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Manitoba’s golden years for agriculture

Canada 150: The two decades following the Second World War saw massive changes to Manitoba farms, and the following years those changes continued unabated

The Second World War ushered in an era of challenge, change and growth for the Manitoba agriculture sector.

One development of the war years was the construction of a vegetable oil-crushing plant, Co-operative Vegetable Oils Ltd., in Altona, Manitoba in 1943. This plant was the beginning of the crush industry in Western Canada. The war had reduced imports of vegetable oil into Canada from Russia and Argentina along with creating an increased demand for vegetable oils in Canada. While there was a crush plant in Eastern Canada at the time, the cost of rail freight to the East reduced the price of oilseeds on the Prairies.

The Mennonite community in Altona recognized the opportunity, raised money for the plant locally and managed to secure financial assistance from the provincial government. At first the plant crushed sunflower seed.

Another development of the war years was the Canadian government aided the Canadian farm machinery manufacturers to convert them to war production which meant the purchase of new production equipment, hiring engineers and retraining staff to operate the new equipment and learn new production processes. The capacity of these manufacturers improved greatly. With the end of the war in 1945, a flood of pent-up demand for new equipment immediately appeared. The self-propelled combine rapidly became common on Manitoba farms along with new tractors, trucks and machinery of all sorts. Horse traction was largely retired in the years after 1945.

Life on the farm was significantly eased after 1945 by two developments: rural electrification and the building of a modern road network by all levels of government. Rural electrification had begun in 1938 but was suspended with the outbreak of war and restarted with vigour in 1946. Not only were modern appliances and equipment available in farm homes and shops, the sheer convenience of having a power source available at any time merely at the flip of a switch made life far more easy.

The capacity of road-building machinery had increased during the war years along with the cost of such machinery falling. Municipalities and the provincial government embarked upon road improvement and building programs. The federal government became involved in highway construction through the Trans-Canada Highway Act of 1949 with construction on the Trans-Canada beginning in 1950. With modern roads appearing, the ability of more around in rural areas, particularly during wet weather and the winter was greatly enhanced.

Another development of this period was the increased use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides on farm. While Cominco had begun fertilizer production at its Trail, B.C. smelter in 1931, economic conditions did not warrant the use of fertilizer in many areas of the Prairies in the 1930s.

The years between 1945 and 1965 can be seen as the golden age of the old pattern of Manitoba agriculture; quarter section to half section mixed farms serviced by a network of branch railways and by a network of small towns often complete with elevators, stockyards, dealerships, service stations, stores and other services.

Saturday nights in these small towns were characterized by farm families coming into town to shop and socialize. By the standards of the 1930s, life was prosperous. Modern conveniences made life much easier.

Diversification

There were several developments in diversification in the 1960s; the building of a Campbell Soup plant in Portage which purchased vegetables and other agricultural products to make soup. The processing potato industry came into existence with the construction of the Carnation french fry plant at Carberry.

Under the surface however, change was coming. Many rural people, particularly the young, recognized that there were better opportunities and lives elsewhere and began to seek them out. Rural depopulation became an issue. Improved roads took traffic away from the railway branch lines and allowed people to travel easily to larger towns where there was better shopping and more services. The smaller towns and villages began their decline.

Home economist Nora Wilson in a demonstration kitchen in the Boyd Building in downtown Winnipeg.
photo: Manitoba Hydro

The Crow rate was still in effect and the railways were losing increasingly large amounts of money on grain movement. In addition, railways in general changed their attitudes towards branch lines. Previously the branch lines, while recognized as unprofitable ventures, were regarded as necessary to bring traffic to the main lines which were profitable. Attitudes changed as the railways recognized they had lost low-volume, high-profit traffic to trucks leaving them with high-volume, low-profit traffic such as grain. This traffic could not move on trucks to port and so was coming to the main line whether there were branch lines or not. The railways began to push governments into allowing them to abandon branch lines.

While the CWB had pioneered wheat sales to Communist China in 1962, the opening of this market was not enough to stave off another collapse in wheat prices in the late 1960s.

European agriculture had recovered from the Second World War and between the U.S., Argentina and Canada there was too much wheat and other cereals for the market to absorb. The situation grew so serious that the federal government instituted the Lower Inventory for Tomorrow program (LIFT) which saw farmers paid not to grow wheat. The cereals situation resulted in further pressure for Manitoba farmers to diversify into livestock. The grain situation changed in July 1972 when Soviet Russia purchased some 10 million tons of U.S. grains resulting in a market rally. Grain prices remained decent for the remainder of the decade. However, pressure on agriculture continued.

The railways’ financial losses on grain movement as a result of the Crow rate were in the millions per year which led them to demand the Crow be removed and refuse to make investments in grain cars or related assets. The railways did win the case on uneconomic branch line removal and the first round of abandonment got underway in 1972. Various levels of government began to purchase grain cars to allow continued movement.

The return to good prices led to farm consolidations, particularly as farm machinery had grown in capacity to allow an individual to seed and harvest a much larger acreage than previous. While grain prices slid downwards in the 1980s the drive to consolidate farms continued. As well, the livestock industry changed with the meat industry working towards more uniform animals entering the slaughter plants, thus ensuring more uniform cuts of meat emerging. This required a more scientific approach to livestock production and also pressured the industry towards producers specializing in livestock production and building specialized facilities. While cattle avoided this trend to some extent, the cattle slaughter industry shifted west to Alberta as a result of the Alberta government initiatives.

King canola

One very positive development of the late 1960s and 1970s was the emergence of canola as a crop plus the growth of the crush industry on the Prairies to handle at least a percentage of the Prairie canola crop. While canola was perceived as a premium oilseed from the start as a result of the colour and taste of the oil, later it was also seen as heart-healthy oil, so cementing its reputation as a premium product and allowing it to take an even larger market share.

The losses to the railways as a result of the Crow rate continued to grow to the point where it was generally recognized that the losses could not continue without the railways collapsing. Also, various groups pointed out that the Crow rate, by subsidizing the movement of grain off the Prairies, hindered diversification out of grain into other commodities. In 1983, the federal government managed to bring into effect the Western Grain Transportation Act which did allow freight rates to rise to some extent. While the railways still incurred losses, they received a subsidy from the government. In 1993 the federal government implemented the Western Grain Transition Payment Program, which provided one-time payments to farmers to assist them in making the transition away from subsidized shipping. Today, rail freight rates on Prairie grains are governed by the maximum revenue entitlement clause of the Canada Transport Act. Generally the system is far more commercial than in the past.

The grain-handling system underwent significant rationalization in the years after 1983 and the once ubiquitous wooden grain elevator is today almost extinct. Many branch lines also disappeared. Even the Pools have disappeared. Between having to find large sums of money to pay out the equity of retiring members and modernize their elevator chains, combined with a farmer base that was less supportive of co-operative ideals than in the past, they faced significant issues. Probably the best chance of survival as a co-operative was with the proposal to amalgamate the three Prairie Pools, however, this did not come about and the Pools gradually became privatized.

Farm consolidation continued onwards for a variety of reasons: the recognition that individual farmers must realize economies of scale, farm machinery growing in capacity, challenges to farm profitability, recognition of better opportunities elsewhere, the list of reasons goes on. As farm populations decreased, many small towns and villages lost their economic base and so ceased to exist or are on life support.

The canola crush industry on the Prairies and in Manitoba saw substantial investment and is a major industry today. The hog industry also saw major investment both in production facilities and in slaughter facilities. While it has been subject to significant downturns, the hog industry is a major employer today. In recent years soybeans have become a major crop in Manitoba along with corn. Significant acreages of pulses, potatoes and speciality crops are grown in the province.

Open market

A final change was the removal of the “single-desk authority” of the CWB. One can argue the pros and cons of the single-desk authority in securing better wheat prices for Canadian producers in the marketplace, however, we will only note that the issue remains controversial.

Manitoba agriculture has faced and continues to face significant issues. Pests continue to evolve as does the competition. Who would have thought in 1990 that a major customer of Canadian grain, Soviet Russia, would be a significant and growing competitor for grain sales? New crops and opportunities continue to appear. Today the issues are more complicated by an activist public questioning aspects of agricultural practices and technologies and being very prepared to intervene in a situation that is complex, to say the least. However, Manitoba farmers are adaptable and so will meet the challenges of the future.

The future of agriculture in Manitoba remains untold. While many see the agricultural past as a dusty, boring place, ultimately it is our history and we need to understand it. However, there is a somewhat contradictory view to bear in mind about the past. The past is the past and we should not let the past blind us to the possibilities that the present and future hold. However, we also need to remember the past is always with us as it has shaped the present we exist in. The past provides clues as to how to move forward from that situation.

About the author

Contributor

Alex Campbell is the director of the Manitoba Agricultural Museum, which is open year round and operates a website at http://ag-museum.mb.ca/ which can provide visitors with information.

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