Agriculture and Food
Prior to European settlement, indigenous people occupied the land area now known as Saskatchewan. They were primarily hunters and gatherers; their numbers relative to the food resources from bison, other animals and birds, native fruit and plants did not warrant an extensive agriculture production system to provide food. This, however, does not mean that there was no agricultural production: before the treaties of the 1870s, some Aboriginal people had begun to raise crops and cattle in Saskatchewan; however, this was nothing like the transformation of the native prairie for crop production that took place following European settlement.
Settlement and the Wheat Economy
The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) crossed Saskatchewan in 1884 and was completed in 1885. It was now possible to bring in settlers and move out the agricultural commodities they would produce. The CPR and the federal government provided an image of the west as a “promised land,” a garden of abundance where all material wants would be satisfied. This image was used to lure immigrants from other settled areas of North America and Europe. The international economic depression of the 1890s, however, delayed settlement: the low price of grain in Great Britain, coupled with the high costs of transportation (rail and ocean freight), meant that net returns to grain production in the west would be insufficient to warrant investment. Farmers could not make a living, and infrastructure (roads, grain storage, schools, etc.) could not be financed.
By the turn of the 20th century the conversion of wind to steam-powered ocean freight and over-capacity had reduced rates to less than half of what they had been thirty years earlier. Low interest rates coupled with higher grain prices made the economic conditions ripe for settlement to take off. The west was settled and the native prairie was converted to cropland within a period of thirty years. wheat was the staple crop on which the prairie economy was built, although other crops such as oats, barley, and flax were produced.
Grain Handling and Transportation
Another essential element for the development of the agricultural economy was the grain handling and transportation system. Three companies—Canadian Pacific Railway, Canadian Northern Railway, and Grand Trunk Pacific Railway—vied for the business of moving grain by building rail branch lines.
The three western railway companies encouraged American interests to build primary elevators along their railway lines. In addition, Canadian grain companies were formed. At one time there were over 100 companies in the grain business; most of these failed for financial reasons, and their assets were bought by the larger companies. How the railways and grain companies charged for their services of transportation, grain handling and storage were major issues for farmers then as they are today. In 1897 the federal government enacted the Crow’s Nest Pass Agreement with the CPR, setting a maximum rail freight rate for grain moving from prairie delivery points.
Through their organizations, farmers petitioned the federal and provincial governments to take over the ownership of all terminal and primary elevators. In Saskatchewan the provincial government, following the recommendations of an appointed Commission, instead offered support by guaranteeing bank loans to farmers who wanted to build their own elevators.
Farmer-owned grain companies helped to resolve many of the farmers’ problems with the private grain companies, but they did not resolve the problem of price. Because of farm debt, farmers were being forced to sell their grain at harvest time, when prices tended to be low owing to gluts of grain on the market. A group of farmers, who envisioned the formation of a monopoly marketing agency operating in their interest and pooling their grain, developed a plan for a Canadian Wheat Board (CWB). The federal government instituted the CWB to market the 1919-20 crop at the end of the war but they did not retain the CWB, and the following year allowed the open market to return. Wheat prices fell. Farmers, ever suspicious of the open market and its speculators, began a campaign to restore the CWB.
Following a Royal Commission on the grain trade that recommended in favour of the open market, farmers developed a plan for pooling with five-year contracts. The Saskatchewan Co-operative Wheat Producers Limited was formed in 1924 to handle the marketing of the grain that was acquired under these contracts; with similar organizations in Alberta and Manitoba, it formed the Central Selling Agency in 1926 to market grain jointly. All three cooperatives eventually went into the elevator business. When the Central Selling Agency became insolvent in 1929 with the collapse of wheat prices at the onset of the Great Depression, pooling ceased; but the elevator component survived, later to become the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool.
Following intense political action by farmers, the federal government reestablished the Canadian Wheat Board in 1935 to market wheat in the prairie region under a pooling arrangement. At first operating as a voluntary agency, the CWB was made permanent in 1943. Trading in wheat futures was discontinued on the Winnipeg Grain Exchange. Oat and barley were added to the CWB in 1949. Feed grains for the domestic market were removed from the CWB in 1974, as was oats in 1989. In recent years the CWB has undergone numerous changes including a new Act that has installed a producer-elected board of directors. It has also introduced marketing alternatives which allow farmers to fix the price of their grain and thus opt out of the pooling system.
Saskatchewan, like the other prairie provinces, has not been noted for its manufacturing sector, which has developed primarily in relation to agriculture. The industry is dominated by milling and by the processing of meat, oilseed, pulse, and dairy products. Most of the food processors are small: over 70% employ less than ten people.
The Brewing and Fermentation industry is one of the oldest agricultural industries in the province. The first fermentation process was begun in Moose Jaw and Prince Albert in 1883.
Milling is another industry established early. With limited transportation, numerous flour mills were developed shortly after settlement. In 1915 there were at least thirty-seven flour mills, with chopping mills in an additional twenty-three towns. By 1935 there were fifty-five flour and grist mills, which had a daily combined capacity of 7,860 barrels of flour.
Education, Research and Extension in Agriculture
The grain varieties in existence in the 1800's were not ideally suited to prairie climate and growing conditions. To facilitate development of the agricultural economy in the west and other parts of Canada the federal government passed the Experimental Farm Station Act in 1886, thus creating experimental farms largely to conduct plant breeding and research to support agricultural production. Five stations that included Indian Head (1887) were established initially under the direction of William Saunders. It was William’s son, Charles Saunders, who discovered Marquis wheat in 1904; as it was several days earlier in maturity, Marquis quickly replaced all other wheat varieties. Marquis also had excellent milling qualities and became the standard for all new varietal development.
Three colleges at the University of Saskatchewan offer programs in the agricultural area: Agriculture, Western College of Veterinary Medicine, and Engineering. The College of Agriculture was one of two colleges established in 1909; since then, agricultural teaching and research have been consistent areas of strength at the University, and the practical transfer of college research to producers has played a significant role in the development of agriculture in western Canada.
The Western College of Veterinary Medicine was established at the University of Saskatchewan in 1964 as a result of a decision by representatives of the University, the governments of the four western provinces, and the federal government. The first class entered the College in 1965 and graduated in 1969. In its short history, the College has gained international stature in the fields of animal reproduction, infectious diseases, toxicology, and wildlife health.
The University of Saskatchewan began offering engineering courses in 1912, and the College of Engineering was established in 1921. The Department of Agricultural and Bioresource Engineering operated as the Department of Agricultural Engineering until 1992, when the name was changed to reflect its broader teaching and research program.
Extension programs have been an important educational component of Saskatchewan agriculture and rural communities. To assist settlers in exchanging information amongst themselves, Agricultural Societies were formed under a bill introduced in the Legislature of the North-West Territories in 1884. In 1905 the first Minister of Agriculture, W.R. Motherwell, initiated an extension service through the Fairs and Institutions Branch. When the decision was made to place the College of Agriculture at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, an agreement was made between the University and Motherwell in 1910, by which the University would take on educational (to include extension) work in agriculture, the province being responsible for administration and inspection. Over ninety years ago “Better Farming Trains” began bringing agricultural programs to rural Saskatchewan; over 40,000 contacts were made in the first year. The program operated between 1914 and 1922, with the trains carrying exhibitions and displays, lecture cars, and even a nursery car for small children. In 1929 the University of Saskatchewan began to offer correspondence courses so that rural students could take Grade 12 educational standing and university courses; currently, it offers a Certificate in Agriculture Program in Crop Production and Farm Business Management. Other programs include a Prairie Horticulture Certificate and a Master Garden Program.
In 1913, in order to provide a link between settlers and the Department of Agriculture in Regina, the government hired four district representatives and stationed them in rural Saskatchewan. This program was discontinued in 1923. It was not until 1945 that the province reintroduced it through the Agricultural Representatives Act and created a branch by that name in the Department of Agriculture. The “Ag Reps,” as they were called, tended to be generalists offering information and advice to farmers and rural people on various subjects related to farming and gardening, as well as information on government programs and policies. There were approximately forty Ag Reps working in rural Saskatchewan. In the mid-1970s the extension service reorganized into six regions, and three agricultural specialists were hired for each region—in farm management, soils and crops, and livestock. In addition there were six farmstead engineers, who were more closely tied to agricultural engineering (at present Agriculture and Bioresource Engineering).
The extension program has changed over the years to reflect the needs of rural people for information, and has followed the evolution of information technology. In the late 1980s, in order to facilitate a new policy to diversify the agricultural economy, the Extension Service became a partner agency in the creation of a Rural Service Network, and fifty-two Rural Service Centres were created. These Centres included other programs such as the Lands Branch and Crop Insurance; Ag Reps were renamed Extension Agrologists, and were given broader responsibilities to work toward diversification through the new Agricultural Development and Diversification Boards. In 1993 the province established the Agricultural Business Unit at the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Agriculture; the objective was to commercialize new technology for the creation of increased value added enterprises in agriculture.
On March 31, 2004, the extension service that has focused on supporting agricultural production throughout rural Saskatchewan was discontinued. It was replaced with an Agricultural Knowledge Centre, located in Moose Jaw and staffed by several specialists in various fields of specialization. Replacing the existing extension service are nine Regional Centres situated in rural Saskatchewan, whose mandate is to assist in the commercialization of agriculture, and thus in the development of value-added enterprises.
For additional information, see the entry "Agriculture and Food" in the Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan.