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Canada's Prairie agricultural economy prepares for a seismic shift Add to ...

Mr. Geiger, the local reeve, voted against the wheat board in the plebiscite, but he knows its demise could be difficult for some of his neighbours. Under the board, some farmers never learned how to market their products, and now they would be thrust into the unfamiliar world of selling their own wheat. Many smaller producers would be distressed by the loss of their old, secure world, he says, and would head to the exit in greater numbers.

But the Great Sandhills terminal, he insists, can do very well in this new competitive era. Mr. Major and incoming general manager, Chad Campbell, are pushing to do more marketing in the United States. They talk of mergers or partnerships with other independent operators. If the wheat board survives in some form, it could be an ideal partner for Great Sandhills.

And they have a few aces up their sleeves. The company is part owner of a logistics consulting firm in Calgary, and has a minority interest in the Alliance Grain Terminal at the Port of Vancouver. The chances of survival are much better for grain handlers with guaranteed port access.

The town and the terminal have always thought outside the box. Earlier this summer. Jim Major was sitting around the office, shooting the breeze with Mr. Hittel and Mr. Campbell. “How about a ship?” Mr. Campbell said, and the three guffawed. It is a running joke, this crazy idea of a little prairie grain company owning its own ocean boat.

But why not? They know that wrenching economic transitions offer not just danger but opportunity. Mr. Hittel, the chairman, is not just speaking metaphorically when he says: “The world is changing rapidly and we have to stay on that ship or get off.”

POTENTIAL WINNERS

Big grain-handling companies: Richardson International, Viterra and Cargill will be able to exploit their financial and supply-chain muscle.

Big grain farmers: By making their own deals, many believe they will prosper.

Farmers close to U.S. markets: They will find it easier to sell and move their wheat and barley.

Free-market advocates: They have never liked the board’s monopoly power.

Trade lawyers: If Canadian grain swamps U.S. markets, expect more trade tensions.

POTENTIAL LOSERS

Small producers who lack clout, resources and expertise to make their own deals.

Grain companies that lack easy port access.

Farmers who rely on their own producer rail cars, now allocated by the Canadian Wheat Board.

Farmers in remote areas who depend on the board’s marketing and distribution.

Prairie traditionalists who worry about the loss of support institutions.

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