What Ails Our Wheat?

A candid explanation of the grain-grading controversy that, after thirty years of perennial strife, once more is in full flame in Western Canada

MICHAEL O’MAYO May 15 1929

What Ails Our Wheat?

A candid explanation of the grain-grading controversy that, after thirty years of perennial strife, once more is in full flame in Western Canada

MICHAEL O’MAYO May 15 1929

What Ails Our Wheat?

A candid explanation of the grain-grading controversy that, after thirty years of perennial strife, once more is in full flame in Western Canada


A SMALL group of scientists is hot on the trail of secrets which mean life and death to Canadian agriculture. In the cloistered calm of their laboratories they are settling an argument which has menaced the peace and quiet of respectable prairie homes for a generation; they are seeking ways and means to maintain Canada’s reputation, now endangered, as the grower of the world’s finest wheat.

For there’s magic in the wheat kernel, feeds hungry millions in distant lands. It gives birth to cities, is the life-blood of the prairies. It’s a barometer of trade and is the foundation on which has been built a great nation called Canada.

But there’s a veritable witch’s brew of trouble in these tiny grains of destiny. Should you doubt it, then just ask a simple question anywhere between the Red River and the Rockies: “What is the real value of wheat?” —and you’ll find yourself the centre of a storm of discussion. It’s an innocent-looking question, but it’s guaranteed to start verbal fireworks, beside which the fabled conversations at Babel closely resemble a monologue.

For more than thirty years the dispute has been waged. It has been the subject of much legislation; perplexed half a dozen Royal Commissions; bewildered who knows how many Special Committees of the House of Commons; and it has given birth to economic and political movements of more than national significance.

The Battle of Wheat

STILL the Battle of Wheat is being waged. It roars up and down the prairies with increasing fury. Another Royal Commission is probing, peering and prying; still another Special Committee enquires. Indignant farmers’ conventions thunderously applaud scathing denunciations of our grading system in general and of the Board of Grain Commissioners in particular; astute politicians at Ottawa trim their sails to western breezes and prepare for drastic legislative action.

To make chaos more confounded, distant but unmistakeable rumblings of discontent come from some of Canada’s best cash customers in Europe. The burden of their plaint is this: that our wheat is not as good today as it was ten years ago—a statement, sad to say, which is echoed by Canadians who are experts in such matters.

It all started in those far-off days when there were no rules governing the sale of wheat; no government inspectors to supervise the grading; no competition, and the grain dealers had things very much their own way. Complaints arose of shortweight, of heavy dockage for weeds when there were no weeds, of low prices and of an indefiniteness about grades. To the farmer it seemed that he had no redress. The law afforded him neither protection nor relief. He merely grew the grain! Price and grade and weight — those were matters entirely beyond his control.

The smouldering fires of resentment broke into open conflagration. The farmers organized; they became a power in the land, and governments, recognizing that power, began to legislate to meet their wishes. The result was the long series of Statutes, commencing with the Manitoba Grain Act of 1900 and culminating in the Canada Grain Act of 1912, whi ch systematized the marketing of grain and brought it under rigid government inspection.

Under the Act of 1912, control was vested in a Board of Grain Commissioners, armed with wide discretionary powers and charged with the duty of supervising the inspection and marketing of grain. Certain grades of wheat were defined: No. 1 Northern, for instance, must weigh sixty pounds to the bushel, and contain hard, red and sound kernels of wheat. A small army of inspectors and graders was employed to inspect and grade every car load of wheat marketed. Committees of experts were brought together in order to establish the lower grades of wheat and to serve as courts of appeal, should disputes arise regarding the grading of grain.

Despite all this machinery, it was not long before the Board found itself in deep waters. It was being continually asked questions it couldn’t answer. “How much moisture can a bushel of wheat contain without danger of spoiling?” was one such question. The elevator companies insisted that only a little moisture in wheat endangered its storage quality, and hinted that low prices should be paid for such wheat. Farmers insisted that there was little if any danger in the storage of such wheat, and that such wheat could be easily and cheaply dried with no depreciation in value. “Why should we get low grades and prices for this wheat when a little drying, at a nominal cost, will put it in first-class shape?” asked these irate farmers.

Who was right? The Board must decide— for it had been created to decide just such questions. Only, the Board couldn’t decide, and for the excellent reason that the Board didn’t know. It was in the position of a small boy suddenly asked to solve a problem in higher mathematics!

What, then, was to be done? Dr. Robert Magill, the first chairman of the Board, made a momentous decision. He urged that the Board

employ chemists to answer these perplexing questions for ever popping out of tiny kernels of wheat. “Let science decide,” was the doctor’s slogan.

His advice was taken and there came into existence the Dominion Grain Research Laboratory under the direction of a cereal-chemist, Dr. F. J. Birchard.

The chemists set to work to settle this moisture discussion. All agreed that if wheat contains too much moisture, it becomes musty, mouldy and hot when stored; the question demanding answer was just this: how much moisture can a bushel of wheat contain without danger of spoiling when stored?

The sleuths of science peered into railroad cars at obscure sidings and took samples of wheat roaring down the chutes of dusty elevators. They turned a steamer into a floating laboratory when they delved into her dim and dusty holds with their cunningly devised instruments. They stood guard over that cargo of wheat as the steamer plowed the seas from Vancouver to London, and braved the perils of German submarines in the doing. They tested and probed; they baked countless loaves of bread. Then they were ready with an answer: Wheat with a moisture content of more than 14.5 per cent is in danger of spoiling when stored. Into the regulations went that statement, and all wheat containing moisture in excess of that figure went into the “tough” and “damp” grades at considerably lower prices.

Nineteen twenty-six was a fateful year, marked by a truly appalling ruin of all. The result was disastrous from the standpoint of the farmers. Most of the crop graded “tough,” “damp,” and “sprouted”— with consequent reduction in prices.

The farmers didn’t relish these low grades and low prices. To them it seemed to be “just another stunt to get something for nothing.” They began to ask questions. Was it true that this wheat was damaged by rain? And if it was damaged by rain, was it to the extent represented by these low prices? Couldn’t these wheats be dried at a nominal cost and then be sold at much higher prices? In fact, wasn’t that going on all the time at the terminal elevators? And who was getting the difference between the price the farmers received for these low grades and the price secured by the grain dealers for these same wheats sold at higher grades? They wanted to know the answers to a whole series of questions, and when these hardy plainsmen demand answers they want them in a hurry and, of course, without trimmings.

That Bugbear of “Moisture Content”

THEN there came complaints from powerful interests across the seas. The Liverpool Corn Trade Association wrote letters to the Prime Minister and to the Board of Grain Commissioners. “The whole United Kingdom and continental markets are becoming dissatisfied,” said this valued customer of our wheat. “My directors are sure that the British Grain Trade is not aware that a Government certificate, in itself so misleading, could be put to official use,” continued the irate Exchange. These certificates were branded as “untruthful and unreliable,” for they set forth the merits of straight grade wheat, whereas the cargoes in question had very evidently been dried, and spoilt in the drying. It was “a most unsatisfactory state of affairs,” and there were covert threats that this method of trading would be discontinued unless better results could be obtained.

Such a hue and cry was raised from the Rockies to Liverpool that the federal government was forced to do what wisdom should have dictated years ago: the matter was placed in the hands of men of science. It was realized that the Grain Research Laboratory alone could not possibly keep pace with all the problems popping from tiny kernels of wheat, and so reinforcement was sought from the Dominion Research Council.

The Council, led by Dr. H. M. Tory, proceeded to mobilize its forces. The universities of the prairie provinces cooperated by placing their laboratories at the disposal of the Council. Professors of chemistry at these seats of learning supervised the work and constituted a committee of experts. A staff of technicians was engaged to work under the direction of these professors. Conferences were held and a plan of campaign outlined. That was in 1927.

These technicians went into elevators to secure samples of the wheat rushing down the chutes from one bin to another; they watched the wheat being dried on a commercial scale. Not content with all this, one of these scientists devised a small drying machine in the Edmonton laboratory so that all the conditions surrounding the drying of wheat might be studied and controlled: air temperature, rate of flow of the air and rate of movement of the grain.

By such means did these experts verify a former finding of the Grain Laboratory, that wheat should not be dried at a temperature higher than 180 degrees, or dried below a moisture content of 13.5 per cent. If these precautions were observed, said these men of science, there would be little danger from drying damp wheat. The cargoes of wheat which had aroused the ire of the Liverpool Corn Trade Association had been “cooked” by injudicious drying—and to crown the folly had been sold as sound wheat!

Thus the wise men of the laboratories, and thus it will be found in the regulations governing the commercial drying of wheat.

The Protein Puzzle

"DUT what of the farmers and their low grades of wheat? Was it true that rain damaged wheat, and if so to what extent? Was this low-grade wheat worthless for the milling of flour? Were the grades and prices true mirrors of the damage done? Or was it true, as said the farmers, that these low grades and prices prevailed at country elevators, but that this low grade, low price wheat, when mixed with better wheats, sold at much higher prices?

More experiments were made. Endless loaves of bread were baked in order to test the milling value of various samples of wheat. Then: the cold, dispassionate decisions of science. Knotty problems, vexing generations of farmers, began to yield to the inexorable pressure of skilled research.

Moderate weathering does not injure the milling value of wheat. In some conditions moderate weathering actually improves the intrinsic value, to the baker, of the straight grade flour produced from it. Severe weathering injures the gluten of the wheat and results in poor loaves. Such, in brief, was the decision of these experts trying to solve Canada’s wheat problem.

These facts are destined, some say, to revolutionize our grading system. In the first place, they mean that some of the wheat sold by farmers at low prices is as good, from the standpoint of the baking of bread, as wheat paid for at higher prices. To that extent, at any rate, have the complaints of the farmers been justified by the chemists of the Dominion Research Council and the Grain Research Laboratory.

In the second place, these facts reveal a weakness inherent in our present grading system. How can the milling value of weathered wheat be measured? Only by baking tests in laboratories, say these men of science. Visual inspection, as practised at present, cannot accurately measure the value of such wheats; cannot distinguish between wheat that is undamaged and that which is badly injured. All which means that the existing methods of inspection and grading must be supplemented by laboratory tests to determine the value of these wheats. Certainly there is no other way productive of accurate results.

Then there’s gluten ! Spokesmen of the farmers have been talking much about gluten during the last few years. Last year, a Special Committee of the House of Commons reported that “all things considered, the amount of gluten, that is, of protein, seem, in the light of present knowledge, to be the nearest approach to an ideal standard of baking strength available.”

“Some wheats make good loaves of bread,” one of these chemists told me, “but other wheats make very poor bread. In outward appearance two samples of wheat may be identical, yet they will produce strikingly different loaves of bread.”

“There are a lot of things in one of these kernels of wheat capable of producing these differences, but one of the most important is gluten. It’s that yellowish, rubbery, gum-like substance you find in your mouth after you've been chewing some kernels for a few minutes.”

“Here is a loaf of bread,” he continued. “Marquis wheat, as you know, is the world’s finest bread wheat, and this loaf was made from Marquis. Over here is a loaf made from Kubanka wheat, and you will see that it is not nearly so good. If you analyzed the two wheats it is probable that you’d find more gluten in the Kubanka than in the Marquis; but it’s not the right kind of gluten for bread making.

That’s why Kubanka wheat is used for the making of macaroni and not for bread making. Nov/ look at this low, heavy loaf. It was made from rye flour, and rye has no gluten.” '

All of which means that gluten is one of the most important factors governing the baking of good loaves of bread.

The Basis of Quality

VW’HAT’S all this to me?” enquire the ’’v blacksmith, the butcher and the plumber. Tell them, then, that Canadian wheat contains more of this precious gluten than the wheats of other countries. Tell them that the millers of the world eagerly purchase our high gluten wheats to mix with the low gluten wheats poured upon them from less fortunate countries. Tell them, too, that it is this same gluten that gave to No. 1 Manitoba Hard Wheat its reputation on the far marts of commerce, and which enabled Canadian farmers to bag world’s wheat championships with a regularity that was monotonous. Tell them, finally, that it’s this gluten which causes rumblings of discontent from overseas customers and from wise men in our midst.

Two years or so ago, some of our best customers began to complain of the quality of our wheats and to sigh audibly for the old-time, high-gluten wheats of Russia. Canadian millers began to grumble. “In our opinion,” stated a chemist of one of our leading mills, “the average strength of the wheat at the present time is decidedly lower than it was ten years ago.”

The Inspection Department at Winnipeg confirms these doleful statements. In 1927, for instance, out of a total of 273,411 cars of wheat inspected in that city, there was found only one car of No. 1 Hard Wheat. The world-famous wheat of other days was almost as extinct as the dodo. “The average quality of the wheat produced in the prairie provinces today is not as high as it was, say, twenty years ago,” stated Mr. J. D. Fraser, Chief Grain Inspector, when interviewed; while Dr. R. Magill, secretary of the Winnipeg Grain Exchange and an authority on Canada’s wheat, cites plenty of figures to show that the gluten content of our wheats is lower today than it was ten years ago.

The western farmers, it would appear, are in something of a predicament. Wheat farming has always been a stern struggle against Old Lady Nature.

Quite naturally, these harassed farmers have tried to dodge the rust raiders and the icy fingers of King Frost. In desperate effort to thwart these twin enemies, they have grown many varieties of wheat; some of them good, some of them bad; some of them capable of producing good flour, and some of them making very poor flour.

It is the task of the men of science to sift the good from the bad, and this means more experiments, more loaves of bread. With the chemists of the Dominion Research Council have been allied the plant-breeders of the Department of Agriculture—those hunger fighters who juggle with the germs of life to create new wheats from old wheats. Between them they seek to “zone” wheats, so that the farmers of each district will grow wheats most suited to their particular conditions. In this way they hope to bring back the high gluten wheats which made Canada so famous in the past; they hope to guarantee to these hard-working plainsmen crops of wheat of good milling value.

But that’s not all the story. The Special Committee of the House of Commons, last session, urged that “the introduction of protein (gluten) as a factor in wheat grading would be an incentive to grow the best milling varieties of wheat. This we consider of great importance.” The Committee felt that grading wheat according to its gluten content would encourage the growing of better wheats, because there is a relative scarcity of high gluten wheats, and scarcity usually means higher prices.

Needless to say, that decision pleased the prairie farmers. “What’s the good of talking about the finest wheat in the world,” say these farmers, “if we don’t get the difference in price? Our wheat is valuable to the millers because it contains plenty of gluten. They use it to blend with the low gluten wheats coming from other countries. What’s more, the millers of this country carefully pick out cars containing high gluten wheat: they skim the cream. Why can’t some of this value come back to the man who grows the wheat?” Thus the prairie farmers !

These are the reasons back of the insistent demands for grading based on gluten which have been heard on the prairies for many years, and which, last year, won the approval of a Special Committee of the House of Commons.

But tests for gluten can’t be made outside of a laboratory, and these laboratories must be built before such a system can be established. Indeed, the Special Committee of last session reported to the House of Commons that “the cost of making protein (gluten) tests would range from fifty to seventy-five cents (per sample) and is not considered a serious difficulty, notwithstanding the fact that laboratories would necessarily have to be established at all inspection points. We would suggest that data be obtained as to cost of installing and maintaining laboratories.”

The evidence given before Royal Commissions and Special Committees proves at least one thing: that the inspection certificates now issued say little if anything about the baking and milling values of wheat. The complaints of the Liverpool Corn Trade Association regarding dried wheat give point to this criticism. And the facts pouring from the laboratories of the Dominion Research Council certainly show that the effects of rain and snow upon the milling value of wheat cannot be accurately measured except by careful baking tests made in laboratories by skilled chemists.

It is possible, then, that certificates in future will be issued covering gluten content, extent of germination, drying treatment, frost damage and other matters of vital concern to farmers and millers alike. These facts, of course, will be ascertained in government laboratories established at inspection points for that purpose. Such tests would not displace the existing tests for weight, color, moisture, and other properties, but would supplement them; for the first tim§ wheat would be subjected to scientific mensure-, ment from the standpoint of the power.

Such methods are not new. Everymilling company in Canada possesses a. laboratory and employs a cereal chemist to evaluate properly the wheats used in its mills. In the United States tests for gluten content are now a matter of routine, and wheat is sold every day on the basis of laboratory tests. If milling companies find the scientific accuracy or chemists essential for the evaluation of their wheats, it would seem logical that similar methods be placed at the disposal of the growers.

Be all this as it may, this much ia certain: no legislative action should be taken without first consulting the experts of the Dominion Research Council. For more than thirty years the grading of wheat has kept the prairies in an uproar, Time and again it has been used as a political football. The question should now be settled in accordance with the facts ascertained by our men of science,

Penny Wise and Pound Foolish

SUFFICIENT has been said, I think, to indicate that the men in charge of cereal research are engaged in work of national importance. Not only are they settling problems which have vexed and bewildered farmers and millers, but they are striving to retain Canada’s prestige as the finest wheat-producing country in the world.

Picture then, if you please these men engaged in this important task. They are university professors—with lectures, and classes, and all the routine of drumming knowledge into the heads of aspiring youth. Hard-working professors cannot devote the whole of their time and their skill to solving Canada’s wheat riddle: that must, somehow, be done in the hours snatched from the teaching of chemistry.

The universities provide the equipment. They provide the professors and pay them their salaries. Then—the Dominion Research Council, with the scant funds at its disposal, supplies two technicians for each laboratory to work under the supervision of the professors. These technicians are paid—one hundred dollars a month! Sometimes they are students, but sometimes they are trained men. One such was offered $3,800 a year by an American university and accepted the offer. That was four months ago. Now he has been offered $6,000 a year for cereal research. Yet Canada valued his services at $100 per month.

Then there’s the case of a professor of chemistry—a man expert in his craft and of great value to this country. He teaches students the A.B.C. of his science and supervises innumerable experiments conducted under the auspices of the Council. Far into the night he toils in his basement laboratory—often with the aid of his charming wife. Despite these handicaps he has enormously enriched our knowledge of cereal chemistry and is now in the midst of experiments of tremendous value to the farmers and the millers of this country. He has been offered a lucrative job in a large laboratory in the United States where there is plenty of money and plenty of equipment for research, and Canada loses another man of science because of its false economy.

Surely it is false economy to ask skilled men to tackle problems of national importance in the time they can spare from their duties as teachers of chemistry? Surely there is sufficient money in Canada to warrant the employment of full-time experts, to pay them salaries commensurate with the work they do, and to provide them with equipment enabling them to work with ease and efficiency?

The prosperity of Canadian agriculture is at stake; the reputation of Canadian wheat is in jeopardy; the contentment of prairie homes lies in the balance. Only the men of science prying into the secrets of tiny kernels of wheat can remedy matters. Surely it cannot be said that Canada is too poor to finance them adequately.