Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Created in 1924, the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool has for decades been Canada's largest agricultural enterprise. The company is democratically controlled by Saskatchewan farmers. The history of the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool can be divided into four phases. First was the founding era of 1924–31, when the cooperative bought and marketed to overseas customers a large proportion of the Prairie wheat crop. The Depression and the 1940s were a period of readjustment, during which the company largely surrendered its original role as a marketer of grain to the Canadian Wheat Board, an organization whose history is intertwined with that of the pool. The war was followed by a long period of dominance and growth as a grain handler, marketer of livestock and specialty crops, and general-interest farm organization. A new phase in the company's history began in 1996 when most of its stock was converted to publicly traded shares.

Activist farmers who were upset with existing grain companies and cooperatives organized the pool in 1923-24. Most farm organizations at the time favored a government-run wheat board to market their crops, but they turned to cooperative action when governments were unresponsive. A faction invited Aaron Sapiro, a California-based lawyer and advocate of pooling, to visit the Prairies in 1923. Sapiro's speeches and ideas proved to be the catalyst for the organization of three wheat pools in Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan. The 1923 pooling drive in Saskatchewan failed, perhaps due to lukewarm support from provincial leaders and to the formidable contracts that required farmers to pledge all their wheat for a five-year period to the pool and which were void unless 50 percent of acreage was signed up. The second drive in 1924 was a mass effort of community mobilization: 45,725 farmers pledged their 6,433,779 acres of wheat, meeting the target and bringing the pool into existence. From 1924 to 1931, the pool worked with its sister organizations in Alberta and Manitoba through the Central Selling Agency to market a majority of the Prairie wheat crop, wherever possible directly to overseas customers, and to build or purchase networks of storage elevators.

The stock market crash of 1929 caught the pools overextended, as grain prices fell below the level already advanced to farmers; the pools made matters worse by buying more grain in an attempt to influence prices. In 1931 the Canadian government intervened to provide financial guarantees for the pools and took over the sale of their inventories. Government involvement eventually culminated in the creation of the modern Canadian Wheat Board—ironically, what farmers had wanted in the first place. The pool, meanwhile, was converted from a world grain trader to a heavily indebted Saskatchewan elevator company. The pool's response not only preserved the cooperative, but it cemented its place as the province's most important agricultural institution. While repaying its debts, the pool became a crucial agent of adult education. Pool field staff gave talks, showed films, and helped set up consumer cooperatives and credit unions in small towns across Saskatchewan.

From the 1940s to the 1980s, the pool extended its elevator network (handling up to two-thirds of the annual grain crop), branched out into new or expanded lines of business such as livestock marketing and farm supply, and consolidated its position as the spokesperson for Saskatchewan farmers. The pool's model system of member education and delegate democracy was studied by cooperatives around the world; pool annual meetings were a kind of farmers parliament where important issues of provincial, federal, and international policy were debated. Since the pool was both Saskatchewan's largest business corporation and a farm interest group with 60,000 members, it developed considerable influence in provincial politics. Its weekly newspaper, the Western Producer, remains the most important farm paper in Canada.

The cooperative could not, however, escape the dominant agricultural trends. Low farm incomes created pressure to operate on low margins; rural depopulation left the pool with fewer and aging members. Pool managers and leaders became concerned in the late 1980s with the cooperative's debt burden, resulting from an aging membership entitled upon retirement to share payouts. At the same time, they saw a need for investment and expansion to meet the challenges of transnational competitors and new agricultural markets. As a result, the cooperative, with the approval of farmer delegates, transformed its ownership structure in 1996. Voting shares– class A shares–were retained only by farmermembers, but virtually the entire capitalization of the company was converted into nonvoting class B shares that were tradable on the Toronto Stock Exchange. The pool remained farmer-controlled, but its owners were now a noncongruent body of investors. Along with the share conversion, the pool undertook an ambitious program to consolidate its handling facilities in a smaller number of larger and more modern elevators, to invest in value-added processing subsidiaries and joint ventures, and to expand outside Saskatchewan and outside Canada.

See also MEDIA: Western Producer .

Brett Fairbairn University of Saskatchewan

Fairbairn, Garry. From Prairie Roots: The Remarkable Story of Saskatchewan Wheat Pool. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1984.

Fowke, V. C. The National Policy and the Wheat Economy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1957.

MacPherson, Ian. "Missionaries of Rural Development: The Fieldmen of the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, 1925–1965." Agricultural History 60 (1986): 73–96.

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