CHAPTER XIX
THE YEAR OF DROUTH


   THE Shadow of the Year of Drouth still obscures the hope of many a dry-farmer. From the magazine page and the public platform the prophet of evil, thinking himself a friend of humanity, solemnly warns against the arid region and dry-farming, for the year of drouth, he says, is sure to come again and then will be repeated the disasters of 1893-1895. Beware of the year of drouth. Even successful dry-farmers who have obtained good crops every year for a generation or more are half led to expect a dry year or one so dry that crops will fail in spite of all human effort. The question is continually asked, "Can crop yields reasonably be expected every year, through a succession of dry years, under "semiarid conditions, if the best methods of dry-farming be practiced?" In answering this question, it may be said at the very beginning, that when the year of drouth is mentioned in connection with dry-farming, sad reference is always made to the experience on the Great Plains in the early years of the '90's. Now the fact of the matter is, that while the years of 1893,1894, and 1895 were dry years, the only complete failure came in 1894. In spite of the improper methods practiced by the settlers, the willing soil failed to yield a crop only one year. Moreover, it should not be forgotten that hundreds of farmers in the driest section during this dry period, who instinctively or otherwise farmed more nearly right, obtained good crops even in 1894. The simple practice of summer fallowing, had it been practiced the year before, would have insured satisfactory crops in the driest year. Further, the settlers who did not take to their heels upon the arrival of the dry year are still living in large numbers on their homesteads and in numerous instances have accumulated comfortable fortunes from the land which has been held up so long as a warning against settlement beyond a humid climate. The failure of 1894 was due as much to a lack of proper agricultural information and practice as to the occurrence of a dry year.

   Next, the statement is carelessly made that the recent success in dry-farming is due to the fact that we are now living in a cycle of wet years, but that as soon as the cycle of dry years strikes the country dry-farming will vanish as a dismal failure. Then, again, the theory is proposed that the climate is permanently changing toward wetness or dryness and the past has no meaning in reading the riddle of the future. It is doubtless true that no man may safely predict the weather for future generations; yet, so far as human knowledge goes, there is no perceptible average change in the climate from period to period within historical time; neither are there protracted dry periods followed by protracted wet periods. The fact is, dry and wet years alternate. A succession of somewhat wet years may alternate with a succession of somewhat dry years, but the average precipitation from decade to decade is very nearly the same. True, there will always be a dry year, that is, the driest year of a series of years, and this is the supposedly fearful and fateful year of drouth. The business of the dry-farmer is always to farm so as to be prepared for this driest year whenever it comes. If this be done, the farmer will always have a crop: in the wet years his crop will be large; in the driest year it will be sufficient to sustain him.

So persistent is the half-expressed fear that this driest year makes it impossible to rely upon dry-farming as a permanent system of agriculture that a search has been made for reliable long records of the production of crops in arid and semiarid regions. Public statements have been made by many perfectly reliable men to the effect that crops have been produced in diverse sections over long periods of years, some as long as thirty-five or forty year's, without one failure having occurred. Most of these statements, however, have been general in their nature and not accompanied by the exact yields from year to year. Only three satisfactory records have been found in a somewhat careful search. Others no doubt exist.

   The first record was made by Senator J. G. M. Barnes of Kaysville, Utah. Kaysville is located in the Great Salt Lake Valley, about fifteen miles north of Salt Lake City. The climate is semiarid; the precipitation comes mainly in the winter and early spring; the summers are dry, and the evaporation is large. Senator Barnes purchased ninety acres of land in the spring of 1887 and had it farmed under his own supervision until 1906. He is engaged in commercial enterprises and did not, himself, do any of the work on the farm, but employed men to do the necessary labor. However, he kept a close supervision of the farm and decided upon the practices which should be followed. From seventy-eight to eighty-nine acres were harvested for each crop, with the exception of 1902, when all but about twenty acres was fired by sparks from the passing railroad train. The plowing, harrowing, and weeding were done very carefully. The complete record of the Barnes dry-farm from 1887 to 1905 is shown in the table on the following page.

Record of the Barnes Dry-farm, Salt Lake Valley,
Utah (90 acres)

 Year

Annual
Rainfall
(Inches)

Yield
per Acre
(Bu.)

When
Plowed

When Sown
1887 11.66 -- May Sept.
1888 13.62 Failure May Sept.
1889 18.46 22.5 -- Volunteer*
1890 10.38 15.5 -- --
1891 15.92 Fallow May Fall
1892 14.08 19.3 -- --
1893 17.35 Fallow May Fall
1894 15.27 26.0 -- --
1895 11.95 Fallow May Aug.
1896 18.42 22.0 -- --
1897 16.74 Fallow Spring Fall
1898 16.09 26.0 -- --
1899 17.57 Fallow May Fall
1900 11.53 23.5 -- --
1901 16.08 Fallow Spring Fall
1902 11.41 28.9 Sept. Fall
1903 14.62 12.5 -- --
1904 16.31 Fallow Spring Fall
1905 14.23 25.8 -- --

        *About four acres were sown on stubble.

   The first plowing was given the farm in May of 1887, and, with the exception of 1902, the land was invariably plowed in the spring. With fall plowing the yields would undoubtedly have been better. The first sowing was made in the fall of 1887, and fall grain was grown during the whole period of observation. The seed sown in the fall of 1887 came up well, but was winter-killed. This is ascribed by Senator Barnes to the very dry winter, though it is probable that the soil was not sufficiently well stored with moisture to carry the crop through. The farm was plowed again in the spring of 1888, and another crop sown in September of the same year. In the summer of 1889, 22-1/2 bushels of wheat were harvested to the acre. Encouraged by this good crop Mr. Barnes allowed a volunteer crop to grow that fall and the next summer harvested as a result 15-1/2 bushels of wheat to the acre. The table shows that only one crop smaller than this was harvested during the whole period of nineteen years, namely, in 1903, when the same thing was done, and one crop was made to follow another without an intervening fallow period. This observation is an evidence in favor of clean summer fallowing. The largest crop obtained, 28.9 bushels per acre in 1902, was gathered in a year when the next to the lowest rainfall of the whole period occurred, namely, 11.41 inches.

   The precipitation varied during the nineteen years from 10.33 inches to 18.46 inches. The variation in yield per acre was considerably less than this, not counting the two crops that were grown immediately after another crop. All in all, the unique record of the Barnes dry-farm shows that through a period of nineteen years, including dry and comparatively wet years, there was absolutely no sign of failure, except in the first year, when probably the soil had not been put in proper condition to support crops. In passing it maybe mentioned that, according to the records furnished by Senator Barnes, the total cost of operating the farm during the nineteen years was $4887.69; the total income was $10,144.83. The difference, $5257.14, is a very fair profit on the investment of $1800--the original cost of the farm.


The Indian Head farm

  An equally instructive record is furnished by the experimental farm located at Indian Head in Saskatchewan, Canada, in the northern part of the Great Plains area. According to Alway, the country is in appearance very much like western Nebraska and Kansas; the climate is distinctly arid, and the precipitation comes mainly in the spring and summer. It is the only experimental dry-farm in the Great Plains area with records that go back before the dry years of the early '90's. In 1882 the soil of this farm was broken, and it was farmed continuously until 1888, when it was made an experimental farm under government supervision. The following table shows the yields obtained from the year 1891, when the precipitation records were first kept, to 1909: --

RECORD OF INDIAN HEAD EXPERIMENTAL FARM AND MOTHERWELL'S FARM, SASKATCHEWAN, CANADA
Year  Annual
Rainfall
(Inches)*
Bushels of Wheat per Acre Experimental Farm--
Fallow
Bushels of Wheat per Acre Experimental Farm--
Stubble
Bushels of Wheat per Acre Motherwell's Farm
1891  14.03 35 32 30
1892 6.92 28 21 28
1893 10.11 35 22 34
1894 3.90 17 9 24
1895 12.28 41 22 26
1896 10.59 39 29 31
1897 14.62 33 26 35
1898 18.03 32 -- 27
1899 9.44 33 -- 33
1900 11.74 17 5 25
1901 20.22 49 38 51
1902 10.73 38 22 28
1903 15.55 35 15 31
1904 11.96 40 29 35
1905 19.17 42 18 36
1906 13.21 26 13 38
1907 15.03 18 18 15
1908 13.17 29 14 16
1909 13.96 28 15 23

      *Snowfall not included. This has varied from 2.3 to 1.3 inches of water.

   The annual rainfall shown in the second column does not include the water which fell in the form of snow. According to the records at hand, the annual snow fall varied from 2.3 to 1.3 inches of water, which should be added to the rainfall given in the table. Even with this addition the rainfall shows the district to be of a distinctly semiarid character. It will be observed that the precipitation varied from 3.9 to 20.22 inches, and that during the early '90's several rather dry years occurred. In spite of this large variation good crops have been obtained during the whole period of nineteen years. Not one failure is recorded. The lowest yield of 17 bushels per acre came during the very dry year of 1894 and during the somewhat dry year of 1900. Some of the largest yields were obtained in seasons when the rainfall was only near the average. As a record showing that the year of drouth need not be feared when dry-farming is done right, this table is of very high interest. It may be noted, incidentally, that throughout the whole period wheat following a fallow always yielded higher than wheat following the stubble. For the nineteen years, the difference was as 32.4 bushels is to 20.5 bushels.


The Motherwell farm

   In the last column of the table are shown the annual yields of wheat obtained on the farm of Commissioner Motherwell of the province of Saskatchewan. This private farm is located some twenty-five miles away from Indian Head, and the rainfall records of the experimental farm are, therefore, only approximately accurate for the Motherwell farm. The results on this farm may well be compared to the Barnes results of Utah, since they were obtained on a private farm. During the period of nineteen years good crops were invariably obtained; even during the very dry year of 1894, a yield of twenty-four bushels of wheat to the acre was obtained. Curiously enough, the lowest yields of fifteen and sixteen bushels to the acre were obtained in 1907 and 1908 when the precipitation was fairly good, and must be ascribed to some other factor than that of precipitation. The record of this farm shows conclusively that with proper farming there is no need to fear the year of drouth.


The Utah Drouth of 1910

   During the year of 1910 only 2.7 inches of rain fell in Salt Lake City from March 1 to the July harvest, and all of this in March, as against 7.18 inches during the same period the preceding year. In other parts of the state much less rain fell; in fact, in the southern part of the state the last rain fell during the last week of December, 1909. The drouth remained unbroken until long after the wheat harvests. Great fear was expressed that the dry-farms could not survive so protracted a period of drouth. Agents, sent out over the various dry-farm districts, reported late in June that wherever clean summer fallowing had been practiced the crops were in excellent condition; but that wherever careless methods had been practiced, the crops were poor or killed. The reports of the harvest in July of 1910 showed that fully 85 per cent of an average crop was obtained in spite of the protracted drouth wherever the soil came into the spring well stored with moisture, and in many instances full crops were obtained.

   Over the whole of the dry-farm territory of the United States similar conditions of drouth occurred. After the harvest, however, every state reported that the crops were well up to the average wherever correct methods of culture had been employed.

   These well-authenticated records from true semi-arid districts, covering the two chief types of winter and summer precipitation, prove that the year oi drouth, or the driest year in a twenty-year period, does not disturb agricultural conditions seriously in localities where the average annual precipitation is not too low, and where proper cultural methods arc followed. That dry-farming is a system of agricultural practice which requires the application of high skill and intelligence is admitted; that it is precarious is denied. The year of drouth is ordinarily the year in which the man failed to do properly his share of the work.