A look at the Alberta Wheat Pool

On May 29, 2012, the shareholders of Viterra voted to sell the company to Glencore, an international commodities company headquartered in Switzerland.

As Viterra was the successor company to the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, Alberta Wheat Pool and United Grain Growers Ltd., this sale marks the end of a remarkable chapter in Western Canadian history.

From the earliest days of settlement, there was profound dissatisfaction over the grain marketing system in western Canada. Farmers often felt disadvantaged when dealing with the private grain companies, largely centered in Winnipeg.

The creation of the Grain Growers Grain Company in 1906 was one of the first steps towards giving farmers more say in the marketing of their grain.

In 1917, the G.G.G. amalgamated with the Alberta Farmers’ Cooperative Elevator Company to form United Grain Growers Ltd. (U.G.G.).

Unfortunately, the years that followed were very tough for farmers. A dry cycle set in, with crop yields declining as the drought conditions increased. At first, the high agricultural prices that accompanied the First World War offset the declining yields.

In 1919-1920, the federal government reinstated the wartime Canadian Wheat Board, not as a means of assisting farmers, but to act as a control on wheat prices that continued to rise due to famine conditions in Europe.

There was a strong backlash when the Wheat Board set its price well below the going rate in the U.S. In order to quell the uproar, the Board issued participation certificates in case the wheat sold for a higher price than had been paid at the elevator.

To many people’s surprise, the participation certificates turned out to be worth a lot of money. Farmers ended up with an unexpected but very welcome windfall.

The federal government again shut down the Wheat Board in 1920. A number of other policies were adopted which reduced the income of farmers and raised the cost of the goods they had to purchase from eastern manufacturers.

The wave of western fury led to the United Farmers of Alberta being elected to government in Alberta in July 1921.

The western Progressive Party became the second largest group in Parliament in the federal election a few months later.

Unfortunately, this political revolt did not seem to help. Farm prices continued to plunge. New American tariffs on Canadian farm products made the economic situation even more desperate.

Farmers then turned to cooperation to turn the situation around. A passionate cooperative advocate, Aaron Shapiro, came to Alberta in the summer of 1923 to push the idea of a grain marketing co-op or “pool”. He got initial help in publicizing his proposals from the Calgary Herald and the Kiwanis Club of Calgary.

The U.F.A. government was initially cool to Shapiro’s proposals. The politicians felt that it was too late in the year to successfully create such an ambitious organization.

Farmers would be too busy with the harvest.

The politicians seriously misread the mood across the province. Meetings to promote the wheat pool drew huge crowds of farmers. Almost everyone at the meetings quickly agreed to buy the $1 shares and sign the cooperative marketing contracts. Even the local Boards of Trade became enthusiastic backers of the Wheat Pool.

The U.G.G. and the Alberta Pacific Grain Company provided a big boost when they agreed to handle the Pool’s wheat at their elevators.

In less than a month, more than 25,000 Alberta farmers signed up, including 6,000 in Central Alberta. Wheat Pool members quickly became convinced that they had made the right decision. Within a year, the price of wheat rose by nearly 60%. Prosperity was returning to Alberta.