Takeover of Agricore United marks the end of an era

by Meyer Sosland
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The resulting takeover of Agricore United by publicly owned Saskatchewan Wheat Pool (SWP), while necessary from a business standpoint, also meant closing a seminal chapter in the history books of Western Canadian agriculture that began in the late 1890s. That was a time when a large proportion of farmers in Western Canada were bitter about the amount of "dockage" elevator agents were deducting from the price they received for wheat. They were also convinced that they were being shorted on bushel weights. But there was little they could do since the private grain companies and railroads had created a monopoly that prevented farmers from loading their own railway cars.

A Royal Commission had been appointed by Ottawa in October 1899 to look into farmer grievances, and the findings resulted in the passage of the Manitoba Grain Act in 1900. The act recognized that, in order to gain a fair price and access to markets, farmers must be guaranteed freedom in both shipping and selling. However, when a bumper wheat crop was harvested in 1901, the provisions of the act were largely ignored by the railways, and there were few, if any, actual changes to the way the railway/grain company monopoly operated.

This display of arrogance by the railways angered farmers. Discontent spread across the Prairies, and while several farm movements attempted to tackle the problem, none were successful until a handful of farmers, led by E.A. Partridge, began meeting in the small towns of Sintaluta and Indian Head, Saskatchewan in 1901. The farmers who attended these meetings formed the Territorial Grain Growers Association — a movement that eventually spread like a grass fire across the Prairies and sparked a revolution.

Realizing his association was planning to break the powerful railway/grain merchant monopoly, Partridge cautioned his group against becoming overly confident. "At present, we are but pygmies attacking giants," he said

The following crop year, the executives of Western Canada’s largest railway, Canadian Pacific, (CPR), chose once again to ignore the provisions of the Grain Act.

Exasperated, the association notified CPR management that they intended to take legal action against the Station Agent in Sintaluta for not providing a box car to be loaded directly by a farmer. They cautioned that if this action did not succeed they would also take legal action against every Station Agent in Western Canada who ignored the provisions of the Grain Act.

The farmers’ case was put before a Magistrate’s Court in Sintaluta that ruled for the plaintiff and fined CPR $50 plus court costs.

This ruling was eventually taken to the Supreme Court of Canada by CPR, but farmers also won their case in the higher court. A sea change in Prairie agriculture had begun.

With this early success, membership in the Territorial Grain Growers swelled, and in 1904 Partridge was sent to Winnipeg, Manitoba, which at that time rivaled Chicago as an international grain trading center, to find out how farmer’s grain was being marketed.

Referring to himself as "the farmers’ representative," Partridge nosed around the Winnipeg Grain Exchange, the private companies and grain agencies housed in Winnipeg and returned with a revolutionary idea – that farmers create their own company to market wheat.

This idea caught on and a seat on the exchange was purchased. Finally, in September 1906, the Grain Growers Grain Company was launched.

Within weeks, the volume of business filled the tiny office space rented by the Grain Growers in the Tribune Building, forcing the tiny company to move to larger accommodations.

This overnight success by a bunch of farmers deeply concerned the Exchange, and when an announcement was sent out by the Grain Growers telling members that any profits achieved by the company would be divided cooperatively, the Council of the Exchange complained that the fledgling company had damaged the "dignity" of the Exchange and members were not to do business with the grain growers. "You are virtually splitting the commission with the shipper," the president of the Exchange complained, "and we can’t allow that for a minute."

As a result, in November 1906, the Grain Growers’ laid formal charges of conspiring in restraint of trade against three members of the Exchange. While the grain trade felt comfortable that nothing would come of the charges, a Police Court, in a preliminary ruling, decided the matter should go to trial.

Encouraged by this success the Grain Growers’ went to the Manitoba Government, which was responsible for the Grain Exchange’s charter, and asked for a number of changes. Among these was a request that:

• the Government have access to all minutes, books, papers and accounts of the Exchange;

• there be a public gallery overlooking the trading floor so transactions could be observed and prices disseminated through the press;

• the practice of having a daily price paid for wheat wired to all member elevators be discontinued.

When the government finally delivered on most of these amendments, the Grain Growers’ seat on the exchange was assured. But the effects were much more widespread than that. This second success had once again demonstrated that, working together, powerless farmers belonging to the association could achieve their goals.

From these early beginnings Western Canada’s highly successful, farmer-owned grain cooperatives were given birth and eventually grew into three provincial cooperatives operating in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba and into United Grain Growers, with grain handling facilities that spanned Western Canada from the Port of Vancouver to Thunder Bay.

Many of the historical excerpts for this article were taken from the book, "Deep Furrows," by Hopkins Moorhouse, which is available at www.gutenberg.org.

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