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Farmers of yesteryear protected western wheat quality

Blending wheats of different grades was a scandalous crime that drew action from the PMO’s office

Black and white photo of a prairie grain elevator.

Determined to Remove Grievance of Farmers: Sir Wilfred Declares Government Has Secured Evidence of Mixing of Wheat and is Pledged to Punish the Guilty Parties”

So reads the title of a front-page article in the Manitoba Free Press of Tuesday, July 19, 1910. The body of the news article reports on a meeting between the Prime Minister Sir Wilfred Laurier and the Grain Growers Association which occurred at the Brandon City Hall on July 18, 1910. The association presented the prime minister with “memorials” on the issues of Canadian tariffs, reciprocity with the U.S., government ownership of port terminal elevators and the export trade in dressed meat.

Prime Minister Laurier stated in this meeting that the government had evidence as to the mixing of wheat and pledged to punish the guilty parties. He went on to say that the government recognized that this was an evil and it must provide a remedy. Pretty strong statements!

This headline puzzles today’s farmer. Mixing is the term applied 100 years ago to what the current grain industry knows as blending. Section 18 of the Manitoba Grain Act of 1900 stated, “In no case, shall grain of different grades be mixed together while in store.” By current standards, the ban on mixing or blending of grain that was in place 100 years ago comes as quite a surprise.

At the time it was believed that the interests of the Canadian grain grower and Canadian grain trade were best served by putting into the export trade, when properly cleaned, grain of the average quality of the grades.

For example, a customer purchasing No. 2 Manitoba Hard Red Spring wheat received a cargo that was made up of various parcels of wheat that all graded No. 2 Manitoba at the time each was first graded. It was illegal to blend into the cargo any other grades of wheat.

1910 Manitoba Free Press newspaper headline
The headline in the Manitoba Free Press July 19, 1910. Photo: Manitoba Agricultural Museum Archives photo: Manitoba Agricultural Museum Archives

The “no-mixing” rule was supported by the majority of Canadian producers who realized blending would result in cargoes grading at the bottom of the grade, not at the average standard of the grade.

The difference, while subtle, would be noticeable to the customers of western Canadian wheat who would then be less willing to purchase this wheat. As well, producers lacking the ability to blend on farm would have little to no opportunity to profit from blending.

Grain traders of the day also supported the ban on mixing. In 1899, the Winnipeg Grain and Produce Exchange Council passed the resolution, “The Exchange expresses its positive conviction that no mixing of grain should be permitted at terminal elevators and also that no mixing should be permitted in a cargo shipment unless the inspection certificate issued therefore shall have written across the face a statement defining the various grades entering into the composition.”

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There are two contributing factors to the grain traders holding this view.

In the early days of the Prairie grain industry, the port terminal facilities were largely owned either by the railways or by organizations that did not own country elevators. The best place to blend is at port terminals.

A further contributing factor to the grain trader’s view on mixing was the struggle through the 1880s to obtain more western Canadian input into the grading of grain. Eastern grain interests had significant input into the grading system particularly as the system was largely based on the Boards of Trade in the cities of Montreal and Toronto. The rules were such that eastern Canadian wheat was allowed to be mixed into cargoes of western wheat passing through the east on its way to markets in Europe.

As eastern wheat was often softer varieties of wheat with lower gluten content, this wheat mixed into the Red Fife wheat of the West resulted in poor performance when the blend was milled and baked. Customers in Europe wanted the high-quality bread made from western Canadian Red Fife wheat and were prepared to pay for this quality.

Some customers apparently refused to accept wheat shipments with an eastern Canadian inspection stamp. Only a western Canadian inspection stamp was acceptable, as this stamp indicated the shipment passed through Eastern Canada intact.

Any “manipulation” in the East would result in an inspection by an eastern Canadian grain inspector and a resulting stamp on the paperwork. By 1890, the grading of western Canadian grain was largely in the hands of the western grain industry. This issue had demonstrated to the western Canadian grain trade how important the reputation for quality of western Canadian wheat was in making sales.

The first private grain terminal was built at the Lakehead in 1907. Private terminals handled grain purchased by the terminals’ owners exclusively. As these terminals were private, they were not subject to the Manitoba Grain Act, which caused concerns particularly when producers became aware of the mixing of grades taking place in private terminals. Railways by 1910 were beginning to sell off their port terminals and so more terminals were ending up in the hands of grain companies.

By 1910, the profits to be made from blending were so attractive that some in the grain trade were engaged in blending and so the producers of the day were demanding action. It should be noted that the no-mixing rule resulted in some significant issues to producers and the grain trade. The no-blending rule also directly contributed to grain elevators being declared as “works in the general advantage of Canada.”

But this and the end of the no-mixing rule are stories for another day!

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