First export of wheat — it was only 857 bushels but it was a start

by Bruce Cherney

Federal Agriculture Minister Chuck Strahl is apparently not a great fan of the Canadian Wheat Board which was established during the height of the Great Depression to assist Western Canadian grain farmers by marketing their wheat and barley.

The CWB was created in 1935 by the Conservative R.B. Bennett government when it passed the Canadian Wheat Act. It started out as a voluntary single-desk marketing board for Western farmers — it doesn’t apply to Eastern Canadian grain farmers — but

became a mandatory body in 1943.

The federal government recently held a plebiscite to decide the fate of barley marketing by the CWB. When the votes were counted, the plebiscite had given the federal Conservative government the ammunition it needed to end the CWB’s barley monopoly. The agriculture minister said the

monopoly will end on August 1.

Farmers grew almost 11.7-million tonnes of barley in 2005, but sold most of it to local livestock markets — only 2.5-million tonnes was marketed by the CWB.

Meanwhile, the Manitoba government and the CWB allege that the

voting procedure was flawed.

“A vote on the future of the Canadian Wheat Board is a vote on the

future of prairie grain farmers and our producers deserve much better,” said Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives Minister, Rosann Wowchuk.  

“Producers have widely condemned the federal three-question ballot which today yielded an unclear result as expected,” added Wowchuk. 

The federal barley vote was further compromised when it was revealed last month that numbered ballots meant voter confidentiality could not be assured, alleged Wowchuk.

Wowchuk said most concerning about the result on the federal barley plebiscite is the remarkably low voter turnout. About 29,067 of the 82,000 ballots mailed to producers were completed.

“Two-thirds of eligible producers chose not to cast a ballot,” she said.  “Clearly, Minister Strahl does not have a mandate from farmers to make changes to the Canadian Wheat Board.”

In mid-January, the Manitoba government announced the results of its provincial vote on wheat and barley. The vote showed 62 per cent of producers favoured maintaining the single desk for barley and 70 per cent favoured maintaining the single desk for wheat.  Producers were consulted on the ballot question and steps were taken to guarantee a fair vote, said Wowchuk.

Voter turnout in the Manitoba vote was 65 per cent.

Whatever the fate of the CWB, Manitoba and the West have had a long tradition of grain growing and marketing.

Actually, the first grain exported out of Manitoba was in 1876. It wasn’t a significant amount, but it was a start.

The first grain grown in Manitoba was  by the Selkirk Settlers who began to arrive in 1812. Their early efforts brought little reward — crops were lost to flood, early frost, plagues of mice and grasshoppers, and armed conflict with Nor’Westers. The first recorded grain harvest in Western Canada yielded only 23 10-gallon kegs of wheat for the Selkirk Settlers. In 1820, the settlement’s grain seed was destroyed and a group trekked to Wisconsin by snowshoe to obtain more seed, bringing back 250 bushels in flatboats via the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, Big Stone Lake and the Red River. After being sown, the seeds produced a good harvest and wheat production on the prairies was underway. 

In subsequent years, improved farming practices, the advent of mechanization and the introduction of red fife wheat in 1868 with its superior milling and baking qualities, allowed the expansion of wheat production. 

Still, grain, especially wheat, was slow to take hold as a cash-crop in Manitoba. In fact, even with the first export of wheat in 1876, Winnipeg was a net importer of flour from the United States, since there were only a handful of flour mills scattered across the province. For example, the first steam-powered mill in the province was Winnipeg City Mills (McMillan & Bassett’s) while McLane’s Mill was the second steam-powered mill. Outside of the city was the Rapids Steam Mills in St. Andrews and Lemay’s Mill in St. Norbert, as well as a new Marquette Milling Company facility planned for Portage la Prairie that would join a mill owned by Billy Smith. In the fall of 1876, it was also announced that the machinery for a new grist and sawmill arrived in Palestine (Gladstone) for C.P. Brown.

It would be another five years before the landmark Ogilvie Flour Mills was established in Winnipeg.

In 1876, bread made from milled flour cost $1 for 14 loaves in Winnipeg.

The Moorhead Star reported H.A. Bruns had visited Winnipeg and organized “the sale of an immense quantity of flour” which was to be moved northward by a fleet of flatboats. In another instance, the newspaper reported that the Moorhead Manufacturing Company was shipping 2,543 sacks of flour to Winnipeg in the fall of 1876.

It was only with the introduction of railway connections, which allowed exports in bulk, that the Prairies became the “Breadbasket of the World.”

The 1876 crop was made possible because conditions had changed from those experienced in preceding years. For one, grasshoppers, which had continually plagued the province and dramatically reduced previous harvests were less plentiful and thus less apt to devour the provincial crop before it could be harvested. 

In its crop report for the year, the Manitoba Free Press gathered information from 34 different settlements at the end of the harvest. 

“We have great cause to thank the Almighty Giver ... (that) our land should be so significantly blessed by abundant crops,” said the Free Press on September 16 in its Crop of 1876 report.

“Just now when it seems so distinctly marked that the middle and eastern United States and Ontario are becoming less reliable for agriculture, the endless virgin lands of our North-West are becoming known as specially productive wheat fields, and may be offered to their people for settlement on condition only, of building railroads to reach them.”

The newspaper was right in the last instance, but the construction of a trans-Canada railway was still years away. It would take a concerted effort and change in immigration policy by the Sir Wilfrid Laurier Liberal government, following its election in 1896, to attract Americans and

Europeans who were experienced in dryland agricultural practices needed to realize the grain potential of Western Canada. When that happened, wheat was crowned king and was toasted as a major contributor to Canada’s economic health. 

When news of the bounty of 1876 did reach the outside world, people began to covetously cast their eyes westward, especially those from Ontario.

Newspapers reported that every day they heard or read of people selling their land in Eastern Canada to try their hand at farming on the prairies. The great attraction for easterners was that land in Western Canada was significantly cheaper than in their home province. 

The Toronto Mail said that 100 acres of unbroken Ontario land sold for between $8,000 and $10,000 — 100 acres of good cleared land cost between $20,000 and $30,000 —  which could purchase 500 to 1,000 acres of cleared land in Manitoba.

The more adventuresome could pay a $10 filing fee and get a 160-acre homestead on Crown (public) land under the terms of the 1872 Dominion Lands Act. The stipulation was that settlers had to live on the land for three years, build a house and have a certain amount under cultivation over the three-year period.

Because of the high land prices, the Mail said, “... young men who intend being farmers ... will have to ‘go West’ in order to find room for themselves.”

Many Easterners took advantage of cheap land and added to the bounty of 1876. And the Free Press predicted that in a year or two the

influx of new farmers would result in even greater grain production on the prairies.

“On the whole the ‘Manitoba fever’ is to be regarded as a sign of the country’s strength; and indication that we are not unworthy possessors of the great North-Western country which it has become our duty to subdue and to replenish.”

The prosetylizing echoed the

Biblical call to “subdue” nature and to “go forth and multiply.”

While Ontarians were a significant presence, Mennonite immigrants who first arrived in 1874 also had a great impact on wheat production in the province. They had been prosperous farmers in their homeland and were able to adapt the successful techniques developed over their years farming on the Russian Steppes to Canada’s similar prairie landscape. In 1877, it was reported that Mennonite farmers in southern Manitoba had a surplus of 30,000 bushels of wheat for sale to mills.

The Ontario-based St. Thomas Home Journal said the figures from the Crop of 1876 report showed the attraction of Manitoba “and it is now pretty well understood that thousands of squares miles throughout the  North-West territories have soil not a whit less productive.”

The Mail said “the glorious harvest of 1876 in Manitoba ... is the first that has attracted general attention here, the fact being that not before this was there enough land under crop to make a harvest worth talking about.”

The Free Press reported that 480,000 bushels of wheat, 173,000 bushels of barley and 380,000 bushels of oats were grown in 1876.

Yet, the bounty was feared not to be sufficient to meet local needs — thus the need to import flour.

“Estimates, based upon importation statistics, place the Provincial and North-West Territorial consumption at ninety thousand barrels (of flour), an equivalent of 360,000 bushels of wheat,” explained the crop report. “This would leave only 120,000 bushels for seed and holding over — plainly insufficient.

“However, we are disposed to

believe that the flour consumption has been slightly overestimated; but not so much so, as to leave any considerable surplus of wheat over the next twelve months ...”

The newspaper said “taking everything into account, it is really

doubtful, had we shipping facilities, whether they could be called into

requisition for grain exportation even with this year’s production on our hands.”

A full-page advertisement by the company Higgins, Young and Peebles appeared in the Free Press on September 14, 1876. Besides drawing attention to its regular product lines such as groceries, boots, shoes, crockery and glassware, the company announced that “80¢ cash will be paid all next week for choice seed wheat to be sent to Ontario.” 

When it arrived in Ontario, the Manitoba seed wheat would net from $2 to $3 per bushel. Freight to Toronto cost 35-cents a bushel.

The Daily Free Press carried ads from the Winnipeg wheat agents from October 13 to 21 also offering “Cash for choice wheat for export to Ontario ... 80 cents per bushel.”  

The company was acting on behalf of  Steele Bros., a seed company from Toronto.

Steele Bros. was attracted to Manitoba wheat because it was noted for ripening quickly and having high yields — the typical Manitoba yield was said to average 25 bushels per acre, compared to 20 bushels per acre in Minnesota. It was also common for some yields to top 40 bushels per acre.

“An early ripening of the crop is most desirable,” according to a Toronto newspaper, “for one thing, experience having proved that early ripening and a good yield generally go together, while late wheat crops have to encounter many adverse contingencies ... the opinion is one generally accepted by agriculturalists, that wheat from a northern district, where the season is short, carries its habit of quick ripening with it, when sown in a southern district ...”

A.W. Burrows, writing to the agricultural paper, the Farmer’s Advocate, recommended that Ontario farmers use the seed of “the flinty, white wheat of the Red River Valley” because of it could be turned into “best flour now known in the market.”

Gibbs Bros. of Oshawa, Ontario, also recommended using “the kind known as ‘Hard’ wheat as being nearest to what the ‘Fife’ used to be many years ago.”

The company said Ontario wheat had not maintained its superiority and so it was necessary to look for other sources such as Manitoba.

R.C. Steele visited various farms in the province to secure the most superior examples of hard wheat seeds. One week was allowed for the collection of 5,000 bushels. However, this total was far from realized and Steele was only able to amass 857 bushels  of seed  and 10 pounds of red fife wheat.

The list of the major contributors included 204 bushels from G.R. Miller of Kildonan, 17 3/4 bushels from J. McIvor of Greenwood, 80 1/6 bushels from J.W. Carleton from Clear Spring, 154 bushels from H. Soar of St. John, 35 bushels from F. Dick of Springfield, 22 bushels from Neil McLeod of Victoria, 102 bushels from a Mr. Black of Springfield, 94 bushels from D. McDonald of Springfield, 44 bushels from John Spear of Springfield, 32 bushels from T.B. Robinson of Rockwood, 33 bushels from Alexander Gibson of Springfield and 40 bushels from John Reich of St. Paul.

The 412 sacks of wheat were shipped via the steamer Minnesota to the American railhead at Fisher’s Landing in Minnesota.

The Free Press said this first shipment “will be worthy of remembrance when in the not far distant future our shipments amount to millions of bushels.”

The next year, cash was again being offered for wheat and millers predicted that the new crop would make better, whiter and stronger flour than the previous year’s harvest. In its annual crop report, the Free Press said the total wheat yield for the province was between 600,000 and 700,000 bushels, a significant increase from the previous year’s 480,000 bushels. The newspaper said the average yield was approximately 28 bushels per acre. 

McMillan & Bassett purchased the first new wheat for their mill in September 1877 for 65 cents a bushel.

The first wheat exported was shipped by the steamer International and purchased by R. Gerrie & Co, for A.W. Oglivie, Goderich Mills in Ontario. In its advertisements, R. Gerrie & Co. said it wanted from 10,000 to 20,000 bushels of wheat.

While a mere 857 bushels were sent east in 1876, the following year Manitoba was able to export 20,000 bushels of wheat. The Free Press reported on October 20, 1877, that a quantity of the wheat was destined for Glascow, Scotland. During one day in October, 1,700 bushels of wheat was shipped to Glasgow and to A.W. Oglivie & Co. in Goderich.

“This marks an era in our progress, standing as it does in marked contrast to our position but two years ago, when we depended upon Minnesota for our supplies of seed wheat, flour, and, in fact, all the necessities of life; and demonstrates how soon a country like ours can become self-supporting.” 

In 1878, the first rail link to Winnipeg and the province was completed — the St. Paul, Minnesota and Manitoba Railway — and the Canadian Prairie was on its way to becoming the “Breadbasket of the World.”

Twenty-five years after the first small export of wheat, the West was selling 25-million bushels, primarily to the export market.