Original Paper

Population and Environment

, Volume 33, Issue 4, pp 304-332

First online:

Soil and its influence on rural drought migration: insights from Depression-era Southwestern Saskatchewan, Canada

  • Robert A. McLemanAffiliated withDepartment of Geography, University of Ottawa Email author 
  • , S. Kate PloegerAffiliated withDepartment of Geography, University of Ottawa

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This article investigates linkages between soil conditions, farm-level vulnerability, adaptation, and rural migration during periods of drought. It begins by reviewing existing literature on climate adaptation in agricultural populations and on relationships between soil and rural migration. This is followed by a detailed case study of rural migration patterns that emerged in the Swift Current district of Saskatchewan, Canada, during a period of extended droughts and severe economic conditions in the 1930s. Using a combination of secondary literature, interviews with surviving first-hand observers and GIS modeling, the study shows how the interacting effects of household indebtedness, social capital, government relief programs, and farm-level soil quality helped stimulate population loss in many rural townships across the study area. The study focuses particularly on the role played by differential soil quality across the Swift Current district and how farms situated on sandier soils were typically more sensitive and vulnerable to drought than those situated on clay soils. Higher-than-average rates of population loss were associated with townships containing areas of poorer quality agricultural soils, an association replicable using GIS software and existing soil and population datasets. The findings from the case study are discussed within the context of the broader existing literature, and suggestions are provided on future directions for research, planning, and modeling to assist planners and policymakers concerned with rural adaptation and migration.


Drought Migration Agricultural soils Great plains Great depression Historical analogs Climate change