“There was absolutely no reason to have faith in the wheat board.”
– WALLY NELSON
The way Wally Nelson tells it, it all began in early December 1969 when a farmer named John Wood came to his John Deere dealership to apologize for not being able to pay his bill.
There’d been a decent crop that year. The bins were full. But the grain wasn’t moving and nothing could be sold. So there was no money.
Wood also went to Nelson’s friend Bob Ferguson, who ran a feed mill near Drinkwater, Sask., to say the same thing.
The three compared notes and concluded the Canadian Wheat Board was to blame for the standstill.
Canada, the United States, Europe, Australia and Argentina had agreed to hold grain off the market in an effort to increase depressed world prices. The eventual result was a billion-bushel carry-over – almost three years’ supply of grain.
The backlog led the CWB to impose a three-bushel delivery quota, frustrating grain farmers who could only see money in the bin which couldn’t be converted into actual cash.
The log-jam eventually broke in the early 1970s when the Soviet Union entered the North American market, buying large quantities of grain and creating the so-called Great Grain Robbery.
But Nelson, 82, still recalls the grain plug-up as “the most negative depressing situation” he was ever in.
“There was absolutely no reason to have faith in the wheat board,” he said.
So Nelson, Ferguson and about 10 others got together in late December 1969 and began holding meetings, sometimes as many as three a week, to form a group to push for change.
In January 1970, the Palliser Triangle Wheat Growers Association was founded. Two months later, at the old Vagabond Motor Inn in Regina, the new organization held its inaugural meeting with Nelson as its first president.
It was a group whose goal was to “create an effective farm organization for positive market-oriented policy changes,” according to its current executive director Blair Rutter.
But everyone knew the real reason.
“It was that so-and-so wheat board,” says Nelson.
The group changed its name to the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association in 1985. But opposition to the wheat board’s sales monopoly still remains its raison d’etre, as it was that wintery night back in Drinkwater.
The wheat growers celebrated their 40th anniversary convention this week in Orlando, Florida at AgConnect Expo, billed as one of the largest agricultural trade shows in North America.
The road wasn’t always smooth for an organization born in protest over grain policy. Membership, once claimed around 10,000, is now rumoured at fewer than 1,000. The group folded briefly in 2003 because of declining membership and revenue but reorganized less than a year later.
Critics portray the wheat growers as a one-issue organization fixated on the wheat board to the exclusion of everything else.
But Rutter says that simply isn’t true.
“For those who suggest that we’re all about the wheat board, well, that’s not the case,” he said.
“It remains our key priority but there are other issues that we certainly work on.”
Kevin Bender, the current president, lists other policies on which the WGCGA focuses: the removal of KVD as a grading factor, support for biotech wheat and reform of the grain transportation system.
Some of those positions have borne fruit, said Bender, 39, who farms near Bentley, Alta.
One was the abolition in the mid-1980s by the then-Liberal government of the Crow rate. True, the subsidy was eliminated instead of being paid to producers, as the WCWGA wanted. But farmers did receive phased-out compensation. Today, grain transportation in Western Canada is market driven instead of subsidy distorted, as Rutter puts it.
“We support marketplaces that are free of distortions via subsidies,” he said. “It’s better for farmers to be facing true market realities rather than an artificial marketplace.”
Bender noted several other recent changes the association supports: the elimination of KVD as a registration requirement and the CWB’s implementation of pricing options, including fixed price contracts.
“We’ve had some part in pushing for those developments,” Bender said by phone from Orlando. “I wouldn’t take credit for them. But that was something we were pushing for. It’s not what we want yet but it’s going to move in the right direction.”
Bill Toews, who farms near Kane, Man., says the WCWGA may have helped influence the move away from government-appointed CWB commissioners to farmer-elected directors.
But Toews, also a CWB director, said the association’s demand for less regulation is a throwback to the early 1900s, when railways and grain companies ruled the roost and farmers had to band together to achieve some market power.
In fact , many feel the WCWGA aligns itself with multinational corporations and the railways instead of representing farmers themselves, said Toews, who emphasized he was speaking as an individual, not on behalf of the board.
“From a business perspective, I wouldn’t say they’re riding the wave of the future,” he said. “They are relatively a one-note organization.”
The WCWGA’s dream of a voluntary wheat board remains elusive, despite the minority Harper government’s commitment to it. Court challenges to the Canadian Wheat Board Act have failed. A Liberal-led opposition will not support legislation to make the board voluntary.
But the wheat growers still feel the momentum toward so-called “marketing freedom” is on their side.
“We’ll see it if Harper gets a majority or lightning strikes the Liberal party,” Nelson said. [email protected]