Last year, prairie farmers harvested a grain crop that defied expectations. The grain harvest was 40 per cent above the five-year average. With the delays in getting the crop to ports, the price of wheat has accordingly declined.
Saskatchewan is now calling upon Ottawa to immediately oversee negotiations between the grain companies and CP and CN to establish parameters around getting grain from the farm gate to ships at port.
“The weaknesses in our grain-handling transportation system need to be fixed,” said Alberta Premier Alison Redford. “While this year’s harvest was exceptional, higher yields are becoming the norm in Western Canada and the problem will continue to grow
unless appropriate steps are taken.”
The appropriate steps called for by
Alberta include penalities to railway companies when they fail to meet their grain-
“Many Manitoba farmers had high-yield, good-quality crops last year, but poor rail service and transportation delays mean most of it is still in the bin,” said Manitoba Agriculture Minister Ron Kostyshyn. “I know that grain sitting in the bin is money out of farmers’ pockets and not good for Manitoba’s economy. The federal government and grain companies must get together and get to work finding solutions to support farmers.”
It’s an age-old story on Canada’s prairies that periodically arises whenever a bumper crop is harvested and contingency plans are not in place to handle the overflow of grain. Today’s scenario is strikingly similar to what happened when prairie farmers harvested a bumper wheat crop in 1887. At the beginning of 1888, farmers were unable to ship their grain to eastern markets due to what they termed the Canadian Pacific Railway’s (CPR) “wheat (grain) blockade.” It was a blockade brought about more by poor planning rather than intent, although some
suspect CPR practices arose during the blockade. Westerners believed that the Montreal-based railway company had intentionally instituted the grain blockade to retain its monopoly on rail lines in Western Canada and to reap greater profits.
With the absence of railcars, wheat sat piled up at sidings in the open air, got wet when the spring arrived and then began to rot. The glut of wheat on the market meant buyers ceased purchasing grain. Elevators that were able to get boxcars for eastward shipments of grain were quickly refilled once emptied. The overall result was a drop in wheat prices.
John H. Taylor, a Glenboro-area farmer, said he was unable to sell his grain and thus was paying a steep interest rate on what he owed to banks and merchants. Other farmers said they were losing two-cents, three-cents or four-cents per bushel as a result of the delay in obtaining railcars to ship their wheat.
The Deloraine Times reported on February 23, 1888, that 40,000 bushels of grain that couldn’t be shipped filled the town’s one elevator and various warehouses. “Piles of bags were lying around everywhere and a careful estimate of the amount of wheat in bags not under cover (thus, lacking protection from the elements) reaches 10,000 bushels.”
Boissevain-area farmers sent a March 13 telegram to Manitoba Premier Thomas Greenway, which sounded like a plea for help from a town under siege by an invading army: “Elevators (3) full. Cannot take in another bushel on the street today’s delivery, and loads arriving every hour. No cars on the road and no prospect of relief.”
The Ogilvie mill in Winnipeg, which had been portrayed as a villain four years earlier by the Manitoba Farmers’ Union, gained a measure of public sympathy when it began to feel the effects of the grain blockade and was placed in the same position as the wheat growers and merchants. The Ogilvie mill had to shut down and lay off workers due to the lack of railcars to deliver its flour to market. All the storage bins in the plant, which normally contained wheat to be milled, were instead filled with flour.
Negotiations between Greenway and Canadian Prime Minister John A. Macdonald indicated there was some relief in sight. In the end, the CPR eventually buckled under mounting political and public pressure.
A February 9, 1888, editorial in the Brandon Sun said: “A wail commenced by the farmers, taken up by the storekeepers, and sounded by the public generally, has commenced in the province, over the tremendous grain blockade ... Universal stagnation and serious despondency are two results of the state of affairs ...”
The editorial claimed the CPR may have been doing its best to ship the wheat, “but they are not moving a thousandth part of what is desired. The statement is made on excellent authority ... that there are at present over 800 cars of wheat lying (on the ground) in the CPR yards here (Brandon).
“But one story is sent in from the towns and stations along the railway: No cars, every available place filled with wheat, and thousands of bushels stacked about the station and in the streets. This latter is unprotected, exposed to the weather, and liable to destruction.”
The editorial predicted that the CPR’s public relations nightmare in the wheat-growing region would result in the monopoly being “swept to the four winds.”
Finally, the CPR relented and the monopoly clause was voluntarily dropped in return for a cash bond guaranteed by the federal government. Other railways could build lines across the southern prairies. As the number of rail lines serving prairie communities increased, so did the number of elevators.
But problems still arose, such as in the landmark Sintaluta Case, which came on the heels of a bumper crop in 1901 and insufficient railcars to move the harvest to market. As a result, farmers lost nearly half of their wheat harvest to spoilage.
Farmer A.W. Armis had signed a request for a railcar on October 20, but had not received it. On the other hand, The Dominion Elevator Company and McLaughlan & Ellis Company received railcars during the period that Armis was waiting to receive a railcar. The defendant in the case was A. V. Benoit, the CPR station agent at Sintaluta (Saskatchewan), who was found guilty and ordered to pay a fine of $50 plus court costs, or serve one month in jail, for disobeying the terms of the federal government’s Manitoba Grain Act.
Despite the amended act and the victory in the courts, a Royal commission appointed in 1906, which published its findings in 1907, determined that little had changed for prairie farmers. The commissioners found that the railways were continuing to pay scant attention to farmers’
requests for more railcars.
Obviously, railway companies have improved their grain-handling practices, but as Doug Chorney, the president of Keystone Agricultural Producers recently said: “Many farmers haven’t been able to move the grain they worked so hard to produce and we must work together to ease this transportation bottleneck.”
It’s a problem that began over 130 years ago and yet still remains unresolved to the satisfaction of all involved.