By: Gary Storey
Agriculture is variously defined as the science and art of farming, which is the work of cultivating the soil and raising crops and livestock; food, on the other hand, is any substance taken into the body for nourishment. The main purpose of agriculture is to produce food and fibre. Canada’s food production has become very specialized, and less than 4% of the population is directly engaged in agricultural production. It is important, therefore, to think of food and fibre production as a complex system of combining resources to produce primary commodities. This system must assemble these primary agricultural commodities for processing into food and fibre products, which are distributed to consumers and users located far from the initial production source. Saskatchewan, with its abundant land base and small population, is a large surplus producer of raw and processed food products. We shall now see how this system of agricultural production was initiated, how it has evolved, and what are the consequences of this evolution.
Prior to European settlement, indigenous people occupied the land area now known as Saskatchewan. They were primarily hunters and gatherers; their numbers relative to the food resources from bison, other animals and birds, native fruit and plants did not warrant an extensive agriculture production system to provide food. This, however, does not mean that there was no agricultural production: before the treaties of the 1870s, some Aboriginal people had begun to raise crops and cattle in Saskatchewan; however, this was nothing like the transformation of the native prairie for crop production that took place following European settlement. Europeans began to emigrate to North America in the early 17th century. Louis Hébert arrived in Quebec in 1617, cleared land, and thus became the first non-indigenous farmer. But it would take almost 300 years before interest developed interest in the west as a place to live and farm. This interest came with the fur trade. In 1670 Charles II of England granted a charter to London merchants to establish the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), which was to trade in the territory known as Rupert’s Land and comprising the territory whose rivers flowed into Hudson Bay and James Bay. Because fur trade and agriculture were incompatible, the fur trade companies portrayed an image of the west as a cold, barren, desolate, inhospitable wasteland; this image prevailed until it was expedient to portray the west in a different light.
The Canadian merchants who operated along the St. Lawrence River depended on agricultural and other commodities from the developing interior in the United States. The construction of the Erie Canal diverted commerce from the St. Lawrence to the Atlantic seaboard of the United States: Canadian merchants thus lost out to American merchants for the agricultural commerce of the interior, and this forced them to look elsewhere. Further economic development in British North America would require the exploitation of some new economic resource as a new frontier for investment. Canadian merchants became interested in what the Canadian west could offer. If the west could be developed for agriculture, the government would have to acquire Rupert’s Land from the HBC and construct a transcontinental railway: these were major issues even prior to Confederation. Both the Canadian legislature and the British House of Commons debated the possibilities of agricultural settlement in the North-West Territories. Prior to Confederation, in 1857 both political offices dispatched explorations to determine the economic capability of the region. Captain Palliser as head of the British expedition and Professor Hind as head of the Canadian expedition saw limitations to settlement and agriculture, although Hind foresaw the lack of markets as the main impediment (see palliser and hind expeditions).
One of the first orders of business, after Confederation in 1867, was to link the territory of British Columbia to Canada and to secure the territory west of the Great Lakes for Canada. Rupert’s Land was purchased in 1868 for $1.5 million, with the guarantee that 5% of the land in the fertile belt would remain with the HBC. The next step in the plan was for Sir John A.
Macdonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister, to establish the National Policy, which refers specifically to the policy of tariff protection that was put in place in 1879. This policy was felt to be necessary to accomplish the economic and political objectives for which Confederation was established. Manufactured goods from textiles to farm machinery would be produced in Canada, instead of being imported from Europe and the United States. The next task was to develop a market for these manufactures. This is where the Canadian west appears, to be filled with people who would produce agricultural commodities that would flow east and down the St. Lawrence to Europe. These manufactures would be paid for from the revenue earned in export markets. The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) Company was formed to accomplish this plan.
The CPR crossed Saskatchewan in 1884 and was completed in 1885. It was now possible to bring in settlers and move out the agricultural commodities they would produce. The CPR and the federal government provided an image of the west as a “promised land,” a garden of abundance where all material wants would be satisfied. This image was used to lure immigrants from other settled areas of North America and Europe. The international economic depression of the 1890s, however, delayed settlement: the low price of grain in Great Britain, coupled with the high costs of transportation (rail and ocean freight), meant that net returns to grain production in the west would be insufficient to warrant investment. Farmers could not make a living, and infrastructure (roads, grain storage, schools, etc.) could not be financed. This lesson would be repeated several times from settlement to the present day: when net returns to farming fail to cover costs of production and marketing, the rural areas of the prairies are left with insufficient net returns to maintain infrastructure and to provide new capital for investment—let alone provide for a decent standard of living for rural people.
By the turn of the 20th century the conversion of wind- to steam-powered ocean freight and over-capacity had reduced rates to less than half of what they had been thirty years earlier. Low interest rates coupled with higher grain prices made the economic conditions ripe for settlement to take off. The west was settled and the native prairie was converted to cropland within a period of thirty years. Wheat was the staple crop on which the prairie economy was built, although other crops such as oats, barley, and flax were produced. The establishment of the prairie wheat economy was accompanied by a period of economic expansion throughout the Canadian economy. The settlement of 2.5 million people in the prairies meant an enormous demand for materials for the construction of homes, schools, churches, grain storage, branch rail lines, and businesses as well as the manufacture of household goods. The National Policy of high tariffs meant that most of the manufacturing took place in Canada: it is what the eastern merchants had received under federal policy; it meant that prairie farmers had to pay higher prices for goods owing to the import tariffs.
The grain varieties in existence were not ideally suited to prairie climate and growing conditions. To facilitate development of the agricultural economy in the west and other parts of Canada the federal government passed the Experimental Farm Station Act in 1886, thus creating experimental farms largely to conduct plant breeding and research to support agricultural production (see agriculture canada research stations). Five stations that included Indian Head (1887) were established initially under the direction of William Saunders. It was William’s son, Charles Saunders, who discovered Marquis wheat in 1904; as it was several days earlier in maturity, Marquis quickly replaced all other wheat varieties. Marquis also had excellent milling qualities and became the standard for all new varietal development. Another essential element for the development of the agricultural economy was the grain handling and transportation system. Three companies—Canadian Pacific Railway, Canadian Northern Railway, and Grand Trunk Pacific Railway—vied for the business of moving grain by building rail branch lines. Soon it became evident that the rail line network was over-built: by the beginning of World War I there were three transcontinental railways, but only the CPR was financially sound. As the Grand Trunk Pacific and the Canadian Northern Railway faced bankruptcy, they were taken over, along with the Intercolonial, the Grand Trunk and the National Transcontinental, by the federal government to become the Canadian National Railway (CNR).
The three western railway companies encouraged American interests to build primary elevators along their railway lines; among these were Searle grain company, National grain company, Federal Grain ltd., and McCabe. In addition, Canadian grain companies were formed (N.M. Paterson and Sons Grain Company, Pioneer grain company, and Parrish and Heimbecker Grain Company), which still exist today. At one time there were over 100 companies in the grain business; most of these failed for financial reasons, and their assets were bought by the larger companies. How the railways and grain companies charged for their services of transportation, grain handling and storage were major issues for farmers then as they are today. In 1897 the federal government enacted the Crow’s Nest Pass Agreement with the CPR, setting a maximum rail freight rate for grain moving from prairie delivery points to Fort William and Port Arthur (Thunder Bay) on Lake Superior. The freight rates became statutory in 1926, and eventually were applied to grain moving to the west coast.
Four factors determine what the farmer receives for grain delivered to the elevator: gross weight of grain delivered, dockage and shrinkage, grade, and price. Even during the initial settlement period, farmers complained of collusion between the railways and elevator companies over these factors. As a result of political action by farmers, the federal government appointed two Royal Commissions (1899 and 1904), out of which came first the Manitoba Grain Act and later the Canada Grain Act. These acts provided for regulation over the grain industry and helped solve the problems of weighing, grading, and dockage. Today the Canadian Grain Commission serves to provide regulation over various elements of the grain industry.
The open-market system of pricing grain was adopted along the American model, with cash and futures markets. The Winnipeg Grain and Produce Exchange was established in 1887, first to facilitate cash trading and later to provide trading in futures contracts for wheat, flaxseed, oats and barley. The grain companies needed viable futures markets in order to hedge their grain purchases from farmers. Their bid price to farmers (street price) was based on the daily futures market price. Because futures trading allowed for (required) speculation from interests outside of the grain trade, farmers developed a distrust for this pricing system: this became a major issue for farmer organizations and the early farm movement. E.A. Partridge, a Saskatchewan farmer, led a movement through the Territorial Grain Growers Association (later the Saskatchewan Grain Growers Association) to form the first of several farmer-owned co-operative elevator companies. Under Partridge’s leadership the Grain Growers Grain Company (GGG) was formed in 1906; it eventually acquired and built a line of elevators across the prairie provinces.
Through their organizations, farmers petitioned the federal and provincial governments to take over the ownership of all terminal and primary elevators. In Saskatchewan the provincial government, following
the recommendations of an appointed Commission, instead offered support by guaranteeing bank loans to farmers who wanted to build their own elevators. On this basis the Saskatchewan Co-operative Elevator Company (SCEC) was formed in 1911. In 1917 the GGG Company merged with the Alberta Co-operative Elevator Company to form United Grain Growers (UGG); the Saskatchewan Co-operative Elevator Company did not join the merger. Today, UGG is known as Agricore United after merging with Agricore (Alberta and Manitoba Pools).
Farmer-owned grain companies helped to resolve many of the farmers’ problems with the private grain companies, but they did not resolve the problem of price. Because of farm debt, farmers were being forced to sell their grain at harvest time, when prices tended to be low owing to gluts of grain on the market. A group of farmers, who envisioned the formation of a monopoly marketing agency operating in their interest and pooling their grain, developed a plan for a Canadian Wheat Board (CWB). After suspending open-market trading during World War I and installing a Board of Grain Supervisors to market grain at a fixed price, the federal government instituted the CWB to market the 1919-20 crop at the end of the war. Under the CWB, farmers received an initial payment on delivery of their grain and were issued a participation certificate that qualified them for a final payment once all pooled grain had been marketed. With favourable market conditions the CWB provided farmers with the highest price for wheat that they had received to date. But the federal government did not retain the CWB, and the following year allowed the open market to return. Wheat prices fell. Farmers, ever suspicious of the open market and its speculators, began a campaign to restore the CWB.
Following a Royal Commission on the grain trade that recommended in favour of the open market, farmers developed a plan for pooling with five-year contracts. The Saskatchewan Co-operative Wheat Producers Limited was formed in 1924 to handle the marketing of the grain that was acquired under these contracts; with similar organizations in Alberta and Manitoba, it formed the Central Selling Agency in 1926 to market grain jointly. All three cooperatives eventually went into the elevator business. When the Central Selling Agency became insolvent in 1929 with the collapse of wheat prices at the onset of the Great Depression, pooling ceased; but the elevator component survived, later to become the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool.
Following intense political action by farmers, the federal government reestablished the Canadian Wheat Board in 1935 to market wheat in the prairie region under a pooling arrangement. At first operating as a voluntary agency, the CWB was made permanent in 1943. Trading in wheat futures was discontinued on the Winnipeg Grain Exchange. Oat and barley were added to the CWB in 1949. Feed grains for the domestic market were removed from the CWB in 1974, as was oats in 1989. The CWB has been under periodic attack from a minority of farmers, who argue for a dual market system where they could choose how they wish to market their wheat and barley. In recent years the CWB has undergone numerous changes including a new Act that has installed a producer-elected board of directors. It has also introduced marketing alternatives which allow farmers to fix the price of their grain and thus opt out of the pooling system.
Table 1 outlines the changes that have taken place in the 20th century in terms of area in Saskatchewan farms, farm numbers, land area in crops, and summerfallow. It shows that settlement occurred quickly. The area in farms increased from 3.8 to 28.6 million acres from 1901 to 1911, the population increasing from 91,000 to 492,000 over the same period. Farm numbers increased correspondingly to 96,440 by 1911. By 1921, area in farms had increased to 44 million acres, and then to 56 million aces by 1931. Population grew to 757,000 by 1921, and to 922,000 by 1931. The number of farms reached 136,472 by 1931. Saskatchewan’s population of 931,000 in 1936 was little different from what it is today. Where there were less than 1 million acres in crops in 1901, by 1911 there were over 9 million acres, and by 1921, 17 million acres. Between 1921 and 1941 an additional 16 million acres were occupied. Land in crops did not increase proportionately because the new practice of leaving land fallow for one year was adopted: summerfallow acreage increased by 8 million acres between 1921 and 1941.
After World War II, significant changes began to take place. As compared to the stagnant economic situation through the 1930s where there was little adoption of farm machinery, farmers with higher returns began to expand their operations and become mechanized. In 1921 only 15% of farms reported having a tractor; this increased to 29% in 1931, and to 81% by 1951.
Farm numbers that stood at 138,173 in 1941 started to decline: in 1951 there were 26,000 fewer farms than in 1941, and these numbers have continued to fall, reaching 50,598 in 2001. Between 1951 and 2001 the average size of farm increased from 550 to 1,283 acres. The other significant change was the reduction in summerfallow and the corresponding increase in land in crops. This, however, has occurred particularly after 1990, with a move to continuous cropping and zero till seeding.
The changing pattern of crop production in Saskatchewan between 1921 and 2004 is outlined in Table 2. While spring wheat remains the main crop, it no longer dominates production as it once did. Durum wheat, which is grown primarily in the Brown and Dark Brown soil zones, has become an alternative to spring wheat. When much of the farming operations were done with horses, oats was grown primarily as horse feed. As horses were replaced by tractors, oat acreage declined from 5.6 million acres in 1921 to only 510,000 acres in 1991; since then, however, the renewed demand for oats as food has resulted in a partial revival of the production. With the increased demand for malt, barley acreage has increased significantly, especially since the 1970s (see malting industry). Rye, never a major crop, has now become quite insignificant with less than 200,000 acres. Canola, originally known as rapeseed, is now rivaling spring wheat as the crop with the highest annual farm revenue. Specialty crops, which include triticale, mustard, sunflowers, canaryseed, and the pulse crops of lentils, dry peas, and chickpeas, have increased in prominence in the last few years: there are now over 6 million acres grown (see pulse crops and industry).
The history of livestock and poultry on Saskatchewan farms from 1921 to the present is outlined in Table 3. Horses and ponies, which numbered over 1 million when farmers required horses for farm operations, have declined to less than 100,000 today, now used primarily for recreation (see horse industry). Beef farming and the beef industry have expanded: cattle and calves, which numbered around 1.2 million head until 1951, have grown steadily to over 3 million head in 2003. Sheep farming has never had a prominent place in Saskatchewan agriculture, given consumers’ preference for beef, pork and chicken; however, sheep numbers have grown in recent years to over 145,000 head in 2003 (see sheep farming and industry). Hog farming and the swine industry have gone through a major transformation, from small-scale to large-scale intensive hog operations; actual hog marketing has increased more than what the number of hogs on farms shows, as productivity has increased significantly.
The number of milk cows has fallen from 350,000 in 1921 to just 34,000 in 2003, as dairy farming and the dairy industry have gone through a major transition. A similar development has taken place in poultry farming and the poultry industry, with the number of hens and chickens on farms in 2001 about one-third of what it was in 1931 and 1941 (see poultry farming and industry). This in part is explained by farm specialization. In the early settlement period most farms kept cows that they milked for their household needs; they kept pigs and beef that were slaughtered for meat; and chickens were kept for eggs and meat. With increased net incomes and more women working off the farm, farm families felt they did not need to be self-sufficient any more, and they quit keeping livestock for their own food requirements. Improvements in food availability in rural Saskatchewan also had a lot to do with this transition. In addition, with the introduction of supply-managed marketing boards, only farms with quota allocations have the right to market milk, eggs, chickens, and turkeys. The marketing boards in question are the Saskatchewan Milk Control Board, the Chicken Farmers of Saskatchewan, the Saskatchewan Turkey Producers’ Marketing Board, and the Saskatchewan Broiler Hatching Egg Producers’ Marketing Board. The advantage that farmers under supply management have over farmers who are dependent on the market is that under supply management farmers are guaranteed a return for their labour. The marketing board sets the level of output so that a price can be generated which covers the average cost of producing these commodities, including a return for the farmer’s labour and management.
Table 4 shows the economic situation for Saskatchewan farmers over the period 1926 to 2003; all figures are averages for the periods shown. Realized net farm income represents the financial flows, both cash and non-cash, attributable to the farm business; it does not account for changes in value of inventory, which is accounted for by “total net income” (not shown here). It is revealing to place income in current dollars: realized net income was therefore adjusted using the Canadian consumer price index to generate “real” realized net income with the year 2000 set as index 100. The 1920s were good years for farmers: realized net income in the four years 1926–29 averaged $151 million, and farmers were beginning to mechanize, buying tractors, trucks and cars. This all ended with the Great Depression which started in 1929, and with the drought that gripped the prairies for most of the 1930s. As Table 4 shows, annual cash receipts only averaged $103 million in the 1930s, and realized net income averaged only $8 million; farmers were forced to cut back on expenses, and farm mechanization ceased. Farm income improved in the 1940s partly due to World War II. Realized net income averaged $243 million, ranging from $60 to $401 million. Realized net income was fairly stable through the 1950s and 1960s—with the exception of 1967 and 1968, when income fell sharply. While realized net income averaged $356 million in the 1960s, it would average $776 million in the 1970s; this large increase can be attributed to high grain prices, largely thanks to the Soviet Union entering the grain market as a major importer. The price of land increased sharply as farmers attempted to expand their operations; value of farm capital, comprising value of land and buildings, farm livestock and machinery and equipment, increased from $5.465 billion in 1971 to $31.355 billion by 1981. However, the 1980s were a complete turn-around in the farm economy: farm cash receipts remained high, but the cost of farm inputs increased, reducing farm income. This trend has increased through the 1990s to the present. In 2003, realized net income was at a record low negative $390 million.
In today’s purchasing power terms, Saskatchewan farmers have been worse off in the 1990s and currently than at any time since settlement, except the 1930s. Per farm realized net income has averaged $7,900 for 2001–03, $9,890 for 1991–2000, $17,000 for 1981–90, $37,100 for 1971–80, $24,800 for 1961–70, $18,900 for 1951–60, $21,298 for 1941–50, $800 for 1931–40 and $13,000 for 1926–30. An estimate of the return to farm capital was made by taking realized net income as a percentage of the value of farm capital for each period: based on this, the return on farm capital that averaged 6% in 1971–80 fell to 2.3% in 1981–90, to 1.6% for 1991–2000, and to 1.2% for 2001–03. These figures show that farming in Saskatchewan has been an economic struggle. Facing declining real prices for grains and livestock, farmers have had to expand and diversify their operations, as well as increase efficiency by adopting new technologies in an attempt to increase output and to find cheaper means of production. While some farms have expanded into large-scale specialized farms, others have turned to off-farm income to survive: close to three-quarters of farm household income is now from non-farm sources.
Farming is thus like being on a treadmill: running harder and harder, but getting nowhere. In most industries where there are relatively few firms, firms recognize their interdependence; as a result, when the industry experiences falling net returns the solution is to reduce production, and to maintain or increase prices. The opposite typically occurs in farming: when facing declining income, the individual farm usually attempts to increase output as the only way it sees to maintain income; when all farms do this, the increased output leads to lower prices.
An increasing number of farmers are turning to organic farming, in part to reduce the costs of chemical inputs (fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides), and in part to find a more environmentally friendly method of farming (see organic farming and industry). An organic commodity also sells for a premium over conventional non-organic commodities. These advantages are offset by lower yields; but with increased research under way on how to manage crop production without chemicals, the yield gap appears to be narrowing. Saskatchewan is the leading province in organic production, which consists mostly of cereals and oilseeds. In 2004 there were over 1,000 certified organic producers, farming approximately 560,000 acres of organic farmland. While most of Saskatchewan’s organic production is exported to the United States, Europe and Japan, there is a growing organic processing sector.
With Canada’s large land base and with a population of less than one million, the Saskatchewan agricultural economy is largely export-oriented: over 40% of the province’s gross domestic product is derived from exports. In a normal year, Saskatchewan exports about $2 billion in wheat alone; canola and pulse exports tend to average $400 million each. In 2002 live animal exports were nearly $400 million, and meat exports represented $130 million.
Saskatchewan, like the other prairie provinces, has not been noted for its manufacturing sector, which has developed primarily in relation to agriculture. The food processing industry accounts for approximately one-third of all manufacturing shipments in the province. There are approximately 300 food processors that employ over 7,000 people and have annual shipments of $2 billion. The industry is dominated by milling and by the processing of meat, oilseed, pulse, and dairy products. Most of the food processors are small: over 70% employ less than ten people.
The malting industry consists of only one malting plant, Prairie Malt, located at Biggar; constructed in 1975, it is currently owned by Cargill limited and Saskatchewan Wheat Pool. The plant annually processes 300,000 tonnes of barley to produce 230,000 tonnes of malt, of which over 90% is exported. The barley breeding program at the Crop Development Centre of the University of Saskatchewan has produced several barley varieties that have contributed to the success of the prairie malting industry. The brewing and fermentation industry is one of the oldest agricultural industries in the province. The first fermentation process was begun in Moose Jaw and Prince Albert in 1883. Although there were several brewing companies, only one major plant exists today: Great Western Brewing Company in Saskatoon. Since 1989–90, more than nineteen brew pubs have operated in the province. Saskatchewan did have a distillery in Weyburn, McGuiness (Central Canada), which operated until 1987. The Growers Wine Company (then Jordon’s Ste. Michelle) operated in Moose Jaw between 1964 and 1981. Currently there are two fruit wineries: Aspen Grove, east of Regina, and Bannach at North Battleford. A plant manufacturing white vinegar has existed since 1948, today known as Reinhart Foods.
Milling is another industry established early. With limited transportation, numerous flour mills were developed shortly after settlement. In 1915 there were at least thirty-seven flour mills, with chopping mills in an additional twenty-three towns. By 1935 there were fifty-five flour and grist mills, which had a daily combined capacity of 7,860 barrels of flour. However, most of the mills were small and were not able to survive in an increasingly competitive market: most had closed by the mid-1900s. Currently there are three large flour mills in Saskatchewan: J.M. Smucker (Canada) Inc. in Saskatoon, and Dawn Food Products mills in Saskatoon and Humboldt. Oats are milled in two plants: Can Oat at Martensville, and Popowich Milling in Yorkton. Peas and flaxseed are milled by Parrheim Foods in Saskatoon, and by Randolph and James Flax Milling in Prince Albert. Nutrasun Foods is a dedicated organic flour mill that started operations in 2000. There are numerous other small mills and processing plants milling grains and oilseeds.
The livestock feed industry produces feed ingredients valued at $1.6 billion. The largest segments of this industry produce crops for processing into animal and poultry feed. The main crops used are barley, wheat, oats, field peas, and canola meal. Both complete feeds and supplements (protein, vitamin, and minerals) are manufactured. The poultry industry has relied mainly on on-farm processing. In the beef industry, only supplements are typically purchased; forages constitute over 50% of the diet of dairy, beef and other ruminants. In addition, dehydration plants process alfalfa into pellets for domestic use in the livestock industry and export.
Oilseed processing began in Moose Jaw, where an extraction plant for crushing rapeseed was constructed in 1945—initially to produce oil as a lubricant for the military (see oilseed processing industry). In 1946 the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool built a plant in Saskatoon to extract linseed oil from flaxseed, adding rapeseed in 1949. Both of these plants have ceased operation. In 1963 a plant was built at Nipawin to crush rapeseed; it later added a refinery and packaging plant to produce vegetable oils, margarines, and shortenings; the packaging operation was then shifted to Edmonton. Rapeseed processing did not begin to prosper until canola oil, the successor to rapeseed, was accepted as a food source. In 1996 Cargill Limited built a canola crushing plant at Clavet, which is one of the largest of its type in North America. Several smaller specialty processors (Bioriginal Foods, Goldburn Valley, and Science Corporation) now operate in Saskatchewan.
On the farm input side, the agricultural implement industry was largely developed to meet the particular needs of Saskatchewan’s farming conditions. Adapting technology to the land and climate occurred especially with tillage and seeding equipment. Manufacturing developed within an industry dominated by several large full-line companies such as John Deere, International Harvester, and Canada’s company Massey-Harris, whose pricing and business practices were not always accepted by farmers. The government of Saskatchewan created two Commissions in 1915 and 1939 to investigate the marketing practices of these full line companies; one of the recommendations from both Commissions was to foster a co-operative distribution system for farm equipment and machinery. This led to the formation in 1940 of Canadian Co-operative Implements Limited, which in 1942 took the added step of manufacturing farm equipment. Most of the manufacturing that developed on the prairies took place after World War II. In 1961 there were only five companies manufacturing equipment; this expanded to 23 by 1971, and to 30 by 1981, with sales of $158 million. Sales increased to $250 million by 1991. In 2004 the number of firms manufacturing equipment in Saskatchewan stood at 89; by comparison Manitoba, which had led manufacturing on the prairies, had 83 firms manufacturing equipment.
As outlined earlier, farmers sought redress for their economic and marketing problems through political protest; this was carried out largely through farm organizations that were created primarily for this purpose. The first was the Territorial Grain Growers Association, renamed the Saskatchewan Grain Growers Association (SGGA) in 1905 when Saskatchewan became a province. When the action of the SGGA did not meet with the approval of farmers who wanted to take a more radical approach to issues, a new organization was formed in 1921: the Farmers Union of Canada (FUC). The FUC and the SGGA amalgamated in 1926 to form the United Farmers of Canada (UFC), Saskatchewan Section.
Although opposed on many issues, the Saskatchewan Co-operative Wheat Producers and the UFC managed to co-operate in efforts to establish co-operative pooling. They jointly invited Aaron Sapiro, a California lawyer who was instrumental in the United States in the formation of marketing co-operatives to assist in the campaign for pooling. Sapiro, an inspirational speaker, campaigned in Saskatchewan to get farmers to sign five-year contracts for a farmer-controlled agency to market their grain on a pooled basis, instead of selling it to the grain companies for cash on delivery. While the UFC continued to campaign for compulsory pooling after the collapse of the Central Selling Agency, they were opposed by the Saskatchewan Co-operative Wheat Producers (to become the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool). In 1931 the UFC, with an amended constitution, participated in a new political organization: the Saskatchewan Farmer Labour Group, which emerged as part of the new political party, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), under the leadership of T.C. Douglas.
As the Depression took its toll on farm organizations, the UFC struggled to maintain membership. It continued to petition governments for parity prices and compulsory pooling, which did occur with the passage of the Canadian Wheat Board Act in 1935. The UFC reorganized in 1949 as the Saskatchewan Farmers Union (SFU), with Joseph Phelps as the new president, and became a more militant organization. The SFU succeeded the UFC on the Interprovincial Farm Union Council (IFUC); with Phelps as president of the IFUC, there was a move to expand membership in Manitoba, Ontario and British Columbia. In 1960 the IFUC was renamed the National Farmers Union Council. In 1962 Roy Atkinson became president of the SFU and chairman of the National Farmers Union Council. In 1963 the SFU launched a campaign for a producer hog-marketing plan in Saskatchewan, which would mean single-desk selling of hogs. Similar action had taken place in Ontario, Manitoba and Alberta. After several setbacks a Hog Marketing Commission was established in 1972, which after a successful producer vote became a Board selling hogs using a formula price. The provincial government cancelled the Board in the 1990s.
Declining farm incomes in 1968 and 1969 from lower grain prices and grain surpluses resulted in the SFU organizing a rally of 6,000 farmers in Saskatoon in April 1969. On July 14 a four-day demonstration was held by farmers, who clogged Saskatchewan highways with tractors; this in large part led to the founding convention of the National Farmers Union (NFU) in Winnipeg on July 30–31, 1969, as a direct membership organization.
The Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA) was formed in 1935 with the purpose of dealing with farm problems through one voice. Unlike the NFU, the CFA was an umbrella organization representing provincial farm organizations and commodity groups. In Saskatchewan, the existing Co-operative Council that was formed in 1928 became the Saskatchewan Federation of Agriculture (SFA) in 1944; its belief was that farm organizations should work together to develop and promote provincial, national and international farm policies for a better life for farm families. After 1966 the SFA had more than fifteen member organizations, which included co-operatives, marketing boards, commodity groups, and municipal and women’s groups. There was a close affiliation between the SFA and the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, with several of the Pool’s vice-presidents serving as SFA presidents. The organization was a supporter of the Canadian Wheat Board and the International Grain Wheat Agreements. But not all member organizations could always agree on certain policy issues, especially marketing, and tension among member organizations led to the demise of the SFA.
The policy concerns of farmers have been represented by other general organizations. The Palliser Wheat Growers Association was founded in 1970 as a non-profit, voluntary farm organization to represent farmers’ interests to governments and other sectors of agriculture. The name was changed to Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association in 1985; but with declining membership in the late 1990s the organization ceased to operate, only to be reformed in 2004. Another general farm organization is the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan (APAS), formed in 2000 as a general farm organization to provide farmers and ranchers with a democratically elected, grassroots, non-partisan producer organization based on rural municipal boundaries.
In addition to the general farm organizations there are numerous commodity-type organizations that focus on representing specific farm commodities or farm management issues, although some exist primarily to collect check-off levies used to support research and communication, and therefore do not engage in policy issues. These organizations, operating under the Saskatchewan Agri-Food Act and its Council, include: Saskatchewan Pulse Crop Development Board, Saskatchewan Flax Development Commission, Saskatchewan Canola Growers Association, Saskatchewan Winter Cereals Growers Inc, Saskatchewan Soil Conservation Association, Flax Council of Canada, Saskatchewan Bison Association, Saskatchewan Elk Breeders Association, Saskatchewan White-Tail and Mule Deer Producers Association, Saskatchewan Reindeer Association, Saskatchewan Organic Directorate, and others. Regarding cattle, the Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association (SSGA) is a non-profit organization established in 1913 that works to represent the cattle industry on the legislative front with a strong united voice. It is the provincial affiliate of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association (CCA), which represents Canadian cattlemen on the national scene.
As it was under the British North America Act, under the Canadian Constitution both levels of government have responsibility for agriculture policy: the province is generally responsible for policy of a local nature, while the federal government is responsible for national and international issues. Where the issues overlap the two branches must work together, as they do over most income safety net programs. Governments tend to create the policies and programs that are a response to the public’s need for intervention and to the lobbying influence of special interest groups—hence the myriad of farm organizations mentioned above. Provincial agricultural policies originate with the ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Revitalization; they have tended to focus on farmland ownership, providing support for farmers through loans and grants, commodity-focused programs such as income stabilization, and support for agricultural research, crop insurance, and technology use. Examples include the Farmland Security Act, introduced in 1974 to place regulations on the ownership of farm land, and the Land Bank program, introduced in the early 1970s to assist in the intergenerational transfer of land; the latter was cancelled by the Conservative government when it came to power in 1982.
An example of a joint program is Canada-Saskatchewan Crop Insurance, which subsidizes the premiums and administration costs of crop insurance. The province also engages in programs to raise farm income. These have included the Net Income Stabilization (NISA) and the Gross Revenue Insurance Program (GRIP), both of which have been phased out; they were the first programs in which the government of Saskatchewan directly supported farm income. The program replacing NISA, Canadian Agricultural Income Assurance (CAIS), was begun for the 2003–04 crop year. Another example is the Canadian Adaptation and Rural Development in Saskatchewan (CARDS) program, which has received federal funding for various development programs in Saskatchewan. Saskatchewan’s first allocation of money from the federal CARDS fund was $8.8 million over four years; the second allocation was $11.3 million for 1999–2003; and the government of Canada has provided further funding to extend the CARDS program until March 2006.
The province has provided both the grain and livestock sectors with price and revenue support. Two examples, both introduced in the 1970s, are the Beef Stabilization Program and the Hog Stabilization program. In the 1980s these programs were rolled into the National Tripartite Stabilization Program; but they were discontinued in the 1990s due to countervail actions of the United States government. The FarmStart Corporation was begun in 1973 to provide credit and grants to support the further development of the livestock and poultry sectors and irrigation. FarmStart was changed to Agricultural Credit Corporation of Saskatchewan (ACS) in 1984, and the head office was moved from Regina to Swift Current. The earlier program had both a credit and advisory component, with both credit officers and agronomists working in the field; this evolved into a primarily credit function in the years prior to the government’s decision in 1996 to wind down ACS (see farmstart corporation and the agricultural credit corporation).
Education in the agricultural subject matters in Saskatchewan has tended to be carried out at the college and university levels. Although some information on agriculture has appeared in public schooling, it has not been extensive. In 1994, Agriculture in the Classroom Saskatchewan was formed to assist Saskatchewan learners in the K–12 education system to acquire some awareness and understanding of the complexities and importance of agriculture. This has been done through partnerships with educators, agribusiness, and agriculture organizations. Agriculture in the Classroom provides resource materials for teachers: agricultural components appear in several subjects in the K–12 curriculum, and there is now an Ag 20 course in the high school curriculum.
Three colleges at the University of Saskatchewan offer programs in the agricultural area: Agriculture, Western College of Veterinary Medicine, and Engineering. The College of Agriculture was one of two colleges established in 1909; since then, agricultural teaching and research have been consistent areas of strength at the University, and the practical transfer of college research to producers has played a significant role in the development of agriculture in western Canada. There are approximately 1,000 students studying at the diploma, degree, and postgraduate levels, as well as 350 employees, including faculty, research scientists, administrative and scientific support staff. Five academic departments (Agricultural Economics, Animal and Poultry Science, Applied Microbiology and Food Science, Plant Sciences, and Soil Science) and associated research, extension and service units form one of Canada’s leading training centres for agricultural science and business education. Certificate, diploma, undergraduate and postgraduate degree training is available in a wide range of specializations. The College of Agriculture operates with an annual budget of $38 million (2003–04) from a variety of sources.
In addition to research carried out through its various departments, the College has several centres for agricultural research: the Crop Development Centre, the Prairie Swine Centre, the Beef Development Centre, CSALE—Centre for the Studies in Agriculture, Law and the Environment, the Saskatchewan Centre for Soil Research, and the Land Resources Centre. In addition the Food Centre, the Meat Research Laboratory, and the Prairie Feed Resources Centre offer technical and related assistance to the agricultural industry in Saskatchewan.
The Western College of Veterinary Medicine was established at the University of Saskatchewan in 1964 as a result of a decision by representatives of the University, the governments of the four western provinces, and the federal government. The first class entered the College in 1965 and graduated in 1969.
There are five departments within the College: Large Animal Clinical Sciences, Small Animal Clinical Sciences, Veterinary Microbiology, Veterinary Pathology, and Veterinary Biomedical Sciences. The College has a fully functional Veterinary Teaching Hospital, and offers courses leading to the degree of Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM); in addition, all five departments offer graduate programs at the Masters and PhD level. There are currently 281 undergraduate students enrolled in the Western College of Veterinary Medicine. Research facilities include a number of individual research laboratories in all five departments: the Goodale Farm provides extensive animal facilities for cattle, horses, bison, elk and deer; the Animal Care Unit provides on-site care and housing for a wide variety of research animals, including laboratory rodents, rabbits, dogs, cats, birds, mink, sheep, horses, and cattle; the Equine Performance Centre is equipped with a high-speed treadmill and a force plate for studying locomotor and other physiological parameters of horses. In its short history, the College has gained international stature in the fields of animal reproduction, infectious diseases, toxicology, and wildlife health.
The University of Saskatchewan began offering engineering courses in 1912, and the College of Engineering was established in 1921. It has five departments: Agricultural and Bioresource Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Civil and Geological Engineering, Electrical Engineering, and Mechanical Engineering. During the 2002–03 academic year there were 1,395 undergraduate and 272 graduate students enrolled in the College of Engineering. The Department of Agricultural and Bioresource Engineering operated as the Department of Agricultural Engineering until 1992, when the name was changed to reflect its broader teaching and research program. The Department’s specialty in Agricultural Mechanics, which was once a popular program in the College of Agriculture, has been discontinued.
Agricultural education program specialties exist at all four campuses of the Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology (SIAST). The Kelsey Campus in Saskatoon offers a program in agricultural machinery technician, biotechnology, food and nutrition management, agricultural partsperson and technician for the John Deere company, meat processing, and veterinary technology. The Wascana Campus in Regina offers programs in beef management, beekeeping, custom harvester, equine studies, and pork production technician.
Extension programs have been an important educational component of Saskatchewan agriculture and rural communities. To assist settlers in exchanging information amongst themselves, Agricultural Societies were formed under a bill introduced in the Legislature of the North-West Territories in 1884. In 1905 the first Minister of Agriculture, W.R. Motherwell, initiated an extension service through the Fairs and Institutions Branch. When the decision was made to place the College of Agriculture at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, an agreement was made between the University and Motherwell in 1910, by which the University would take on educational (to include extension) work in agriculture, the province being responsible for administration and inspection. Over ninety years ago “Better Farming Trains” began bringing agricultural programs to rural Saskatchewan; over 40,000 contacts were made in the first year. The program operated between 1914 and 1922, with the trains carrying exhibitions and displays, lecture cars, and even a nursery car for small children. In 1929 the University of Saskatchewan began to offer correspondence courses so that rural students could take Grade 12 educational standing and university courses; currently, it offers a Certificate in Agriculture Program in Crop Production and Farm Business Management. Other programs include a Prairie Horticulture Certificate and a Master Garden Program. (See university extension, University of Saskatchewan.)
In 1913, in order to provide a link between settlers and the Department of Agriculture in Regina, the government hired four district representatives and stationed them in rural Saskatchewan. This program was discontinued in 1923. It was not until 1945 that the province reintroduced it through the Agricultural Representatives Act and created a branch by that name in the Department of Agriculture. The “Ag Reps,” as they were called, tended to be generalists offering information and advice to farmers and rural people on various subjects related to farming and gardening, as well as information on government programs and policies. There were approximately forty Ag Reps working in rural Saskatchewan. In the mid-1970s the extension service reorganized into six regions, and three agricultural specialists were hired for each region—in farm management, soils and crops, and livestock. In addition there were six farmstead engineers, who were more closely tied to agricultural engineering (at present Agriculture and Bioresource Engineering).
The extension program has changed over the years to reflect the needs of rural people for information, and has followed the evolution of information technology. In the late 1980s, in order to facilitate a new policy to diversify the agricultural economy, the Extension Service became a partner agency in the creation of a Rural Service Network, and fifty-two Rural Service Centres were created. These Centres included other programs such as the Lands Branch and Crop Insurance; Ag Reps were renamed Extension Agrologists, and were given broader responsibilities to work toward diversification through the new Agricultural Development and Diversification Boards. In 1993 the province established the Agricultural Business Unit at the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Agriculture; the objective was to commercialize new technology for the creation of increased value added enterprises in agriculture.
On March 31, 2004, the extension service that has focused on supporting agricultural production throughout rural Saskatchewan was discontinued. It was replaced with an Agricultural Knowledge Centre, located in Moose Jaw and staffed by several specialists in various fields of specialization. Replacing the existing extension service are nine Regional Centres situated in rural Saskatchewan, whose mandate is to assist in the commercialization of agriculture, and thus in the development of value-added enterprises.
Farming and the agricultural economy today are not what the first settlers and Saskatchewan’s early leaders envisaged. What was envisaged was a very populous province with thriving rural communities: no one foresaw the development of technologies in farm equipment and machinery, coupled with chemical and biological technologies that would lead to the scale of farming we experience in the 21st century. As farm numbers have declined, so has Saskatchewan’s rural population. In 1906, 82% of Saskatchewan’s population was rural; in 1951 the number was 70%; and by 2001 the rural population had fallen to 36%. The highest percentage of rural towns and villages continue to experience declining populations, and as a consequence, failing businesses.
Saskatchewan was settled to be a “breadbasket” supplying Great Britain and other European countries with wheat and other grains they could not produce for themselves. In the last forty years, since the introduction of the Common Agricultural Policy in an integrated Europe, the European Union has become a major net exporter of agricultural products and has forced the other breadbasket areas of the world (United States, Australia, and Argentina) to find new markets. These new markets are in the less developed parts of the world where population growth continues, unlike the developed parts of the world where population growth has stabilized; but birth rates in the less developed parts of the world are declining making it easier for these countries to meet their growing food requirements. This raises questions for the future of the world’s breadbaskets as producers of surplus food: Are there alternative uses for the surplus agricultural capacity of the breadbaskets? Will the shortage of fossil fuels mean that grains will be one of the new sources of energy?
The tragedy for farming is that while farms have expanded in size and productivity, farm incomes have tended to decline over the last twenty-five years. With fewer numbers, farmers who once had some political influence nationally today have little political power. Government support for agriculture has continued to decline. The Crow Rate subsidy, which was worth about $400 million to Saskatchewan farmers, was eliminated by the federal government in 1995; farmers are now paying this amount in higher rail freight rates. The federal government still makes occasional special payments to agriculture; but these usually come when there is some crisis, as with BSE (“mad cow disease”), which struck the beef industry in 2004. The federal and provincial governments have not arrived at a stable policy for income stabilization and support, in comparison with that enjoyed by farmers in the United States and the European Union. Has farming in the prairies returned to the situation that existed prior to settlement, where the price of grains, coupled with costs of transportation and input costs, made settlement uneconomic? In other words, has Saskatchewan agriculture come full circle? It can be suggested that if settlement had not already occurred, it could not happen under the current economic conditions.
What then are the future prospects for Saskatchewan’s agriculture? When the real purchasing price of agricultural products and foods has been declining for over 140 years on a worldwide basis, it is hard to be optimistic about a trend toward higher prices for food. Farmers are in a cost/price squeeze, as the costs of farm machinery and other energy-embedded inputs continue to increase with the rising price of petroleum. When farm prices decline, and hence farm incomes, farmers seek to expand their operations: this means a further decline in farm numbers and a further deterioration in rural communities. If the average farm size were to increase to 5,000 acres, which is quite feasible given current technology, this would result in the number of Saskatchewan farms falling to approximately 12,000 from the current approximate 50,000. With fewer farms and a smaller rural population, new ways to provide educational, health and other services would have to be found.
But within this pessimistic scenario, some farmers find ways to survive and even to thrive. They are the innovators—seeking and finding new crops to produce, establishing new enterprises, discovering new ways to cut costs, and finding new markets. This is how it has been in Saskatchewan agriculture over the last fifty years; it is difficult to see the future being much different.
Fowke, V. 1957. The National Policy and the Wheat Economy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Schmitz, A., H. Furtan and K. Baylis. 2002. Agricultural Policy, Agribusiness, and Rent-Seeking Behaviour. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.