The Wheat Pool
"The pool is the world’s largest farm, the world’s largest shipper of wheat, the biggest Big Business in Canada—and it was built by the Man Behind the Plow”
W. A. IRWIN
SOMEWHERE in the English language there ought to be a word that adequately describes the colossus of the prairies known to the world as the Canadian Wheat Pool. To date, I haven’t been able to find one. “Colossus,” for instance, doesn’t begin to do it justice, for this colossus, begotten of 133,000 parents, straddles half a continent and stretches its arms across two oceans.
According to the economists, it is a producers’ cooperative—as it happens, the most gigantic producers’ co-operative known to history—but that is a text-book phrase as colorless as the pool’s story is sensational. Nor does it suggest the extraordinary fact that in five years the pool has made the Man Behind the Plow the mightiest merchant in this Dominion.
Having regard to the sweep of its territories and the vastness of its despotic power, it might be called an agrarian empire; yet, it has no emperor, and is, in truth, a co-operative democracy where no man rules save by consent of his neighbor.
The men who created it were neither grain men nor elevator operators, yet in the brief space of five years it has become the world’s largest shipper of wheat and the owner of the world’s longest string of grain elevators.
Gauged in terms of acres, it is the world’s largest farm, a farm of so vast a sweep as to dwarf countries of no mean importance. Yet its success depends not on the skill of its members as farmers but on its skill as a salesman in the world’s wheat markets.
Measured on the basis of its purely commercial activities, it is the biggest Big Business in Canada, for neither of the two world’s longest railway systems nor any other billion-dollar corporation in the country can match its annual revenue. Yet to label it the farmer’s Big Business and let it go at that were to give a false impression, for its ways are foreign to the ways of Big Business and its very existence is a protest against the system of profit-making upon which Big Business has waxed great.
The pool, in short, is a phenomenon for which there is no precedent. Six years ago it existed only in the minds of visionaries. Today it controls one fifth of the world’s international wheat supply. Five years ago it was setting its house in order against the opposition of
the most highly organized trade in Canada which from the outset fought it tooth and nail. Today it owns more country elevators than any seven of the private grain companies. Four years ago, caught in the vortex of the wheat pit, it seemed to totter on the verge of a financial crash. Today it controls, with a control that is absolute, more than half the wheat grown in the three provinces which export more wheat than any country in the world.
A Turnover of $1,100,000,000
'T'O THE casual observer, the pool had its beginnings back in the dark days of the year of the Great Harvest and the Great Adversity—in the late summer of 1923, to be more precise. In that year—the year of the lowest wheat prices since 1914—a group of hard-headed Alberta farmers hitched their grain wagons to an idea and launched a crusade. Each of the believers made free-will offerings of three dollars in cash and a lifetime’s hope, in faith. Each also made present of a promise. Thus armed, the tiller of the soil turned a new furrow and became an adventurer in the business of marketing wheat. And thus was born a mammoth of commerce that in the first five years of its existence achie ved a cash turnover of one billion, one hundred millions of dollars.
In essence the creed of the crusaders was simplicity itself: We, the farmers, shall market the wheat we grow on a non-profit basis and to that end we shall co-operate one with another, as many as are like-minded with ourselves. In broad outline the plan of operation was equally simple. Each pool member bound himself by written agreement valid for five years to deliver all his wheat to an elected board representing all the cooperators in the province. To this board was entrusted the task of selling all the wheat thus delivered, the proceeds to be returned to the growers after subtraction of the costs of marketing. One of the three dollars subscribed by each member paid for a share which carried with it one vote; the other two were ear-marked for organization expenses. Provision was also made in the contract for the deduction from the members’ proceeds of two cents a bushel for the acquisition of elevators and a small percentage amount designated for commercial reserves.
Leaving aside for tk; c: ornent the intricacies of the scheme ar l ,hc¡ manner of its operation, the plan was c : able by reason of two central features, „nz: Its success depended on the purely vcluirzary approval oftheindividualfarmer. Twc: The amount of original capital involved was a relatively negligible quantity. To these two might be added a third, the fact tha; fha major impetus came not from above bu; 'rom below, in other words, from the farmer nimself. It was not a case of government handing out a new brand of farm relief on a platter.
Neither was it a case of a grandiose promotion scheme buttressed by accumulated funds. In most instances the farmer had little or no ready money; but he had wheat, gilt-edged collateral in any money market, and his bond was good. With these two assets the pool enthusiasts prepared to munch what was in effect a revolutionary attack on the existing grain marketing system ol Western Canada.
Even to those conversant with the underlying conditions which gave rise to the new crusade, its reception in Alberta was truly astounding. Almost overnight, it seemed, the movement swept through the province with the speed of a prairie fire. Out among the foothills, south toward the boundary and north toward the Peace, the farmer “locals” sprang to action. In Calgary the executive of the United Farmers of Alberta took the initiative in setting up a provisional pool committee. Urban opinion rallied to support of the project with an astounding fervor. Two city newspapers, the Calgary Herald and the Edmonton Journal, invited Aaron Sapiro, prophet of co-operative marketing, to enter the campaign and dug down into their own pockets for his expenses. The banks promised credit. The Provincial Government offered the services of its marketing experts. Everywhere were meetings; mass meetings in the cities; minor meetings in cross-road schoolhouses; impromptu meetings on the steps of country post-offices. Volunteer canvassers offered by the hundreds and on August 20, 1923, farmers, bankers, business men and professional men turned out in droves to scour the ranges in the drive for signatures to the pool contract.
The result was a wave of mass emotion of extraordinary intensity. In two weeks
25,000 farmers tore up by the roots their traditional individualism and pledged their word and their wheat to the new collectivism. j At one sweep, forty-five per cent of the wheat acreage of the province was signed into the new merger. One short fortnight, and the crusade had ceased to be a crusade and had become an economic entity. It remained now only to provide the new-born organism with a business brain, and on October 19, 1923, the Alberta Co-operative Wheat Producers, Limited, plunged into the maelstrom of the world wheat trade.
At the outset it had been planned to launch the movement simultaneously in all three of the prairie provinces. Manitoba, however, found the time before the harvest too short and postponed its effort until the following year. In Saskatchewan a temporary obstacle was encountered in the antagonism between the Saskatchewan Grain Growers’ Association and the Farmers’ Union which sponsored rival plans. Ultimately the two came together on the basis already accepted by Alberta, but itwas not until January, 1924, that the Saskatchewan pool came into existence. Once established, however, it grew rapidly, and by June 26 of the same year 46,509 Saskatchewan farmers had formally accepted the new gospel of co-operation. In the meantime, Manitoba had organized, and midsummer found all three pools ready for the 1924 crop.
Then came the act of federation that resulted in the creation of a super-pool that has since made economic history. On July 28, 1924, representatives of the three provincial pools met at Regina and organized a central selling agency, the Canadian Co-operative Wheat Producers, Limited. This new unit in the system was not a merger of the three parent bodies. It was conceived simply as a master salesman which would sell all the wheat collected by all three provincials which in their turn would handle all the accounts of the individual growers. Governed by a board of nine men, composed of three representatives from each of the provincial pools, it was, in the words of its charter:
“To be an agricultural association instituted for the purpose of mutual help; to improve methods and reduce costs of marketing grain; to reduce speculation, manipulation and waste and all unnecessary transactions in such marketing; to increase consumption, build up new markets and develop new uses for grain; to market same directly and with regularity, so as to furnish it economically to the users thereof; and to preserve for the growers and the public their proper profits and economies.”
In days to come, I venture to predict, the instrument from which those words are taken will become one of the historic documents of the Canadian commonwealth, for there inscribed in prose of simple dignity is set forth the ideal that inspired the march of the plainsmen toward the goal of economic emancipation.
The Biggest Farm Known to History
TNEVITABLY, when one tries to visualA ize the reality sprung from this ideal, one is plagued by a superabundance of superlatives which by their very monotony dull the picture. Consider, for example, the mere matter of size. Six years ago the Alberta pool, in the first year of its existence, handled 34,000,000 bushels of wheat drawn from some 2,250,000 acres. Today, the aggregate of the pool’s holdings of wheat land in the three prairie provinces— not to mention the properties of some
12.000 pool farmers in Ontario—totals
16.190.000 acres. Now, 16,190,000 actes constitute a superlatively large farm; so large, in fact, that history records no parallel and the mere statement of its size means little. Nor does it help much to pile immensity on immensity and explain that these millions of acres from which a flood of grain pours out into the markets of the world as if through a single spout, are scattered over a territory stretching 1,200 miles from east to west and 500 miles from north to south—even leaving Ontario out of the picture.
Sixteen million acres !
This may help: Suppose you were to take a train, say, from Winnipeg, and travel straight west for a thousand miles. All the land for a distance of twelve and a half miles on either side of the right-of-way throughout the entire journey would represent the size of the pool holdings. Twentyfive thousand square miles ! Stretched out in one long farm a mile wide-—twice the width of the ordinary farm—it would reach around the globe. Holland and Belgium could both be chucked into this vast reservoir of wheat land and leave a good thousand miles to slop over the edge. The same could be said of the entire provinces of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, whose combined area falls short of that of the pool by two thousand square miles.
Then, there is the matter of numbers. According to the latest figures from the Dominion Bureau of Statistics, there are
248.000 farmers in the three prairie provinces. One hundred and thirty-three thousand of these are co-rulers of the vast empire just described; 17,500 in Manitoba, 78,300 in Saskatchewan, and 37,000 in Alberta. It is a veritable army and, like every army, a cross-section of the society whence it springs. Every nationality in the West is represented. So long as they be farmers, all are equal in the pool democracy. And in this case “farmer” includes the Prince of Wales, a duke, a lord, an earl and a countess, ministers of the Federal Government, members of Parliament, the premier of Saskatchewan, mortgage companies, trust companies, real estate companies, merchants and professional men—all of them farmers.
Nor does the mere statement of the pool contract membership indicate the extent of this economic democracy. The statisticians have it that each of our farms supports 6.18 persons. Estimated on that basis, the pool population is more than 800,000. A sizable family to be fed, clothed and housed, booked and motor-car-ed from one purse! And yet, speaking literally, that is what the pool is—one purse for a city larger than Toronto!
And that brings us logically to the matter of money. Last year the pool had a gross turnover of $323,000,000. Here again the figure is one that might make a statistician wax lyrical, but leaves the ordinary imagination cold by reason of its very bigness. By way of comparison, it represents considerably more than the annual revenues of either of the two Canadian railways. Incredible? Well, here are the figures:
Canadian Wheat Pool, gross turnover, crop year,
Canadian National Railways, gross turnover,
1928, $276,631,921; Canadian Pacific Railway, gross turnover, 1928,
Put it another way.
Think, for a moment, of the immensity of Canada’s mineral wealth; of Hollinger, and Noranda, and International Nickel and International all the other lesser mines. Think of the hundreds of millions that have been poured into their development, of the staggering figures at which our frenzied mining markets have valued their earning power, of the feverish energy with which Canadians are exploiting this fabulous heritage. And then ponder this comparison: Value of mineral production for all Canada, 1928—$271,
000,000; cash turnover of Canadian Wheat Pool, crop-year 1927-28—$323,
Still more: The Wheat Pool is the only business in Canada that has an average turnover of more than a million dollars for every working day in the year. Conceived by farmers, created by farmers, owned by farmers, directed by farmers, not five years old and handling a million dollars a day !
The Canadian has given new meaning to the word “farmer.”
No one can say just how much invested capital stands behind this vast business, least of all the pool itself which is concerned only with marketing its members’ wheat and not with the costs of producing it. It is possible, however, to get at an approximate figure by taking the official estimate of the agricultural wealth of the three prairie provinces and, assuming an even distribution, multiplying the per capita figures by the number of pool contracts. On this basis, the aggregate value of the pool members’ land, buildings, machinery and livestock works out at $1,500,000,000. Some allowance must be made for capital used in the production of commodities other than wheat, but even so, place this figure alongside the amount representing the physical assets of the Canadian Pacific Railway, $1,169,000,000, and once again the pool assumes proportions that are truly gigantic.
At best, though, mere money figures are poor tools with which to try to measure the girth of this colossus that has come galloping out of the West. Last year the pool farmers delivered to the provincial pools 51.5 per cent of all the wheat marketed in Western Canada. The Central Pool sold 222,908,000 bushels. Another dizzy figure that needs to be doctored to be understood. Translated into the railwayman’s language it means 148,000 fully loaded freight cars, or a train 1,100 miles long. Measured in terms of food, it represents the wheat consumption of 44,000,000 hungry mouths for a year, something
like 8,916,000,000 loaves of bread. I suspect that if those loaves of bread were placed end to end they would reach a considerable distance beyond the moon, but this article is in danger of becoming topheavy with that kind of mathematics, so I’ll forbear.
The World’s Largest Elevator System
rT"'HEN there’s the amazing achievement represented by the elevator system that a two-cent toll built. In 1925 the pools owned 100 country elevators. For the sake of the uninitiated, perhaps, I should explain that a country elevator is one of those stark, sentinel-like towers that are strung along western railway sidings. They hold on the average about 37,000 bushels of grain and are the primarfy assembling units in the colossal machine that collects the Canadian wheat crop. According to the latest figures, there are 4,692 of them in the three prairie provinces, and oí these the pools now own 1,417—a total capacity of 52,560,000 bushels. In other words, the pools in four years have acquired one third of the country elevator capacity in the West. In the old days of, say, five years ago, a grain company with a “line” of 350 country houses was accounted a mighty ina stitution. What then shall be said of the might of an institution that plants 350 a year! And on a revenue of two cents a bushel !
Nor does this tell the whole story of the Titan that two cents built, for this seemingly trifling toll also explains the fact that the pools own or control terminal elevators whose bins will hold 33,606,000 bushels of grain without flowing over. Alberta has two at Vancouver and one at Prince Rupert; Saskatchewan, five at Port Arthur; Manitoba, two at Fort William and one at St. Boniface; and the central pool, one at Buffalo. Count them quickly— there’s only a dozen—and the tally may not seem particularly impressive. But don’t be mistaken. Three of them, twice-filled, will handle enough wheat to feed the whole of Canada for a year. Number Seven, at Port Arthur, is the largest single-unit elevator in the world. It can swallow 200,000 tons of wheat, tons, mark you, without so much as a groan. And Number Six, almost next door, rests equally confortably after a meal of 7,500,000 bushels.
Look at it any way you will, this gigantic elevator plant beggars description. Big bins and little bins, it means roofs to cover and walls to encompass 86,000,000 bushels of grain. Were it possible to assemble all its units on one immense site, so that the eye could measure its vastness, it would be one of the seven wonders of the world. All the more cause to wonder then, that, dispersed over the better part of half a continent, it functions as one enormous, perfectly articulated machine. Had the pools builded to themselves no other monument, they would have brought forth a veritable Gargantua, the like of which mankind has never seen.
Coming back once more to a cold cash basis, the pools’ two-cent financing has yielded up in four years an elevator reserve of $13,920,000. Add to this another $7,388,000, representing a one-percent, or less, deduction on account of commercial reserve, and the aggregate reserves total $21,310,000, not to mention still another item of $4,600,000 already returned to the growers out of surplus.
Such is the power of the proverbial mite in the hands of unorthodox Big Business. Nor do those figures tell the whole story. Three years ago, this years ago, deduction financing had so buttressed the power of the Saskatchewan Pool that, acting alone, it was able to buy out the Saskatchewan Co-operative Elevator Company at a price of $11,059,310. Literally a case of giant swallowing giant, for, with its 451 country houses and four terminals, the “Co-op” at that time was the world’s largest elevator company. Now it’s but a series of cogs in a machine thrice its size. PARADOXICAL as it may seem, the very magnitude of this immense machine often is seized upon by the pool’s opponents as its greatest weakness. And not only its opponents. I recall the comment of a group of British parliamentarians who visited Canada last year. Were it not a reality, they said, the pool would be incredible. Even accepting it as a fact, it was to them an incredible fact. How could such a colossus, by ordinary standards scarce out of the milk stage, function without collapsing of its own weight? How could ordinary farmers furnish the brains to manage successfully an institution of such unprecedented size and intricacy?
I’ll admit that it is something of a puzzle, but it is not so puzzling when you see the puzzle in proper perspective. To begin with, the pool was not built by “ordinary farmers.” Nearly thirty years of training in the hard school of economic necessity have gone into its creating. Sudden as was its appearance in 1923, rapid as has been its rise since, its roots go very deep. Mass action with economic salvation as the goal is no new thing to the Western farmer, and the pool is but the logical projection of a long series of experiments in large scale organization; but one achievement of an extraordinarily virile co-operative movement that has gone on from strength to strength through decades of bitter struggle. This same movement in the political field has literally made governments and sent governments crashing into oblivion; has raised up penniless immigrant lads to sit in the seats of the mighty and blasted the fondest hopes of fortune’s chosen favorites; has made the farmer a man of power—a power that now in the economic field is measured only by the might of the pool.
But it was not always thus.
On a certain day of the year 1902, a tall young farmer from near Russell, Manitoba—Tom Crerar was his name— drove to market with his first load of grain—fifty bushels of good, sound Number One Northern wheat.
“Fifty-nine cents a bushel,” said the elevator operator, when the usual business of weighing in and grading had been concluded.
Now Crerar was an intelligent youth and he knew that Number One Northern was selling at Fort William at seventyeight cents. He also knew that the freight rate to Fort William was nine cents. In other words, the elevator was offering him ten cents less than the market value of his wheat. He was prepared to accept a spread of three cents a bushel to cover the elevator’s profit and handling charge but the idea of being “soaked” another seven was rather riling. And when the operator added that the dockage—deduction for dirt, weed seeds and chaff—would be a bushel and a half on the fifty bushels, the young grain grower broke into indignant protest. In silence the operator listened to the outburst. Then he calmly told his customer to go to the devil. Crerar returned to the attack.
“And there’s no use going to the other elevators,” he broke out hotly, “for you’re all alike.”
“Then take your damned grain home again!” retorted the operator with an insolent grin.
Crerar sold his grain, took his loss because he had to, and went home to think it over.
I cite that story—it’s from Moorhouse’s “Deep Furrows”—not because young Tom Crerar subsequently became the head of one of the world’s largest grain companies, a minister of agriculture in the federal government and the leader of a political party which swept the prairies, but because it vividly suggests the conditions which gave rise to the farmer movement out of which has sprung the pool.
As recently as the late “nineties,” the western grain grower, when it came to disposing of his crop, was virtually “at the mercy of the elevator operators,” to quote from the findings of the royal grain enquiry commission of 1899. The C.P.R., as the commission’s report points out, unable to finance the building of elevators itself, had given the privilege to the line companies, the railway undertaking to protect them against competition by refusing authority to allow the loading of grain from platforms and, what, in the trade, are called flat warehouses. This meant that the farmer had to accept the elevator’s terms, as young Crerar did, or take his grain home.
In some communities the growers tried to get out from under the monopoly by building local co-operative elevators, but these proved to be next to useless, as it was hopeless for one small local unit to compete with a powerful chain which could undercut in one local market and recoup itself elsewhere. As a result the number of local co-operatives had dwindled to a mere twenty-six in the whole of the West by the turn of the century.
Beaten on the economic front the farmers turned to Parliament, seeking redress by legislative action. Their protest was so vehement and feeling ran so high—in some districts the hotheads were talking about seizing the elevators by force—that the railway modified its loading regulations in an effort to meet the wishes of the growers, and then, following investigation by a royal commission, the entire grain trade was put under the Manitoba Grain Act of 1900 which, among other things, stipulated that there was to be a fair distribution of cars as between the elevator companies and the individual farmers who wished to ship to the terminal markets direct.
Even as a Grain of Mustard Seed
'■'PHE Manitoba Grain Act was hailed T as a veritable Magna Charta by the growers but they soon discovered that it was one thing to have a right to a car and still another thing to get one. Somehow or other the elevator companies always seemed to have the advantage over the mere producer when it came to a showdown and, finally, it was openly declared that the railway was deliberately flouting the new grain act. In the meantime the elevator companies had organized a trade association and the farmers seemed to be but little better off than before.
Such was the situation when a certain W. R. Motherwell, then a leader among the dirt farmers of the Qu’Appelle Valley, now the head of the Canadian Department of Agriculture—“Daddy” Motherwell, they call him at Ottawa—planted the seed that ultimately bore fruit in the wheat pool. At the time, it looked like pretty scrawny seed, but then as now the West was fertile soil for ideas as well as cereals. Motherwell’s idea was simply this: We farmers have got to get together and organize to protect ourselves; nobody else will do it for us, so let’s get busy. Late in December of 1901 he called a meeting at Indian Head, a small centre about forty miles east of Regina. Some 200 farmers responded, and amid a good deal of enthusiasm was born the Territorial Grain Growers’ Association— this was in the days before the creation of the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta.
Then came anti-climax. The new organization held its first business meeting at Indian Head on January 6, 1902, and there were exactly eleven converts present —including the executive ! Eleven hornyhanded sons of toil to do battle against the might of the organized grain trade! But the eleven were doughty propagandists, for within three weeks they had assembled a convention representing thirty-eight organized locals, and the battle was on, Motherwell and a friend, Peter Dayman, went down to Winnipeg to tell the C.P.R. it had to behave, else the organized farmers would force it to. As might be expected, they were promised “serious consideration” and nothing happened. Then the farmers struck their first blow. They laid a formal complaint against the station agent at a little village called Sintaluta; the law lumbered into action, and the West sat up and took notice. The railway was tried, found guilty and sentenced to pay a fine of fifty dollars. It fought the case to the Supreme Court but lost. That ended the car distribution trouble. Down East the wise men shook their heads and wondered. “The farmers out West are on the warpath; they’ve licked the C.P.R. and are going to tear up the tracks.”
Nothing like that happened but, in the course of time, the organized farmers’ movement spread to every nook and corner of the western grain country. Governments gave ear to the new force thus created and legislative enactment followed legislative enactment. And still the farmers found themselves virtually “at the mercy of the elevator operator.”
Finally, a certain wild-eyed visionary from Sintaluta, E. A. Partridge by name, conceived another devastating idea: The farmers must go into the grain business for themselves; only then will they be able to meet the trade on even terms. With Partridge, to think was to act. He jumped on a train and went down to Winnipeg to give the grain marketing machine the once-over. There he was received with cool disdain by the trade, which was not pleased at the spectacle cf a hick from the “sticks” poking his nose into other people’s business. Nothing daunted, Partridge went back to Sintaluta, called a meeting of the farmers of the district and, by the sheer driving power of his own personality, succeeded in inducing 200 of them to take up stock in a farmers’ joint stock company for the marketing of grain. This accomplished, he hired a desk in Wilson’s corner grocery store at Sintaluta for a dollar, and stuck a sign in the window: “Grain Growers’ Company.”
That was in January of 1907. Today, the infant of 1907, now the United Grain Growers’ Company, boasts of a shareholders’ list of 35,000, owns nearly 400 country elevators, operates a five-and-ahalf-million-bushel terminal at the head of the lakes, owns a magazine with a circulation of 120,000, and functions as the largest grain company in the West, outside of pools.
A Dramatic Story
T WISH there were space here to tell the
dramatic story of that achievement; of how Partridge and his associates hired a tent on the midway of the Winnipeg Exhibition for fifty dollars, and completed the organization of the company in competition with “Katzenjammer Castle,” “The Sunflower Belles,” and all the ballyhoo of a battery of other sideshows; of how they started in business in two rooms in the garret of the old Tribune building in Winnipeg; of the fight over the expulsion of the company from the Winnipeg Grain Exchange; of how the Manitoba Government found the Exchange guilty of “an arbitrary and unjustifiable exercise of the powers” conferred by its charter; of the trial of directors of the Exchange for “conspiracy in restraint of trade,” of the check imposed by the government, the resulting dissolution of the Exchange and its re-organization on the voluntary basis that has persisted ever since; of the calling of the infant company’s account by an antagonistic bank, and its final overcoming of all obstacles.
But the point is, that the Grain Growers’ Grain Company launched the farmers on a course of training in the business of large-scale handling of grain and gave them that experience, without which the pools would have been impossible. At first it acted merely as a commission house, but inevitably it was driven to the construction of its own elevator plant. Its success in this field was such as to inspire the Saskatchewan farmers to organize the Saskatchewan Co-operative Elevator Company in 1911 and the Alberta farmers to do likewise in 1913. Both these companies grew like mushrooms, and with the merger of the Alberta company and the G.G.G. in 1917, the farmers’ joint stock companies had achieved a place in the grain trade sun second to none.
Then came the price-fixing experience of the War. During 1917 and 1918, all the Canadian wheat sold for export was bought by the Wheat Export Company acting for the British, French and Italian Governments, and the prices, both export and domestic, were arbitrarily fixed by a Board of Grain Supervisors appointed by the Canadian Government. With the coming of the Armistice and the reorganization of the overseas machinery for handling Allied purchases, the Dominion authorities set up a Canadian Wheat Board which had absolute control of all the wheat grown in the West during the crop year, 1919-20. The Wheat Board in effect was the selling agency for a compulsory pool embracing all the growers in the three prairie provinces. The Board’s compulsory powers were the cause of some discontent but when it finally made payment on the basis of $2.63 for Number One Northern, resentment gave place to rejoicing.
And then the deluge! The Grain Exchange which had been four years without a futures market, led an attack on Ottawa early in 1920, the Government yielded, and the Wheat Board evaporated into thin air. And the farmer, seemingly impotent again, stood by and watched the price of wheat tumble from $2.78 in September, 1920, to $1.76 in April, 1921. By November of the latter year it was down to $1.11 !
A Crusade Born of Adversity
XJO ONE who was not in the West at
the time can realize the bitterness that was the inevitable result of this débâcle. One section of farmer opinion was all for an immediate launching of a voluntary pool, but the majority had but one battle-cry: “The Wheat Board or Nothing.” And when the smoke of battle had cleared away, the Meighen Government was down and out, and sixty-five Progressive members of Parliament were marching on Ottawa with fire in their eyes and the solid vote of the Prairie West in their pockets.
Once more the fight had shifted to the political arena and once more the farmers had to be satisfied with half a loaf. The Federal lawyers discovered that the Dominion was powerless to act on its own account, lacking the extraordinary powers conferred by war-time legislation. The best Ottawa could do was to pass an enabling act empowering the three prairie provincial governments to cooperate in reconstituting a national wheatmarketing agency, and with that, the scene of struggle returned once again to the West.
The Federal action was taken early in
1922, and by July of the same year both Alberta and Saskatchewan had enacted the necessary legislation. Although wheat was now selling at less than a dollar a bushel, in other words, at less than the cost of production and entire communities were on the verge of bankruptcy, the farmers began to take heart. Manitoba, however, because of the local political situation, could not act immediately and the grain trade was moving heaven and earth to prevent Manitoba from acting at all. Finally, after a sixmonths lobby by the exchange, the Manitoba Legislature, by a vote of twenty-four to twenty-one in April, 1923, flatly rejected the whole scheme. Premiers Greenfield and Dunning, of Alberta and Saskatchewan respectively, tried to save something from the wreckage by organizing some sort of a control board for the two provinces acting alone, but they found it a hopeless task. June 22,
1923, they publicly announced that the wheat board scheme, to which the West had pinned its hopes, was dead as the proverbial dodo. Thus ended the Western farmers’ last desperate drive to secure economic salvation through governmental action.
And thus began the reign of self-help that has builded a veritable co-operative empire, for six weeks later the battle-cry of the wheat pool crusade was ringing through Alberta.
Editor’s Note: This is the first of a series of articles by Mr. Irwin on the Wheat Pool. The second will appear in an early issue.