Strip Farming and the Wheat Stem Sawfly on the Canadian Prairies, 1930s-1940s

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Editor’s Note: This article is part of our ‘Coulees to Muskeg – A Saskatchewan Environmental History’ series. This series is a partnership between NiCHE and the Saskatchewan History & Folklore Society (SHFS). All articles in the series appear on the NiCHE website and are published in SHFS’s Folklore magazine. You can become a member of SHFS and subscribe to Folklore HERE. To contribute to this series, see the CFP HERE.


Dust and grasshoppers. These are major features in both public and scholarly renderings of the 1930s on the agricultural prairies, with good reason. Blowing soils and grasshopper plagues tell us a great deal about the experiences in that decade of colonizer farmers, those who came to the Canadian prairies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and established farms on lands Ottawa had appropriated from Indigenous Peoples. But there’s another insect with the potential to tell us about the 1930s and about the ongoing process of reconciling the prairie environment and large-scale agriculture – the wheat stem sawfly.

Mature wheat stem sawflies are approximately one centimetre in length. Black with distinctive yellow bands, in appearance they have been compared to wasps.[1] In the early summer, sawflies lay eggs in the stems of hollow grasses or grains. Larvae feed inside the stems over the summer months before moving downward and nearly girdling the plant stems slightly above the level of the soil. Affected plants fall over in minimal wind, rain, or hail, a circumstance known as lodging. The larvae then over-winter in the plant stub before emerging as adults in the late spring or early summer and beginning the cycle once more.[2] The wheat stem sawfly’s life-cycle hinders agriculture in a few ways. Infestations hamper plant development.[3] Lodging can reduce crop value and yield, and it makes harvest more difficult.

Stem sawfly (Cephidae, Cephus cinctus (Norton)) USA, TX, Travis Co.: Austin Camp Mabry Nat’l Guard 08.iv-28.iv.2005 J.C. Abbott coll. UTIC 201334

Whether the wheat stem sawfly is a native or introduced species has been in recent decades a matter of some dispute. While scientists M. A. Ivie and A. G. Zinovjev argue for the possibility the insect originated in northeastern Asia, many experts still deems it likely native to North America.[4] Regardless of the sawfly’s origins, it was among the insects that newcomers perceived to threaten agricultural success. Entomologist Norman Criddle, writing in the Report of the Entomological Society Ontario, documented how areas in Manitoba and Saskatchewan suffered what he called a heavy loss to the sawfly in 1921, a loss amounting to several million bushels.[5] Criddle explained how the increased sowing of cereal grains created a landscape more amenable to the sawfly, explaining that agriculture as typically practiced gave the sawfly “practically a free hand.”[6] There were multiple reasons for this. The insect favoured popular hollow-stemmed varieties of wheat and they flourished along field edges, which were more common in landscapes transformed by large-scale agriculture than in expanses of prairie grasses. Also, farmers planting rust-resistant wheat unintentionally protected sawflies from the catastrophe of having a host plan destroyed by rust.[7]

Despite Criddle’s worries, the sawfly menace seemed to abate somewhat during the mid 1920s, even as it remained a major concern to entomologists and affected farmers.[8] But the situation worsened when, amid the soil drift problems of the 1930s, strip-farming attracted attention as one among a suite of techniques that helped farmers hold on to their soil. Strip-farming involved laying out fields in long, narrow strips in a direction as close as possible to right angles from the prevailing winds. Alternating fallow and cropped land ensured the cropped strips arrested drifting soil. But the abundance of field edges inherent to strip farming created conditions particularly favourable to the sawfly.[9]

Wheat stem sawfly damage. Source: BugwoodWiki

Understandably preoccupied with the dust clouds of the 1930s, and notwithstanding the sawfly risk, many farmers adopted strip-farming on their own fields. Some farmers even formed what they called Strip Farming Associations to encourage others to adopt this approach, recognizing that widespread efforts were necessary to stop soil drift.[10] When the federal government created the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration in 1935 as a means of supporting farmers in meeting the regional emergency, Strip Farming Associations became the nucleus in a system of Agricultural Improvement Associations, farmer-run and government-supported efforts to promote adoption of soil-friendly agricultural techniques, including strip farming. By 1941, there were 210 Agricultural Improvement Associations on the prairies, with a total membership of 33,600 farmers.[11] The Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration annual report for that year presented this as an unmitigated achievement – despite how these associations were laying groundwork for further sawfly problems.

By the late 1930s, even amid continued worries about soil drift, farmers recognized the wheat stem sawfly infestation had to be addressed. In 1937, C. Shirrif, an agricultural adviser with the federal government, reported that farmers were experimenting with trap strips of brome, a grass thought to attract sawflies while stymying the insect’s development.[12] By 1940, brome was the second most widely distributed of the grasses made available by the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration, with its value lying partly in its use as a trap crop.[13] Agricultural Improvement Associations began including techniques of sawfly management among their educational work.[14] So these farmer groups, initially formed to counter soil drift, were re-purposed to address an insect problem that had been exacerbated through soil conservation efforts.

Government agricultural experts from the prairie provinces and from multiple branches of the federal government also reckoned with the sawfly problem. On a federal government agricultural research station in the Alberta’s Nobleford district, for instance, agents worked to determine how to maximize the effectiveness of trap crops.[15] Notably, over years of research, at least some government experts grew skeptical about brome’s utility in traps, with its uncertain growth patterns undermining its utility.[16] Farmers were increasingly encouraged to combat the sawfly by modifying the dates of key farm operations.[17] Later seeding might make vulnerable crops unavailable during the period in which sawflies were looking to deposit their eggs. Earlier harvest might allow farmers to get even an infested crop off the field before it fell over.

Wheat stem sawfly larva in stub. Source: BugwoodWiki.

Despite efforts by farmers and experts, it was hard to bring down sawfly numbers. In both 1942 and 1943, sawflies were estimated to have caused a loss to farmers of $18,000,000.[18] In that latter year, federal government entomologist C. W. Farstad declared that, over the past few years, “the wheat stem sawfly has been one of the most serious problems of wheat production.”[19]

Worsening infestations in Saskatchewan led in 1945 to an emergency sawfly control campaign. Developed through the combined efforts of Regina and Ottawa, it involved the production of publicity materials, the hosting of field days, and government outreach through the media and other means. While mid-20th century efforts at pest control have often employed militaristic metaphors and aimed at annihilation of the insect enemy, the goal of the emergency sawfly campaign was different.[20] It aimed at “quickly reducing infestations to a point where a normal control program could be expected to keep them in check.”[21]

While even the relatively modest goal of quickly reducing infestations proved difficult to achieve, government agents had another trick up their sleeves. Federal government scientists were working on a new wheat cultivar, one with a solid stem that would make it resistant to the sawfly. Despite the long history of controlled plant breeding on the Canadian prairies and more broadly, it proved difficult to develop a solid-stemmed wheat that performed well through milling and baking and was sufficiently resistant to shattering and rust. Efforts to speed the process included the growing of a second annual crop in California during Canada’s snowy winter months, an effort advanced by dedicated agricultural scientists despite limited support from senior government officials.[22] Finally, in 1946, the aptly-named Rescue Wheat was licensed. Distributions to needy farmers soon began.

Wheat stem sawfly adult. Source: BugwoodWiki.

Over coming years, other resistant wheats like Chinook (licensed in 1952) and Cypress (licensed in 1962) would further increase options available to farmers facing sawfly problems. Still, the wheat stem sawfly is judged by some 21st century experts to be “one of the most damaging pests of wheat in some parts of the Canadian prairies.”[23] Not readily susceptible to insecticides currently in use, the insect lies at the intersection of tame nature and wild nature – at the overlap between the ecological processes harnessed by farmers and those that remain beyond farmer control.[24]

In the 1930s and 1940s, the wheat stem sawfly posed a serious challenge to farmers and agricultural experts in their efforts to both protect the soil and guard against pests. Today, paying attention to the wheat stem sawfly positions us to note how at least one solution to 1930s soil drift itself led to new problems.[25] And it prompts us to recognize how efforts to reckon with the dustbowl of the 1930s, despite the exceptional elements of those difficult years, nevertheless form part of the massive, ongoing effort required to make large-scale agriculture viable on the Canadian prairies.

Feature Photo:

Stem sawfly (Cephidae, Cephus cinctus (Norton))
USA, TX, Travis Co.: Austin
Camp Mabry Nat’l Guard
08.iv-28.iv.2005 J.C. Abbott coll.
UTIC 201334


NOTES

  1. A. W. Platt, “Breeding Wheat for Sawfly Resistance,” Canadian Geographical Journal, 33, no. 3 (1946): 138.
  2. J. Gavloski and S. Meers, “Arthropods of Cereal Crops in Canadian Grasslands” in Arthropods of Canadian Grasslands (Volume 2): Inhabitants of a Changing Landscape, ed. K. D. Floate (Biological Survey of Canada, 2011), 217-237.
  3. V. Lesieur, J.-F. Martin, D. K. Weaver, K. A. Hoelmer, D. R.Smith, W. L. Morrill, et al., “Phylogeography of the Wheat Stem Sawfly, Cephus cinctus Norton (Hymenoptera: Cephidae): Implications for Pest Management,” PLoS ONE 11, 12 (2016): e0168370. doi:10.1371/journal. pone.0168370.
  4. M. A. Ivie, “On the geographic origin of the wheat stem sawfly (Hymenoptera: Cephidae): a new hypothesis of introduction from northeastern Asia,” Am Entomol 47 (2001): 84–97; Ivie, Michael A., and Alexey G. Zinovjev, “Discovery of the Wheat Stem Sawfly (CEPHUS CINCTUS NORTON) (HYMENOPTERA: CEPHIDAE) in Asia, with the Proposal of a New Synonymy,” The Canadian Entomologist 128, no. 2 (1996): 347–48; V. Lesieur, J.-F. Martin, D. K. Weaver, K. A. Hoelmer, D. R.Smith, W. L. Morrill, et al., “Phylogeography of the Wheat Stem Sawfly, Cephus cinctus Norton (Hymenoptera: Cephidae): Implications for Pest Management,” PLoS ONE 11, 12 (2016): e0168370. doi:10.1371/journal. pone.0168370; B.L. Beres, L.M. Dosdall, D.K. Weaver, H.A. Cárcamo, D.M. Spaner, “Biology and Integrated Management of Wheat Stem Sawfly and the Need for Continuing Research,” The Canadian Entomologist, 143, 2 (2011): 105-125.
  5. Norman Criddle, “The Western Wheat-Stem Sawfly in Canada,” The Report of the Entomological Society of Ontario no. 36 (1922): 18. See also: N. J. Holliday, “Norman Criddle: Pioneer Entomologist of the Prairies,” Manitoba History 51 2006: 8-15.
  6. Norman Criddle, “The Western Wheat-Stem Sawfly in Canada,” The Report of the Entomological Society of Ontario no. 36 (1922): 18.
  7. Kenneth Hoeppner, The Ordinary Genius: A Life of Arnold Platt (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2007), 48.
  8. Paul W. Riegert, From Arsenic to DDT: A History of Entomology in Western Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980), 216-217.
  9. Paul W. Riegert, From Arsenic to DDT: A History of Entomology in Western Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980), 219-220.
  10. Government of Canada, “Report of Work Conducted under the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Act for the Fiscal Year 1935-36,” (1936), 9.
  11. Department of Agriculture, “Report of Proceedings under the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Act for the Fiscal Year ending March 31, 1941,” (Ottawa, On.: Government of Canada, 1941), 37.
  12. C. Shirrif, Agricultural Advisor, Dominion Experimental Station, “The Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Program: Radio Address,” aired 21 December 1937, M-3761-352, PFRA – Radio broadcast scripts – 1937-1940, Irrigation Research Project (W.L. Jacobson) collection, Glenbow Archives.
  13. Experimental Farms Service, “Report on Cultural Activities under the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Act for the fiscal year ending March 31 1940,” M-3761-354, PFRA – -Reports of activities. — 1935-1946, Irrigation Research Project (W.L. Jacobson) collection, Glenbow Archives.
  14. “Sawfly Control Experiments” in Experimental Farms Service, “Report on Cultural Activities under the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Act for the fiscal year ending March 31 1940,” M-3761-354, PFRA – -Reports of activities. — 1935-1946, Irrigation Research Project (W.L. Jacobson) collection, Glenbow Archives; Department of Agriculture, “Report on Activities under the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Act for the Fiscal Year ending March 31, 1939, (Ottawa, On.: Government of Canada, 1939), p. 14.
  15. Experimental Farms Service, “Report on Cultural Activities under the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Act for the fiscal year ending March 31 1940,” M-3761-354, PFRA – -Reports of activities. — 1935-1946, Irrigation Research Project (W.L. Jacobson) collection, Glenbow Archives.
  16. “Sawfly Control Experiments on Substations,” Sawfly Control, 1921-1947, Department of Agriculture, Field Crops Branch, 130, GS 44, Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan.
  17. “Sawfly Control Experiments on Substations,” Sawfly Control, 1921-1947, Department of Agriculture, Field Crops Branch, 130, GS 44, Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan.
  18. L. Ogilvie, “Section 7D: Statement of Sawfly Control Campaign To Advisory Committee on Land Utilization, PFRA” in Report of Meeting of the Advisory Committee on Land Utilization, 26-28 February 1945, M-3761-375, PFRA – Advisory Committee. — 1944-1945, Irrigation Research Project (W.L. Jacobson) collection, Glenbow Archives.
  19. C. W. Farstad, “The Wheat Stem Sawfly” in Minutes and Report of Meeting of P.F.R.A Advisory Committee on Land Utilization, 17-18 February 1943, M-3761-372, Irrigation Research Project (W.L. Jacobson) collection, Glenbow Archives.
  20. Edmund P. Russell, ” ‘Speaking of Annihilation’: Mobilizing for War Against Human and Insect Enemies, 1914-1945.” The Journal of American History 82, no. 4 (1996): 1505-529. Accessed March 5, 2020. doi:10.2307/2945309.
  21. K. M. King, Canada Department of Agriculture Entomological Branch, to G. D. Matthews, Superintendent, Scott Dominion Experimental Station, 3 November 1944, Sawfly Control, 1921-1947, Field Crops Branch 130, Department of Agriculture (GS 44), Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan.
  22. A. W. Platt, “Breeding Wheat for Sawfly Resistance,” Canadian Geographical Journal, xxxiii, no. 3 (1946): 138-141. See also Kenneth Hoeppner, The Ordinary Genius: A Life of Arnold Platt (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2007), 56-67; T. H. Anstey, One Hundred Harvests: Research Branch, Agriculture Canada, 1886-1986, Agricultural Canada, Historical Series no. 27 (Ottawa: Canadian Government Publishing Centre, 1986), 269-271.
  23. J. Gavloski and S. Meers, “Arthropods of Cereal Crops in Canadian Grasslands,” in Arthropods of Canadian Grasslands (Volume 2): Inhabitants of a Changing Landscape, ed. K. D. Floate (Biological Survey of Canada, 2011), 217-237.
  24. B.L. Beres, L.M. Dosdall, D.K. Weaver, H.A. Cárcamo, D.M. Spaner, “Biology and Integrated Management of Wheat Stem Sawfly and the Need for Continuing Research,” The Canadian Entomologist, 143, 2 (2011): 105-125.
  25. Kenneth Hoeppner, The Ordinary Genius: A Life of Arnold Platt (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2007), 46.
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Shannon Stunden Bower is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History and Classics at the University of Alberta. Previously, she was the Research Director at the University of Alberta’s Parkland Institute. In 2011, she published Wet Prairie: People, Land, and Water in Agricultural Manitoba, which won the Clio Prize in the Prairie Provinces from the Canadian Historical Association, the Manitoba Day Award from the Association for Manitoba Archives, and the K. D. Srivastava Prize (co-winner) from UBC Press. She has also published articles in journals, including Urban History Review, Environmental History and the Journal of Historical Geography.

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