Food and Drink 

A big fat grain for a big fat country

Wheat is big in Canada and Canada is big on wheat.

In fact, you could say that Canada is wheat, especially if you're from the Canadian prairies, as are many people in this part of the world. (Albertans joke that B.C. is downhill from the Rockies all the way, so many of us tend to tumble out sideways and land on the West Coast.)

But in only two short generations, the majority of Canadians have traded in their rural lifestyles for the jobs and vibe of the city. These days we barely know our wheat from the chaff, especially when change is afoot for this powerhouse of a crop.

First, the demographics of our farms themselves are changing rapidly. According to The Canadian Encyclopedia, in the early 1980s about 20 per cent of Canada's 318,000 farms were classified wheat farms. Now those numbers have dropped significantly, with wheat farms accounting for only about 5 per cent of the current total of 229,000 farms. That's about a one-third drop in the total number of Canadian farms in one generation.

But despite the decline in wheat farm numbers, their production is higher than ever, part of the growing trend of industrialized farming. This year, Canada expects to break all previous production records and harvest 17.4 million tonnes of wheat from our fair prairie provinces, which account for the lion's share of the total Canadian harvest at $2.5 billion of our economy.

The prairies generate about three times the amount of wheat needed for domestic consumption so most of it goes for export. Ergo the formation of the Canadian Wheat Board in 1935, ironically, in the midst of another great economic crash, to act as a single, strong agent for marketing western grains. And here's where another big change is happening.

The idea behind the wheat board was strength - and better prices for individual farmers - in numbers. So all the wheat, barley and oats intended for export and for domestic human consumption in Canada have been sold through the wheat board, rather than individual producers trying to sell on their own. In a nutshell, the wheat board has been as emblematic of the big reach of Canadian wheat as the images of this golden grain in Alberta and Saskatchewan's provincial crests.

Or at least this has been the case for generations, until the Conservative party in Ottawa fulfills its election promise and dismantles the board by August 1, 2012, something one grain handler says will mean "blood on the streets." He may be right: 62 per cent of the farmers who are members of the wheat board voted recently to retain it. Since farmers can be as stubborn as they are stalwart, stand by for the shake-out on that one.

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