Running the Rails: The Perennial Question of Prairie Grain Handling

Photograph by Laura Larsen.

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Editor’s NoteThis post is the eighth in the “Seeds: New Research in Environmental History” series cosponsored by NiCHE and Edge Effects, highlighting the work of members of the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) Graduate Student Caucus. This series serves to highlight new work being done in the field of environmental history and connect this research to other fields and contemporary issues. Graduate caucus members were asked to respond to the following questions: ““How does your work push at the boundaries of current literature and add to existing discussions of the environment/environmental history? What forces drive your research?” 

All environmental history graduate students are encouraged to join the caucus by contacting current student liaison, Zachary Nowak, at

Farmers on the Canadian prairies like to say that their grain feeds the world but, in 2014, this claim stumbled when grain movement ground to a halt.  At times, an unheard of fifty-seven ships waited on the west coast for grain to arrive while prairie farmers found themselves unable to deliver to inland elevators.[1]  With only two major railways in Canada to move grain the federal government passed legislation designed to compel the railways to focus on moving grain by setting financial penalties for failing to meet railcar movement targets.[2] At the same time, a strike of Canadian National Railway employees threatened to delay grain movement even longer.[3]  As a settlement was reached and the weather warmed, grain movement increased but the customer relations problems created by the slowed movement continued.  The overwhelming question that year in the agricultural community was: how could the Canadian grain handling and transportation system be fixed to ensure grain movement would not experience difficulties again?

Watching the problems of grain movement unfold along with the accompanying calls for a task force to investigate the cause of the problem brought with it a feeling uncomfortably close to déjà vu for me since my own work examines another time when the Canadian grain handling and transportation system was characterized as being at a crisis point.  In 1975, the federal government appointed Justice Emmet Hall, already publically well known for chairing a 1961 Royal Commission on Health Services, to investigate the structure of the western Canadian grain handling system. In the previous seven years, the system was plagued by problems ranging from slow delivery of grain to port terminals to dock workers’ strikes that made it difficult to fulfil delivery contracts for Canadian grain.  In 1969, frustrated farmers descended on the recently elected Pierre Trudeau, during his first official trip west as Prime Minister, to demand the federal government solve the problems of grain movement and low grain prices.

By this time, the prairies had a large network of country elevators built up from the early settlement period. Almost every small town and village in the prairies had its own elevator, which combined to create a network of 4,959 delivery points by 1969.[4] In Saskatchewan, the most common elevators were the red and yellow painted ones owned by the farmers of the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool. Each elevator had the name of the town it served emblazoned on its sides.  This highly decentralized system was what farmers, grain companies, and railways were looking at in the 1970s as grain movement seemed to reach a crisis point. At its core the system was essentially unchanged from the same basic structure of the 1910s so it appeared to be a prime target for the 1970s verve for modernization and efficiency.

A direct result of the attempt to modernize the grain handling and transportation system was a 61% decrease in the number of delivery points so that by 1985, there were only 1,925 points distributed unevenly across the three Prairie Provinces.[5] The number of primary elevators continued to decline into the 1990s.  Watching the “sentinels of the prairies” vanishing made me want to study why they had disappeared.

Two pool Elevators fine Co-op Oil Business, Kinistino, Saskatchewan, September 1, 1942. Source: Everett Baker Slides, Saskatchewan History and Folklore Society
Two pool Elevators fine Co-op Oil Business, Kinistino, Saskatchewan, September 1, 1942. Source: Everett Baker Slides, Saskatchewan History and Folklore Society

The centralization of the grain handling and transportation system had many repercussions including increasing the distance farmers had to move their grain by truck to an elevator on a rail line.  In my own work I am interested in how the discussion of modernizing the grain handling and transportation system prioritized truck transport over rail transport to the point where the possible associated costs of truck transport, including the increased deterioration of roads subjected to increased traffic volumes of heavy trucks, were downplayed.

At the same time the Crowsnest Pass Freight Rate Agreement, which set the rate for grain movement, came under scrutiny as the two railways argued that the Crow Rate did not allow them to recoup their costs for moving grain. As part of the modernization of the grain handling and transportation system the Crow Rate, which had been first negotiated in 1897, was also changed.

Between the changes to the Crow Rate and the need to move their grain longer distances truck farmers experienced increased costs while the farm-gate price for grain did not increase. This meant that farmers had to recoup their trucking costs from some other source. Many turned to the new crop on the prairies – canola.

Canola was developed from an older oilseed called rapeseed to have low saturated fat and low erucic acid content making it an acceptable oil for human consumption. The price per bushel for canola was on par with wheat, the dominant crop on the prairies at the time, which raises the question in my work: Did farmers add it to their crop rotations to help deal with their increased costs? From an environmental perspective, canola is not easy on soils. It takes significant nitrogen to produce a single well-yielding crop as well as other soil nutrients.  Adding canola into the crop rotation cycle of prairie farming added another crop, which drains soils of nutrients thus requiring farmers to add more fertilizer, with its associated environment effects, to their agricultural practices. As part of my project, I am mapping the deliveries of wheat and canola to the primary elevators in the grain handling system. I want to know if canola deliveries increased in areas where the number of delivery points declined compared to areas where the grain handling system remained more decentralized.

Since export grain is still central to the economy of the Canadian prairies, the question of how to improve the handling and transportation system for it remains important. This research hopes to show the progression of ideas around the modernization of the grain handling and transportation system as well as the initial consequences of those ideas to the agricultural environment of the Prairie Provinces.

[1] Kelsey Johnson, “Grain Jam: Five Reasons why the grain crisis matters to you,’ 19 February 2014.

[2] Terry Pedwell, “Canada’s international reputation as a reliable grain producer is on the line,” The Star, 24 March 2014.; Allan Dawson, “Mixed reviews for new rail legislation to improve grain shipping,” Manitoba Cooperator, 8 April 2014.

[3] Vanessa Lu, “Union and CN Rail research tentative deal averting weekend strike threat,” The Star 5 February 2014.

[4] Calculated using Canada Grain Commission, “Primary Elevator historical summaries by crop year, 1962-1963 to 2016-2017,” Grain Elevators in Canada historical summaries by elevator type, Canada Grain Commission, 2017.

[5] Calculated using Canada Grain Commission, “Primary Elevator historical summaries by crop year, 1962-1963 to 2016-2017,” Grain Elevators in Canada Historical Summaries by Elevator Type, Canada Grain Commission, 2017.

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Laura Larsen

Laura Larsen is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Saskatchewan. Her dissertation explores rail rationalization and agricultural policy under the Pierre Trudeau Liberal government.


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