’t spend the extra margin that you made,” he said.

“I think how it correlates today in what we’re seeing in land prices and the potential farmland price bubble. It’s one of those things, my generation at least, the guys born 1975 onward, maybe don’t have as much of that feeling. It’s been hard sometimes, but it hasn’t been terrible.”

He said his parents’ and grandparents’ hard work ethic made it possible for his generation to have the desire, freedom and money to follow their ambitions.

“There are opportunities out there. Chase your dreams because I didn’t get to necessarily,” he said of his parent’s generation in particular.

To that end, Turner felt soon after the deregulation of the CWB that it was the right time to create a business using the digital marketplace for buying and selling grain.

“My parents support my endeavor to start this company, even though it’s fairly risky,” he said.

“At the same, with the adaptation of technology in the agriculture industry, there is a need for something like this in the marketplace.”

Turner sees what he describes as a big mind shift happening with younger farmers being more open to risk mitigation.

“The younger generation is understanding that they can be successful but kind of looking over their shoulder a little bit in terms of trying to mitigate that risk through the various options available: crop and hail insurance and broadening their market strategy,” he said.

“There are a lot of tech savvy guys out there.… I think that’s picking up simply because of the deregulation of the wheat board.

“More and more guys are seeing that they have to expose themselves to more technologies and learn those new technologies or risk mitigation options because they have to find that better market and protect themselves even further.… Those products and services are certainly influential. Back in the Dirty Thirties, they were non-existent.”

From his perspective, Williams can’t help feeling concerned with the march of technology and how it affects the individual producer.

“Today, farmers are being led by the nose by technology. You can’t avoid the technology. You just have to adapt it. You can’t step around it. You come in with the new varieties or machinery and have to run with it,” he said.

Fear of failure for producers also worries him — he’s seen it before.

“It can happen very quickly, if you get the combination of markets and weather at the same time,” he said.

“You take a farmer now with these big farms, they are at high risk. When you’ve got a farm that will cost you a million dollars to put a crop in, you’ve got a million dollars sunk on speculation every year.”

Fulton said both generations are incorrect.

“They both suffer a bias. The people who came through the 1930s were too pessimistic about the way the world might turn out. In some ways, the people who have come through the last 10 years are probably too optimistic about the way the world is going to turn out.”

THEN: Despair

Issue date: November 21, 1929.   The stock market collapse  of 1929 was a harbinger of much worse times to come on the farm.
Issue date: November 21, 1929. The stock market collapse of 1929 
was a harbinger of much worse times to come on the farm.

The stock market had collapsed.

For days a panic of selling had forced quotations to levels below the most tragic dreams of the speculators.

Great financiers had attempted a rescue: great banks assured the public that all was well, but in spite of everything the prices had fallen and fallen, and hundreds of thousands of people sadly realized that what they imagined to be a nest egg, had hatched out a viper, venomous and agile.

That was the situation on that November evening, when John Wellstang sat on the edge of his bed in his great farm house not far from Tregarva; he sat with his head in his hands and his feet on the floor.

But his fingers pressing against his tight eyelids could not shut out the figures which stared up at him from the litter of papers on the floor.

He groaned. What right had little printed figures on cheap newsprint to hold him unhappily in their baneful power on that bright autumn afternoon? …

He scribbled a little note. He stuck it, with some money he took from his pocket, into an envelope, addressed it, and went down to the post office.

As he saw the letter slip into the dim recesses of the post office box, he heaved a great sigh of relief. He was a free man.

John Wellstang had never bought a share of stock in his life. No, that is not what had been worrying him. His trouble was that he had been a subscriber to The Western Producer for many years and that afternoon, just after reading the most recent copy, the little address slip caught his eye and conveyed to him the ghastly information that he was no longer a “paid-up” subscriber.

He is now.

Download a PDF of the original WP page here: 1929_nov21_p1

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