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Manitoba History: The Cost of Farm-Making in Early Manitoba: The Strategy of Almon James Cotton as a Case Study

by Wendy Owen
St. John’s Ravenscourt School

Manitoba History, Number 18, Autumn 1989

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Between 1870 and 1914 hundreds of thousands of men and women poured into the prairie region of Western Canada, both into its cities and onto its land. Part of the attraction of the prairie West, of course, was its perpetuation of the long-standing New World dream of beginning—in economic terms — with virtually nothing, and achieving great prosperity. Newcomers came west to seek their for-tunes, and in urban and rural surroundings some few succeeded. Perhaps the greatest single source of rapid economic gain was successful land speculation, but James Ashdown parlayed a small tinsmith’s workshop behind a Red River hotel into a large wholesale trading empire, and on a homestead near Minnedosa Pat Burns began a career as one of Canada’s most successful entrepreneurs. Few working farmers ever struck it rich, but the local histories of the region are full of stories of farmers who rose to prosperity from humble origins. They myth of the self-made man, so powerful everywhere in North America, had a special currency in the Canadian West.

At the same time, the records are equally full of the evidence of failure: abandoned farms, disastrous attempts at homesteading, and a high incidence of transiency. [1] As has always been the case, those who did not succeed have left far less impress upon the historical record than those who did well. Nevertheless, by the turn of the twentieth century, both immigration literature and the popular journals had come to recognize that the image of the totally self-made farmer was flawed. For the agrarian newcomer, the cost of establishment on the land—even if it were obtained at low expense under homestead conditions—was always a serious problem. [2]

Even were the land free, and frequently it was not, establishment upon it required some capital and involved many hidden costs. In recent years a considerable debate has emerged in the scholarly literature over the minimal amount of capital necessary to establish a Canadian prairie farm. [3] In addressing the problem of farm-making costs, however, the focus has been on initial establishment rather than the subsequent progress and viability of the farms involved. While it is possible to assume that those farmers who came with the barest minimum took longer to achieve financial independence (and ran more risk of going bust in the process) than more substantial newcomers, there has been little attempt in the literature to provide any framework for the process of farm establishment over time, or to evaluate alternative strategies. Examining establishment costs in a vacuum frozen in time does little to help clarify the mechanics of successful prairie farming. The following case study of Almon James Cotton, one of the prairie region’s many “Wheat Kings” in the boom years before World War I, attempts to contribute to the cost of farm-making debate by analyzing how one farmer did succeed. Cotton is one of the few farmers in early Manitoba for whom extensive financial records and personal papers are available. Detailed analysis of Cotton’s surviving account books makes it possible to follow the gradual process by which Cotton achieved his success.

Almon James (A. J.) Cotton was born near Port Granby, Ontario, in 1858. He began his farming career in 1881 by taking over on leasehold a small family holding in Durham County, which he expanded by purchase of adjacent property in 1884. Three years later Cotton decided to abandon Ontario, “having farmed down there,” he later recalled, “until we could farm no longer at a profit.” [4] Cotton sold his farm for less than he had paid for it, but he was able to dispose at auction of much of his livestock and equipment to provide some working capital, and he brought a railcar of goods with him to his new home in Treherne, Manitoba. The land to which Cotton migrated in 1888 belonged to a Port Hope, Ontario, businessman, who was prepared to lease the land to Cotton for five years at an annual rental of one dollar per acre providing the landlord acquired all improvements at the conclusion of the lease. Cotton was thus able to acquire well-located fertile land without tying up his limited capital, with no mortgage costs, and with few financial responsibilities for it. Providing he did not over-improve the property, he was getting first cultivation of it for a relative pittance. Cotton eventually parleyed his success at Treherne into a major landholding in the newly-opened Swan River Valley, removing there in 1901. He would farm in the Valley until his death in 1942.

A. J. Cotton, from The Wheat King, The Selected Letters and Papers of A. J. Cotton, 1888-1913.

In many ways, establishment costs to a farmer were inseparable from subsequent cash flow and continual availability of capital. One of the most difficult problems for many settlers was finding the cash necessary for farm expansion. The homesteader could not mortgage his land until he received the patent. Farm equipment could often be bought by giving a “note,” assuming one’s credit was “good,” but credit often entrapped the farmer into an endless round of refinancing at increased cost. Paying off debt could be accomplished from the sale of a cash crop, whether grain or other farm produce such as eggs or butter. The beginning farmers frequently hired out their labour to others more prosperous in an attempt to bring in cash in the early years. While expansion of land under cultivation was one of any new farmer’s major priorities, at some point the cost of expansion had to be exceeded by the rewards of expansion. In the first years, when margins tended to be tight and cash flow a perennial problem, any untoward occurrence such as the loss of livestock, the need to replace damaged equipment, or poor yields, could place the beginning farmer in a perilous position. A key part of the “cost of farm-making” question, therefore, is how the farmer dealt with these first critical years. Obviously some long-term calculated strategy worked best, and A. J. Cotton had one.

In 1903 Cotton offered his sister-in-law and her husband, Mr. and Mrs. John Hislop, the opportunity to farm one of his recently-acquired half-sections in the Swan River Valley on terms even more generous than those he had himself received in Treherne. Cotton provided the Hislops with a detailed breakdown of what he considered their progress should be over the four years of the proposed contract. [5] The Hislops were expected to erect a house and stable on the property, fence the entire 320 acres, and pay the taxes. In return, John Hislop would receive what Cotton had earlier gotten: the opportunity to take first crops over virgin land at minimal expense. Cotton’s calculations were based on considerable experience, particularly his own. They offer an interesting opportunity to view the kind of strategy which Cotton felt he himself had followed at Treherne, upon which the Hislop offer was clearly based.

According to Cotton, the major expenses for the first year were in the provision of equipment and animals. Cotton suggested bringing the livestock and most of the implements from Ontario, as they were cheaper there, but he emphasized that the seeder and plows should be obtained in the West, where those available suited prairie conditions. The freight charges for the railcar ($117) were exactly the same in 1903 that Cotton had paid in 1888, and the cost of implements, stock, and freight charges amounted to $933. Additional expenses in the first year included $60 for shingles, windows, and nails for the house and stable; $21 for fence wire; $35 for taxes; and $105 provisioning for family and livestock. The total was $1,154. This estimate was considerably higher than the minimal figures discussed in the cost of farm establishment debate; Cotton obviously did not set his expenditures at the minimum. The only income he envisioned to set against the necessary costs would be $100 earned by Hislop helping his neighbours and harvest and threshing time. The first year (1903) would be taken up with building shelter for the family and animals, and in breaking land. Cotton estimated that sixty acres could be broken the first year, close to his own figure of 1888. But in retrospect, he did not recommend trying to crop the first year of settlement, thus reducing potential income.

Cotton envisaged the Hislops entering their second year with a debt of $1054 and interest at seven percent, or $1,127.78 on the debit side. Expenses for 1904 would amount to an additional $378. Broken down, this figure included $47.50 for seed to plant fifty acres of wheat and fifteen acres of oats. Feed oats and provisions for the family would add $80 to the expense and the taxes would add another $35. Shingles and nails for a granary would come to $38. In addition to sundry expenses of $25, there would be the cost of harvesting the grain crop, which Cotton estimated at $155 ($30 for binder twine, $45 for threshing wheat, $30 for threshing oats, and $50 for hired help). The total expenses for the second year, added to the previous year’s debt, would produce a liability of $1,505.78, offset by sale of 880 bushels of wheat at fifty cents a bushel. For purposes of his exercise, Cotton estimated average yields at twenty bushels per acre and average prices for wheat at fifty cents per bushel over the whole of the four-year period. These estimates were not, given the records of the time, unduly optimistic. At the end of their second year of farming, therefore, the Hislops would be $1,065.78 in debt, a small increase over the previous year. Again, this general calculation paralleled Cotton’s own earlier experience.

A further sixty acres would have been broken in the second year, Cotton estimated, so that Hislop would begin 1905 (year three) with 125 acres of broken land and enough seed carried over from the previous year to raise the 1905 crop. With interest on the debt, the Hislops began 1905 in the hole to the tune of $1,140.38. But year three was critical. Cotton anticipated that 110 acres would be seeded in wheat and fifteen acres in oats, yielding 2,200 bushels of wheat and 750 of oats. Expenses for harvesting this crop would amount to $129 for threshing, $56.25 for binder cord, and $75 for hired help, or $260.25. In addition to these costs, expense of cultivation would require another horse at $200, an additional half-set of harness at $15, and another stubble plow at $18. Cotton increased the amount for family provisions to $75, probably to take into account the feeding of hired help. With taxes up to $40 and $25 for sundries, total expenses in year three came to $633.25. In all, expenses for this year plus previous liabilities amounted to $1,773.63. To set against such debits, Cotton envisioned selling 1,930 of the 2,200 bushels threshed, realizing $965 and reducing the Hislop indebtedness at the end of 1905 to $808.63.

For the fourth and final year of their contract, the Hislops would have 205 acres ready for crop, an increase of eighty acres over the previous year; 180 acres would be sown with wheat and twenty-five with oats. Seed for this planting would be carried over from the previous year. Such expanded acreage would require the help of a hired hand for seven months, as well as additional hands for harvesting and threshing. The projected wage bill would be $275, but part of this expense could be offset by hiring out to break fifty acres of land for others, bringing in $150. The major task for this year besides growing grain would be the completion of the fencing of the half section at an additional cost of $84. The expanded acreage would require another wagon to carry the wheat to the elevator, at a cost of $70. Threshing expenses for 3,600 bushels of wheat and 1,200 bushels of oats came to $273.50. With sundries of $50 and taxes of $40, total outgoings would be $771.90. To this figure was added the $808.63 indebtedness (plus interest of $56.60) from the previous year, totalling $1,637.13. But with receipts estimated at $2,325 from the sale of the grain, the Hislops would end year four with $688.81 cash on hand, plus all their chattels, 750 bushels of oats, and 270 bushels of wheat.

A. J. Cotton farm at Harlington, Swan River district, 1916.

As we shall see, this calculation of progress was marginally faster than that managed by Cotton himself. It took him five years to have cash on hand. However, Cotton had expenses that the Hislops did not, including hired help and horses. As with most such projections, Cotton assumed fixed prices and yields, making no allowance for any of the disasters that might beset the western farmer. But even under the most favourable conditions, he did not anticipate a beginning farmer turning a profit in less than four years, and then only providing he had access to over a thousand dollars in unsecured credit at an uncompounded seven percent—and had minimal land expenses. What Cotton expected the Hislops to do at the end of their four years of tenancy is not clear, since most of his land at Swan River was ultimately destined for his sons. Apparently he thought that the farming experience and their assets after four years would provide the Hislops with a good start on land of their own. Not surprisingly, the Hislops did not take Cotton up on his offer. When laid out in such graphic terms, starting up in Manitoba must not have sounded terribly attractive. Cotton had great difficulty in attracting tenants to his land in Swan River, partly because most newcomers had a fixation with land ownership. But Cotton here did something that little contemporary literature or modern scholarship has repeated. He thought in terms of a lengthy process of gradual expansion and reduction of debt based upon the market. He did not pretend that farming could begin without capital or debt, but he offered a scheme for reducing debt in an orderly and relatively swift fashion. He also assumed that the beginner should not own land until he had cash in hand.

Equally importantly, A. J. Cotton was not simply engaging in abstract theorizing in order to attract some tenants. The plan paralleled his own experience as it can be reconstructed from his financial records, although the Hislop situation was not identical to his own some fifteen years earlier. In the first place, Cotton did have some equipment and livestock, worth perhaps $800 to $1,000, as well as access to small amounts of family capital in Ontario. In the second place, Cotton brought not only his horses to Manitoba but a hired man as well. Finally, 1888 was not 1903, as Cotton himself appreciated, writing to the Hislops, “Of course, the more capital you can put into it, the easier you can get through. Pioneering now is not what it used to be.” [6] Nevertheless, Cotton’s own first years provide a context for his advice to the Hislops.

The Cotton family left Ontario for Manitoba in March of 1888, and on 4 May of that year, A. J. sowed his first crop in Manitoba: two and one-half acres of oats. On 23 May he began to sow twenty-three acres of barley, and he also planted an acre of potatoes. In all, during the first year Cotton planted twenty-six and one-half acres and broke a total of sixty acres. He was able to do so because of a spring arrival, the presence of a hired man, and the willingness of the family to camp out in the abandoned shell of a neighbouring farm while Cotton devoted his major effort to his new land. Recollection of these early days, particularly hard on his wife and family, helped contribute to Cotton’s advice to the Hislops not to attempt to plant in their first year.

At the conclusion of his first year, Cotton’s accounts showed a profit of $1.96. This figure, however, did not reflect the true picture. Cotton’s 1888 costs included $165.10 for the move to Treherne, plus $216.86 in ongoing expenses. He did not have much outlay for buildings in this initial year. Combining money borrowed from kin, the money raised by working for others ($36.50) and from sale of crops and produce (194 bushels of barley at forty cents a bushel—or 578.90—plus twelve bushels of potatoes, twenty-five pounds of butter, and seven and one-half dozen eggs for S7.41), he had an income of $337.81. Although it is not clear from his accounting, Cotton must have used notes to finance part of his expenses, probably a stubble plow and a threshing bill. Nevertheless, at the end of his first year, Cotton had his livestock (including some animals obtained in Manitoba), as well as 160 bushels of barley, twenty-five of oats, fifty-eight of potatoes—plus sixty acres of broken land. [7] Since the province did not publish agricultural statistics in 1888, it is impossible to put Cotton’s yields in a larger context. However, at Pipestone, James Lothian’s oat yield was forty-eight bushels per acre as compared with Cotton’s ten. [8] Cotton’s yields appear relatively low, perhaps reflecting his lack of experience with the new environment. Although he had planted and harvested a crop, it had amounted to very little, doubtless another factor in his subsequent advice to wait until the second year to plant.

In 1889 Cotton sowed his first wheat, on 25 March of that year. By the time of sowing, two more acres of land had been cleared, and the entire sixty-two acres were planted with wheat. [9] According to the Manitoba Crop Bulletin for this year, seeding of spring wheat was earlier than any other year in the history of the province to date, and in thirty-two years of subsequent record-keeping Cotton only began seeding this early in one other year. [10] After his wheat sowing had been completed on 11 April 1889, Cotton began the next day to break land for a barley crop. By 24 May he had broken and seeded thirty acres of barley. [11] Having been sown relatively late, Cotton’s barley crop escaped the late May frosts that decimated the crop already above the ground, but it fell victim to summer drought and was a complete failure. [12] Early seeding of wheat was followed by a fairly early harvest, with Cotton beginning cutting wheat on 8 August. [13] This harvest was generally disappointing across the province, with the yield the lowest on record. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that much of the rain-starved grain was too short to cut and bind in sheaves. Although the provincial yield was light, the grain threshed was considered of good quality, “being pronounced bright and hard,” and both high quality and scarceness drove up the price. The average wheat yield per acre across the province was 12.4 bushels, while the return for the district in which Cotton’s land was located was better at 19.5 bushels per acre. Cotton topped both figures with an average of 23 bushels per acre. [14]

Auction poster, 1887.

In all, Cotton harvested 1,256 bushels of wheat in 1889. Of this total, 840 bushels were taken directly from the threshing machine to the Farmer’s Elevator at Treherne, and the remaining 416 bushels were stored in the back kitchen. [15] A month later Cotton sold the elevator wheat to R.S. Alexander for $536.80, which with wastage represented a price of $.65 per bushel, $.07 more than James Lothian received for his wheat at Virden. [16] Cotton’s yields were also considerably better than Lothian’s, the latter averaging 15.5 bushels per acre on land that had been cropped the previous year and (surprising in a drought year) only nine bushels per acre on fallow land. [17] Cotton’s earning of $14.95 per acre was thus substantially greater than Lothian’s, marking the beginning of a long run of such superior returns, which when combined with a constantly increasing acreage sown would form the basis of Cotton’s prosperity.

The year 1889 had been a busy and costly one for Cotton. One of his first actions had been the purchase of another horse, completing two full teams. The horse was purchased from his landlord in Ontario and cost $180, Cotton giving a note for the amount due on 1 December 1889. Only if Cotton were unable to redeem the note at that time would interest be charged at ,the rate of seven percent. [18] Such access to interest-free short-term capital was obviously enormously advantageous to Cotton. With two teams and two men (in addition to hired man Albert Taylor, Mrs. Cotton’s brother Will Ford was now at Treherne), Cotton was able to break another seventy-five acres in 1889, as well as planting nearly 100. Two teams and the move into wheat brought additional expenses. Cotton had to buy another breaking plow, this time a Moline at $27. He also had to obtain a second stubble plow at $20. The major expense in equipment, however, was a $200 Massey-Harris binder, although Cotton spent as well $49.20 on 615 pounds of wire to complete the fencing of the land and $13 for a permit to cut wood for posts, logs, and firewood. [19] Cotton was not merely concerned in 1889 with a crop and breaking land, for in addition to the fencing he had on 21 March laid the foundation for a house on his leasehold. Lumber and shingles for the house cost $118.41, although Cotton also paid $3.10 interest on the outstanding bill up to 16 October, when he used part of the proceeds from the sale of his wheat to retire the debt. [20] Unlike many a Manitoba farmer, A. J. Cotton appreciated the burden that interest charges placed on his operation, and he never allowed interest-bearing debt to remain a moment longer than necessary.

Cotton’s rate of land breaking slowed in 1890, with only thirty-six fresh acres broken, bringing the total of broken land on the farm to 171 acres. [21] In this slowdown Cotton appears to have been in line with many others in the province, as a definite decline in the level of new breaking was noted in 1890. [22] Spring had been late in 1890, which may account for the reduction. Weather certainly retarded seeding. Beginning his seeding on 7 April, Cotton was a full week in advance of the general date for the province. This year he sowed 120 acres of wheat and ten acres of oats. [23] Rainfall was generally good in the spring and early summer, although there was still a shortage of moisture due to the drought of the previous year. Probably all would have been well but for a disastrous hailstorm over a large portion of the southern part of the province on 2 August. In some areas the crops were completely destroyed; in total, 31,851 acres of wheat, 8,403 of oats, and 1,108 of barley were wiped out. [24] Cotton does not seem to have been affected by this storm, although he was undoubtedly struck with the rain which fell generally from August through October. Although a week ahead in sowing, Cotton was almost a week behind the general date for cutting, beginning on 20 August. [25]

Cotton’s average yield of 21.3 bushels per acre was marginally below the 21.5 bushels for his district and barely above the 20.1 bushels per acre which was the province-wide average. His oats yield was 32 bushels per acre, compared with 25.3 for the district and 41.3 for the province. [26] While these yields were doubtless disappointing to him, the doubling of his acreage took away some of the sting. Cotton managed a respectable crop in a year of personal consolidation. Making no major equipment or livestock purchases and no substantial improvements to his buildings, Cotton noted at the end of the year that his incomings were $832.95 and his out-goings only $444.84. Since part of the outgoings included retirement of $167.79 of debt, it was clear that 1890 was a critical year for A. J. Cotton.

Cotton accounts for 1891 show that this year was an easier one financially for the entire family. More money was spent on incidentals, and a large Christmas order was despatched from T. Eaton in Toronto. [27] Cotton increased his wheat acreage by another twenty acres, bringing the total to 130 acres, but in so doing he was below the twenty-two per-cent increase general across the province. [28] The weather had been particularly favourable for putting in the wheat crop, and with the aid of his new press drill Cotton had finished planting by 12 May. [29] He also sowed twenty acres of oats and ten of barley. The July weather was good for the crop and a large one was anticipated, but in fact the crop year was rather mixed. [30] Although the crop was unusually heavy, a frost had affected at least forty percent of the yield, and a late, slow harvest due to shortage of farm labour probably influenced the grading if not the quantity harvested.

Cotton appears to have escaped the worst of the problems, typical of his fortune in the early 1890s. His wheat averaged 28 bushels per acre, above the district level of 26.5 and the provincial figure of 25.3 bushels per acre. His oats produced his best average yield ever at 55 bushels per acre, again ahead of both the district at 48.7 bushels and the province at 48.3 bushels. [31] Cotton’s yields were persistently above both the district and provincial figures in the 1890s, and while account books cannot be made to yield the secret of his success, they do demonstrate that he was a highly skilled farmer. To what extent expansion onto virgin land assisted the total yields cannot be calculated.

At year’s end, Cotton had only 360 bushels remaining of his 3,920 threshed bushels of wheat, indicating that his marketing was not delayed as was that of many other farmers in the province. [32] In addition to his cereal crops, Cotton continued to sell other produce from the farm. Although obviously a market-oriented wheat farmer, Cotton also ran a mixed farm operation. Sales of hay, potatoes, eggs, butter, as well as a steer for $19, all added to income in 1891. Cotton augmented his livestock this year, buying two more horses. The “span of colts” cost $280. The animals represented the major purchase of the year, although in general Cotton’s expanded acreage cost more to farm. He had to buy oats and barley for seed, and his harvesting costs were up, both for threshing and for binder twine.

House belonging to A. J. Cotton at Swan River.

At the end of the year Cotton calculated his assets and liabilities. The list of assets, which included grain on hand, livestock and farm implements, as well as his $25 share in the Treherne Farmer’s Elevator, amounted to $2,280.25. The liabilities, including a note due on 11 October 1892 for the insurance of the farm house and its contents (together valued at $500) and $151 still outstanding to a relative in Ontario, amounted to $355. Cotton considered his new worth at the end of the year to be $1,825.25, perhaps double that with which he had arrived in Manitoba four years earlier. Nevertheless, his income was $2,696.08 and his outlay $2,716.84. [33] Despite the substantial increase in assets, Cotton had still not reached Mr. Micawber’s golden mean. As we have already seen, Cotton would later project a substantial annual profit for year four of the Hislop operation, although he had not actually achieved such a state himself.

1892 was a good year for Manitoba wheat and for A. J. Cotton. Manitoba wheat won the gold medal at the International Millers Exhibition in London, England, a recognition that could not have come at a more opportune time. [34] The large harvest of the previous year had shown that the Manitoba wheat crop had outstripped the demand in North America, and the province would have to look more seriously for markets in Britain and Europe. [35] In 1892 Cotton planted 153 acres of wheat, as well as ten acres of barley and twenty-three of oats. [36] The total of 186 acres planted meant that he was continuing to bring new land under cultivation. During the early summer, farmers looked forward to a bumper harvest, but this expectation was not realized everywhere. Dry weather caused the wheat to ripen too quickly, there were the usual local storms and frosts, and in some sections wheat did not fill to the top. [37]

According to the analysts, another reason for the light yield of 1892 was overexpansion; some farmers were breaking more land than they could properly cultivate. [38] A. J. Cotton, however, had not allowed his land to get out of control, and he was lucky with the weather as well. His wheat yield in 1892 was 29 bushels to the acre, nearly double that of either his district (16.33 bushels) or the province (16.50 bushels). Oats and barley yields were equally good for Cotton, barley more than doubling the district average and nearly doubling that of the province. Oats averaged 61.5 bushels, compared with 35.7 for the district and 35 for the province. Altogether Cotton had 4,437 bushels of wheat, 1,414 of oats, and 570 of barley. [39] Christmas in the Cotton household of 1892 reflected the prosperity derived from these results. In addition to a fifteen-pound turkey, there were candies and raisins, nuts, oranges, lemons and pears. [40] While last year’s holiday had been a good one, this one was even better.

When Cotton sat down to his annual year end’s reckoning, for the first time he could record that he had $228.36 cash on hand. His assets this year came to $2,668 and the liabilities were $348.61, down slightly from the previous year. Some debt had been retired and some added. Cotton now owed his aunt in Ontario $166.06, the increase reflecting the six percent interest being charged on the remaining principal. Cotton’s net worth had increased by $772.50 over the previous year, now standing at $2,547.75. It had taken him five years in Manitoba to “turn the corner,” and he had begun with some advantages and progressed without any major setbacks. Despite Cotton’s later calculations for the Hislops, it would appear that five years represented the minimum span of time during which a farmer beginning in Manitoba in the late 1880s could expect to become a profit-maker.

Table 1:
A. J. Cotton: Acres under crop, 1888-1900


Year

Total

Wheat

Oats

Barley


1888

25.5

-

2.5

23

1889

62

62

-

-

1890

130

120

10

-

1891

170

140

20

10

1892

186

153

23

10

1893

235

200

25

10

1894

330

280

35

15

1895

380

314

52

14

1896

412

320

80

12

1897

544

475

59

10

1898

760

515

132

13

1899

690

650

40

-

1900

810

730

80

-


Over the remaining years of the 1890s, Cotton continued to expand his holdings in rented virgin land and his acreage under cultivation, reaching his maximum acreage in Treheme and the Swan River Valley in 1900 at 730 acres. In 1895, with 314 acres under cultivation, Cotton produced 12,745 bushels of wheat (a spectacular 40 bushels per acre in a bumper year in which the provincial average was 27 bushels per acre). Harvesting early, by 27 September of that year he had 12,585 bushels of wheat filling nineteen rail cars heading for Fort William, thirteen of them filled with No. 1 hard and six with No. 1 northern. He received an advance of thirty cents on the bushel, and between his $2,600 advance and an additional sales worth $4053.77 of other produce he was able to clear his remaining debts and increase his net worth substantially to $6,237.15. [41] After this year it becomes impossible to relate his annual revenue to his annual production, since he was now sufficiently well off to be able to hold wheat back for the best price. By 1899 he had assets of $19,103.68, including $6,306.56 out on loan. According to his calculations that year, he had made a profit of $.22 on every bushel of wheat he had threshed. [42] Small wonder he was labelled “The Wheat King” in several newspapers and journals.

Table 2:
A. J. Cotton: Comparative wheat yields per acre


Year

Acreage

Total
bushels

Bushels
per acre

District
average/acre

Provincial
average/acre


1888

-

1889

62

1371

23

19.5

12.4

1890

120

2566

21.3

21.5

20.1

1891

140

3920

28

26.5

25.3

1892

153

4437

29

16.33

16.5

1893

200

4378

22

20

15.5

1894

280

8400

30

20.5

17.0

1895

314

12745

40

29

27.0

1896

320

4536

14.25

11.9

14.33

1897

475

12350

26

14.7

14.14

1898

515

16206

31

19

17.01

1899

650

18632

29

19

17.13

1900

730

6025

8.5

7.6

8.9


What can we learn from the foregoing detailed examination of A. J. Cotton’s farming progress from 1888 to 1893? In the first place, it must be emphasized that he was a hard-working and skilled farmer. The land at Treherne was among the best in the province, but Cotton consistently out-produced his neighbours, year after year. Continual expansion onto new land undoubtedly aided his yields, and may also have kept down some of the collateral problems of weeds and pests. In the second place, while his annual planning seemed centred around constant expansion of acreage under cultivation, Cotton did have an overall strategy and a good business sense. He had become established without investing in land, and he operated on a pay-as-you-go basis as much as possible. [43] He kept his equipment purchases to the minimum, and seems to have engaged in little mechanization. In the third place, of course, Cotton built his success in a period in which constant expansion of acreage under cultivation worked, and in which the costs of mechanization had not yet emerged. He was thus able to expand without incurring the substantial costs of mechanized agriculture. Horses remained his major equipment investment. In the fourth place, Cotton was very fortunate, particularly in escaping the many disasters that ravaged parts of the provincial grain crop in the period. Finally, Cotton exploited all possiblesources of income, including ploughing land for neighbours (195 acres for $400 in 1892, 280 acres for $500 in 1893) and the production of mixed farming (dressed hogs, eggs, butter, lard, and cattle brought in an additional $289.65 in 1893). [44] At the same time, Cotton was not able to resolve the problems of marketing. Despite his success he was no better off than his neighbours once his threshing was completed, and various strategies of marketing wheat all proved of limited satisfaction. Cotton never managed to beat the system to his own advantage in all his years of farming.

But A. J. Cotton had succeeded, and the advice he gave to his kinfolk was based on that experience. As he wrote to the Hislops in 1903 regarding successful establishment as a prairie farmer,

... to accomplish this ... means industry and good management, and doing the proper thing at the proper time. You cannot be promised ease or luxury. There will be a certain amount of hardship to endure, obstacles to overcome. Your first four years would be your greatest worry, after that you would he into shape to go ahead, [45]

These observations bring us back to the scholarly debate over the cost of farm-making in prairie Canada before World War I.

It is difficult to fault A. J. Cotton’s strategy and tactics—or good fortune—apart from his concentration on rented virgin land adjacent to rail transportation as an alternative to purchase or homestead. Land ownership might in the long run have brought him greater returns by enabling him to sell out at inflated prices when he decided to move to Swan River. But much depended on where the land he might have purchased or homesteaded in 1888 was located, and if purchased how much additional debt he would have incurred in the process. As matters stood, he had begun with capital of nearly $1,000, relatively few debts, and access to short-term interest-free funds. He had enjoyed yields continually above average, experienced much good fortune with weather, and run a tight business-like operation that kept interest charges low and maximized all sources of revenue. Even under these conditions, it took A. J. Cotton five years to turn the profit corner. During those five years he and his family had been forced to work hard, defer expectations, and watch expenses carefully. As Cotton had noted to the Hislops, capital, careful management, and perseverance were the keys to successful farm establishment. Capital was certainly a prerequisite, but it was not by itself sufficient. Given Cotton’s experiences, the minimum amount of capital desirable was clearly in the range of $1,000, to which must be added the immeasurable patience and fortitude to continue to lose money and forego luxury annually for four or five more years before achieving success. Not all prairie farmers possessed such resources, and many would fail regardless of the size of their initial capital investment. Given A. J. Cotton’s evidence, it is difficult to see how it could have been otherwise.

Notes

1. For recent studies of these themes for the prairie West, see Paul Voisev, Vulcan: The Making of a Prairie Community (Toronto, 1988) and David C. Jones, Empire of Dust: Settling and Abandoning the Prairie Dry Belt (Edmonton, 1987).

2. See, for example, Lyle Dick, “Factors Affecting Prairie Settlement: A Case Study of Abernethy, Saskatchewan in the 1880s,” Canadian Historical Association Historical Papers, 1985, pp. 11-28.

3. See, for example, Robert E. Ankli and Robert M. Litt, “The Growth of Prairie Agriculture: Economic Considerations,” in Donald H. Akenson, ed., Canadian Papers in Rural History, I (1978), pp. 33-66; Lyle Dick, “Estimates of Farm-Making Costs in Saskatchewan, 1881-1914,” Prairie Forum, VI (1981), pp. 183-201; Irene M. Spry, “The Cost of Making a Farm on the Prairies,” Prairie Forum, VII (1982), pp. 95-100; Lyle Dick, “A Reply to Professor Spry’s Critique ‘The Cost of Making a Farm on the Prairies’,” Prairie Forum, VII (1982), p. 101. Anklin and Litt suggest $1,000 as a minimum for 1900, and while Dick accepts $1,000 as average, he suggests that $300 was an absolute minimum. Spry disagrees with some of Dick’s “expenses,” arguing that they were not properly a part of “farm-making,” but accepts his conclusion that it was possible to succeed with little initial capital.

4. For the career of Almon James Cotton, consult Wendy J. Owen, “Prairie Patriarch: A History of Almon James Cotton, 1858-1942,” unpublished M.A. thesis, University of Manitoba, 1986; Wendy Owen, ed., The Wheat King: The Selected Letters and Papers of A. J. Cotton, 1888-1913 (Winnipeg, 1985). The hulk of the Cotton Papers are located in the Provincial Archives of Manitoba, Winnipeg (hereafter cited as CPPAM), although some papers and photographs are still in the possession of the family in Swan River, Manitoba.

5. A. J. Cotton to John and Sadie Hislop, 28 January 1903, CPPAM. This letter, although not its accompanying material, is reprinted in Owen, ed., The Wheat King, pp. 68-70.

6. Ibid.

7. Cotton Account Books, 1888, 1889, CPPAM.

8. James Lothian Papers, 1888, Provincial Archives of Manitoba.

9. Cotton Account Books, 25 March 1889, CPPAM.

10. Manitoba Department of Agriculture and Immigration, Crop Bulletin, n. 22 (1889), p. 3. Hereafter this source will he cited as Crop Bulletin, with relevant number.

11. Cotton Account Books, 11 April, 12 April, 24 May, 1889, CPPAM.

12. Crop Bulletin 23, p. 7; Cotton Account Books, 1889.

13. Cotton Account Books, 1889.

14. Crop Bulletin 24, p. 8; Cotton Account Books, 1889.

15. Cotton Account Books, 11 September 1889.

16. Cotton Account Books, 16 October 1889; James Lothian Papers, PAM.

17. James Lothian Papers, 16-21 September 1889, PAM.

18. Cotton Account Books, January 1889.

19. Cotton Account Books, 1889.

20. Ibid.

21. Cotton Account Books, 30 December 1890.

22. Crop Bulletin, 26, p. 11.

23. Cotton Account Books, 7 April 1890; Crop Bulletin 25, p. 5.

24. Crop Bulletin 26, p. 14.

25. Cotton Account Books, 20 August 1890; Crop Bulletin 27, p. 5.

26. Cotton Account Books, 1890; Crop Bulletin 27, p. 6.

27. Cotton Account Books, 9 May, 15 May, 22 December 1891.

28. Cotton Account Books, 1891; Crop Bulletin 28, p. 4.

29. Cotton Account Books, 12 May 1891.

30. Crop Bulletin 30, p. 6 and Crop Bulletin 31, p. 5.

31. Cotton Account Books, 1891; Crop Bulletin 31, p. 5.

32. Cotton Account Books, 1891; Crop Bulletin 31, p. 8.

33. Cotton Account Books, 1891.

34. Crop Bulletin 33, p. 15.

35. Crop Bulletin 32, p. 3.

36. Cotton Account Books, 1892.

37. Crop Bulletin 37, p. 4.

38. Crop Bulletin 31, p. 11, and Crop Bulletin 36, p. 12.

39. Cotton Account Books, 1892.

40. Cotton Account Books, 24 December 1892.

41. Cotton Account Books, 1895.

42. Cotton Account Books, 1899.

43. The issue of ownership versus tenancy has not been much addressed in the Canadian literature, although Voisey suggests in Vulcan, p. 135 ff, that Alberta farmers expanded their holdings through the use of rental land. There is a substantial American literature on tenancy, however, much of which suggests that it was a functional economic strategy rather than a factor necessarily involving exploitation of poor tenant farmers, a point with which Voisey concurs. For examples of the American literature, see Donald L. Winters, “Tenant Farming in Iowa, 1860-1900: A Study of the Terms of Rental Leases,” Agricultural History, 48 (1974), pp. 130-50; Robert Diller, Farm Ownership, Tenancy, and Land Use in a Nebraska Community (Chicago, 1941); S. Cogswell, Jr., Tenure, Nativity and Age as Factors in Iowa Agriculture, 1850-1880 (Ames, Iowa, 1975).

44. Cotton Account Books, 1892, 1893.

45. Cotton to Hislops, 28 January 1903.

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