In 1946, just after WWII, Canada signed a contract to deliver 600 million bushels of wheat to a war-weary UK within 4 years. Despite the huge quantities of grain needed, Canada was able to meet the demand, largely because of the massive grain reserves the country developed during WW2 — grain that was originally produced for the war effort but had been landlocked by enemy warships. Over the next few years, the successful delivery of Canadian grain to Europe earned Canada a reputation as the ‘breadbasket of the world’.
Over 70 years later and Canada still has the reputation as one of the world’s leaders in agriculture. Although, recent years have seen the competition intensify with countries like China, India and Brazil producing more grain than ever before.
So, how has Canada been able to establish itself as a world leader in agriculture?
Let’s face it, The Great White North is not the easiest location on the globe to farm. Our climate is moderately suited to agriculture at best: summers are short, water can be limited and frost comes early. Compare that to equatorial countries like Brazil that enjoy a year-round planting season.
And, while we have pretty good soils, they are not the world’s best. While controversial, that title probably belongs somewhere in India or the Ukraine.
It seems pretty obvious that Canada’s competitive advantage in the agricultural industry isn’t derived from our geography (i.e. location or climate).
No, our advantage has always been our people; more specifically, our creation of, and investment in, the middle-class farmer.
Historically, farmers have been poor. They were peasants, serfs and bondsmen, bound to their land in servitude of the reigning feudal lords — the lowliest of classes. There was no formal education available and farmers were trained in traditional practices through legacy knowledge (i.e. skills passed from father to son/ mother to daughter).
Even after the collapse of the feudal system, its effects lingered for years. Serfs became peasants, and while they were now free, they were still poor and often remained in de facto servitude to rich lords who maintained ownership of the majority of land. Farmers still relied on legacy knowledge which meant agricultural innovation was limited.
However, life in Canada was different. Arriving in the young country with developing traditions, prairie pioneers found themselves free from lingering feudal traditions and deep seated cultural animosities (e.g. the persecution of Mennonites and other religious minorities). And as settlers continued to arrive from across Europe, the mixing of cultures (and agricultural knowledge) led to the inevitable mixing of ideas, and agriculture innovations began to flourish and spread as pioneers set about developing their own methods specifically suited to farming the Canadian prairies.
This early wave of immigration was largely spurred on by the federal government who passed the Dominion Lands Act of 1872, otherwise known as the Homesteading Act, which encouraged settlement across the prairies by offering a quarter section lot (i.e. ~ 160 acres) to pioneers on the condition that the land is used for agricultural purposes.
In continued support, the federal, provincial and municipal governments all worked to ensure that education was accessible right from the early pioneering days. One-room school houses covered the prairies, providing a basic education to children, while government sponsored programs like the Better Farming Train were designed to teach new settlers how to farm in their new environment.
It was this support for Canadian farmers in their most formative years that established the foundations for Canadian farmers to succeed.
And succeed they did. In just a few short generations, by the end of WWII, many pioneering immigrants successfully established their own farms, many of which persist to this day. Through hard work and dedication these farmers were able to drastically increase their quality of life, propelling them firmly into the middle-class.
The creation of a middle class of farmers brought with it the benefits of emerging wealth. Modern, life changing technology, like the telephone, became readily accessible in rural areas and new, multi-room schools were built, which further bolstered education — the children of immigrant farmers were now able to complete high-school, with some going on to complete post secondary certificates, diplomas, and degrees.
This education in turn allowed Canadian farmers to more easily adopt new technologies and continued to drive agricultural innovation on the prairies. As the wartime industry switched from tanks and ammo to cars and fertilizer, tractors started to replace animal labour and heavy mechanical implements began to appear.
From here, it didn’t take long for Canada, and its middle class farmers to quickly become world leaders in the industrialization of agriculture throughout the 20th century.
The relative wealth and education earned by the pioneering farmers of western Canada gave them both the insight and the means to become world leaders in the agricultural industry; a legacy proudly continued to this day by Canada’s middle class farmers.