Periodically, the Prairie grain industry faces controversy when wheat growers find varieties which offer apparent agronomic benefits, but with quality characteristics which don’t fit official classes. The deregistration of the wheat variety Garnet earlier this month reminds that such controversies are not new. Licensing of Garnet prompted national political discussion in the 1920s and 1930s. The following are excerpts of an essay for the Manitoba Historical Society by James Blanchard, a former librarian at the Canadian Grain Commission. The full text is at www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/mb_history/19/garnetwheat. shtml.
In the spring of 1923, L. H. Newman became the dominion cerealist in the Department of Agriculture with responsibilities for developing new varieties of cereal grains. In taking stock of the seed left behind by his predecessor Dr. Saunders (developer of Marquis), Newman decided Garnet appeared worthy of further development.
The harvest of 1924 was a large one but, as was the case with most of the other harvests of the 1920s, millions of bushels of grain were damaged by poor weather, in this case a devastating early frost. There was, therefore, a good deal of pressure on L. H. Newman and his colleagues to develop an early-maturing variety to replace Marquis.
Newman’s tests of the 1924 crop revealed that Garnet was an early-maturing variety. It was also a fine-looking wheat, with full red kernels, and very difficult to distinguish visually from Marquis. It was found to be resistant to smut but not to the more devastating rust. Garnet was found to yield as much or more per acre as Marquis. One small difficulty was noted in 1924 and that was the slightly yellow colour of the flour, but that was not considered significant enough to halt work on the promising new variety.
Minister of Agriculture W. R. Motherwell began receiving demands from farmers that the new wheat be licensed. The Liberal agriculture minister was naturally interested in protecting western farmers, having been an important farm leader since 1900 when he helped found the Grain Growers movement. But in 1926 he and the whole Liberal party were especially interested in courting western voters.
The battle over Garnet was joined in earnest in 1928. On the one side was L. H. Newman and his minister W. R. Motherwell. On the other, at this stage, was the Board of Grain Commissioners.
Broad political significance
The involvement of the Agriculture Committee and the intervention of the minister in an advocate role was highly significant in that it elevated the Garnet controversy from a difference of opinion between scientists and officials to a matter of broader political significance. Motherwell’s combative nature and his personal and political need to appear on the stage as the champion of western grain growers ensured that the question would not be easily settled.
Canadian millers registered their opposition for the first time during 1928. At a noisy and acrimonious meeting with Motherwell in February of 1929, the Canadian National Millers Association stated that they found Garnet to be sufficiently different from Marquis to justify a separate schedule of grades.
E. B. Ramsay, who was now the chief commissioner of the Board of Grain Commissioners, chaired the Standards Committee. In a letter to L. H. Newman in the spring of 1931 he said that it looked as though the Agriculture Committee would pass a resolution recommending that in 1932 Garnet be graded separately.
Many witnesses at both sets of hearings testified to the shortcomings of Garnet. Two of the most damaging to the reputation of the wheat were C. H. G. Short, the president of the Canadian National Millers Association, and Dr. R. Newton, professor of field crops at the University of Alberta and a member of the Associate Committee on Grain Research of the National Research Council.
Testifying in 1934 Dr. Newton summarized the considerable body of evidence that had accumulated over the previous seven years to show that Garnet was inferior not only in colour of flour and milling characteristics but also in terms of its protein content and the volume of the loaf that it produced. He quoted extensively from British and German trade papers to show that support for separate grading of Garnet was widespread in the United Kingdom and Europe. He hinted that Canada might lose its markets to Russia, at this time reemerging as a wheat-exporting nation.
Another powerful voice raised in opposition to Garnet was that of James Richardson, called in 1932 to give evidence on behalf of the Winnipeg grain trade. Richardson gave a clear statement of support for the policy of producing high-quality wheat:
Wheat can be produced anyplace in the world in almost any latitude or altitude; but we enjoy an advantage on high-quality wheats, and I do not think we should avoid taking any steps necessary to preserve the reputation and high character of the wheat that we have been producing.
The amendment was delayed until 1934 when it was finally passed. The new Garnet grades took effect July 31, 1935. The grades were Canada Western Garnet Numbers One and Two. No Garnet was to be allowed in Number Two Northern wheat, although it would be acceptable in Number Three and lower.
Motherwell’scombative natureandhispersonal andpoliticalneedto appearonthestageas thechampionofwestern graingrowersensured thatthequestionwould notbeeasilysettled.