Saskatchewan's Environmental Champions

dust storm

Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration

The PFRA's role in the epic conquest of widespread soil erosion on the prairies in the "Dirty Thirties" is one of Canada's great success stories.

The federal parliamentary act creating the PFRA was approved on April 17, 1935. This emergency agency came into being after 8 years of falling grain prices, unrelenting drought, severe wind erosion, and the resulting wide scale abandonment of farms in the Palliser Triangle, the driest southern areas of the prairies. Some 250,000 acres (101,214 ha) were blowing out of control and up to six million acres (2.43 million ha) were severely affected by drought and soil drifting. Tens of thousands of farmers and their families were destitute and requiring aid to survive.

The mandate of the PFRA was to rehabilitate land affected by soil drifting and to develop and promote 'systems of farm practice, tree culture, water supply and land utilization' that would rehabilitate eroded fields and ultimately the economic security of farmers in the region.

The project took eight years of round-the-clock work…

In the years 1935-37, a 12-member committee made up of federal, provincial, business and farmer representatives developed and oversaw emergency measures to contain the worst soil drifting. Staff of the Dominion Experimental Farms service were seconded and farmers were enlisted in cooperative efforts through the creation of local Agricultural Improvement Associations. Dozens of substations of the Experimental Farms were developed on working farms to research and demonstrate practical erosion control methods, such as seeding cover crops, cultivating to keep trash cover, and deeply ridging loose soil. PFRA engineers began building water reservoirs and stock-watering dams and offering assistance to farmers and communities to create dugouts.

In 1937, the PFRA Act was amended to add land utilization and land settlement. The most erosion-prone lands could only be stabilized and protected with permanent cover. Sixteen community pastures, ranging from 6,000 to 25,000 acres (2,430 -10,122 ha) in size, were fenced and seeded that same year and opened for grazing the following spring.

Once the emergency stage was over, the PFRA's mandate was redefined for the longer term with a primary focus on water and pasture development. Aside from providing technical and financial assistance to help farmers develop stable water supplies, dozens of dams were completed, providing drinking and irrigation water to southwest Saskatchewan.

In 1959, the PFRA undertook its largest project, the design and supervision of construction of the South Saskatchewan River Project (SSRP). This monumental undertaking entailed the development of two dams (the Gardiner and Qu'Appelle) and a massive reservoir. The project took eight years of round-the-clock work and resulted in the 225-kilometre-long Lake Diefenbaker, which supplies drinking water to approximately 50 per cent of the province's population and water for irrigation.

In anticipation of the SSRP, the PFRA also established an irrigation farm at Outlook. Now as the Canada-Saskatchewan Irrigation Diversification Centre, it focuses on advanced irrigation technology and crops and cropping practices for irrigation.

From 1935-2000, PFRA helped to develop more than 285,000 water supply projects- dams, dugouts, wells and water pipelines-to provide rural residents with good quality water supplies. It has also worked closely with farmers promoting ways to reduce soil erosion, establish permanent cover on marginal land use and manage water edge zones.

PFRA currently operates 87 community pastures across the Prairies, with 62 pastures in Saskatchewan covering 710,000 hectares. These pastures, one of the largest ranching operations in North America, help to preserve the biodiversity of the prairie region, protect marginal land from erosion, and provide wildlife habitat.

The PFRA Shelterbelt Centre, which is part of this larger effort came under the PFRA in 1963, is covered in its own profile.

As part of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, PFRA continues to offer technical and financial assistance in soil and water conservation, water supply development and wastewater treatment, irrigation, rangeland management, community pastures, and shelterbelts. It services all agricultural areas of the Prairie Provinces-more than 80 per cent of Canada's agricultural land base. Its programs are also part of a growing emphasis on sustainable rural development and it is taking a lead role in using geographic information systems and in adapting to climatic change. It also works with other agencies for the protection of wildlife and waterfowl habitats.

Over its 70 years, the PFRA's collaborative, responsive and practical approach has had a tremendous impact on agriculture and environmental adaptation on the prairies. Its diverse core of technical expertise places it in the forefront to meet emerging issues in land and water management and conservation.

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