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Why so many farmers miss the Wheat Board Add to ...

Thanks to Stephen Harper, farmers have thrown off the shackles of the Canadian Wheat Board. But an open market is a great place to get railroaded

Henry Kuhl could see the hovering helicopter and police lights as he drove his truck toward Canada Customs. It was a sunny day in spring, 1996, and he and 40 other Manitoba farmers had crossed into North Dakota to sell their grain. It was a symbolic protest against the Canadian Wheat Board, the federal marketing agency that monopolized the grain trade and forbade farmers from disposing of their own wheat. “We were sick and tired of being pushed around by the Wheat Board,” says Kuhl. “So we were pushing back to see what they’d do.”

Kuhl and his colleagues were already experienced in the theatrics of social protest. Some of them had formed a lobby group called Farmers for Justice and staged a variety of demonstrations, driving their tractors at walking speed through western cities at rush hour and, in Winnipeg, dumping grain on the front steps of the Wheat Board offices. “We were having fun with it,” he says. “It was like organizing a tailgate party.”

But the Canadian government wasn’t amused, and now the farmers were facing a stone-faced phalanx of customs officers and Mounties. Kuhl recalls that he was taken aback by the serious reception. “They were suited up with SWAT-team vests, nightsticks, police dogs, the whole deal. There were some hot-headed guys in our group and we were telling them, ‘Okay, take it easy. We don’t want anyone getting hurt.’”

The Mounties told the farmers they were being charged with exporting wheat without a permit, and their vehicles were impounded. “There were trucks and tractors lined up for like half a mile and no one else could get through the border,” Kuhl says. “So the cops asked us to drive our seized vehicles up to the pound in Brandon. We said, ‘You seized them, you drive them.’…We stood around for four or five hours while they tried to figure it out. Someone fired up a barbecue and made hamburgers and we all stood around laughing about the situation.”

Finally, around midnight, the farmers got fed up. “Some of the guys said, ‘Enough of this bullshit, we’ve got work to do.’” They drove their vehicles away, which led to more serious charges. Some refused to pay their fines and went to jail. Kuhl says, “They threw one old-timer in jail and the other inmates said, ‘What are you in for, gramps?’ He says, ‘I took a semi-trailer load of wheat across the border.’ They laughed, ‘A semi-trailer load of weed? Man, you’re going to be here for a lon-n-n-g time!’”

When he tried selling his wheat himself in the late 1990s, Manitoba farmer Andy McMechan ended up spending 155 days in jail. Carey Shaw/Report on Business magazine

Andy McMechan, who farms near Pierson, Manitoba, was charged with multiple offences and refused to pay his fines, mostly stemming from his refusal to sign a probation order forbidding him from selling his wheat privately and associating with the other farmers. He spent 155 days in jail in Brandon. “The worst part was getting continually strip-searched,” he says. “The other inmates were nice guys, and they’d clap and cheer as I was going to court. The officers would park their van a long ways from the courthouse and walk me across the parking lot in leg irons so everyone could see what happens if you disrespect authority.”

Twice a week, McMechan’s wife, Pamela, and their two youngest kids drove to Brandon, a round trip of 350 kilometres. “We had supporters I’d never met,” she says. “People put up signs by the highway, and every day our mailbox was stuffed with cards and letters from across the country.”

One of their invisible supporters was an aggressive young reformer named Stephen Harper. As the president of a conservative lobby group called the National Citizens Coalition, Harper was the enemy of state monopolies like the Canadian Wheat Board, and he promised that when the Reform Party came to power, the CWB would be on the chopping block.

“Harper loved the anti-government style of the Farmers for Justice,” says Henry Kuhl. “And he could smell votes.”

It took some time for Stephen Harper and his Conservatives to win a majority in the House of Commons, but he proved true to his word. In Saskatoon, on July 31, 2012, Minister of Agriculture Gerry Ritz stood in front of a “Marketing Freedom” clock at a Saskatoon press conference and ceremoniously counted down the seconds until the axe fell on the CWB. The next day, Prime Minister Harper stood in a Saskatchewan farmyard and offered his blessing to farmers who could now sell their crop to whomever they chose. “Never, never, never” again would farmers be punished for trying to sell the wheat they grew on their land, Harper declared.

The onlookers applauded. Both the politicians and market-ready farmers were emboldened, perhaps, by the steady rise in wheat prices during the 2000s. And when the following summer of 2013 produced a bumper crop that coincided with high world prices for grain, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to take advantage of the new open market.

But exhilaration soon turned to dismay as farmers triedto capitalize on their good fortune. Canada produces the best wheat in the world, and the 2013 harvest was potentially worth between $6 billion and $9 billion on the open market. But when it came to buying the wheat and delivering it overseas, the privatized marketing chain seemed paralyzed with incompetence. Overloaded elevators stopped taking delivery of wheat, and not just because of an overabundance of product—trains were unavailable. Flotillas of empty ships sat at anchor in Vancouver’s English Bay with their meters running, waiting for weeks for wheat that never arrived. Cash-strapped farmers were forced to buy storage bins at $60,000 apiece to keep their crop from rotting. When farmers found an elevator that would take their grain, some got half the money they received under the CWB, and were charged twice as much to ship it. So were these the long-awaited rewards of marketing freedom? Weren’t these the same problems that prompted the federal government to create the Wheat Board in the first place?

A prairie icon, the wooden grain elevator is endangered—there were once 5,000, soaring from the fields at intervals of about 10 miles. Carey Shaw/Report on Business magazine

If you drive into any farmyard in Western Canada, the same old tail-wagging dog will come trotting up the driveway and the same landowner will walk out of the machine shed, nodding warily to the visitor and wiping his hands. Even if he’s scarcely old enough to shave, he’ll be weathered and fatherly-looking, and whether he’s a multimillionaire running an acreage the size of Luxembourg or a poor man eking out a living of 20 grand a year, he’ll be wearing the same gumboots, blue jeans and beat-up baseball hat. If you’re not driving a pickup truck he’ll already know the answer, but he’ll generally begin the conversation with the same cautious inquiry anyway: “So where are you from?”

He’s not asking out of some cornpone distrust of strangers. About 50,000 Canadians make a living from wheat farming, and they’re generally as sophisticated as any urbanite. He’s asking because he understands that city people know very little about agriculture, and he’s wondering how much he needs to explain.

He’s wondering if you understand that farming is a way of life, a vocation, and the product he grows is as ancient as society itself. The story of wheat goes back more than 12,000 years, when the hunter-gatherers of the Middle East started harvesting wild grass seeds for food. The seeds were light and portable and energy-packed. Those early farmers spent centuries experimenting with cross-breeding different types of grasses until they developed something close to what we now call wheat—a plump, nutritious grain that could be stored in bulk and used for food, barter and livestock fuel. Thanks to wheat, hunter-gatherers no longer had to roam endlessly in search of food. Agriculture-based villages became towns, and towns became nation-states. Freed from the necessity of constant travel, agricultural societies were able to develop governments, churches, schools and other institutions. The story of wheat is, in fact, the story of civilization.

Seed drills, fertilizers and mechanical harvesters came into use in the 1700s, and the “combine” was invented in 1835. The first combines were crude machines that could only make a swath several metres wide, but they cut, threshed and winnowed the crop all at once, separating the wheat from the chaff and producing finished grain. (In 1938, the world’s first self-propelled combine was introduced by Canada’s Massey-Harris Co.) Money harvested by wheat traders built the grand hotels and palatial homes of Western Canada. It built the ports and the railways and the legislatures. But it was all predicated on the willingness of farmers to live out on the prairie and work long days for next to nothing.

In hard times, farmers were the first to get in trouble, and during the First World War the feds created a Board of Grain Supervisors to pool western wheat, ship it to market and keep the system running. The government system was disbanded after the war and, with the return to an open market, wheat prices immediately fell in half, bolstering the common perception that farmers were being exploited. Farming lends itself to communal effort, and farmers decided to band together in wheat pool marketing companies in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. When those pool companies got into financial difficulty during the Depression, Ottawa bowed to the farmers’ wishes, creating the CWB in 1935.

The Wheat Board became the sole purchaser of western wheat, and the myriad private elevators and wheat pools became its field agents. Controlling the crop, the Board was the de facto manager of the transportation and terminal system. The CWB’s mandate was to pay farmers a base price for their grain, identify markets, negotiate the best price, deliver the goods, issue advance cheques and make final payment after the crop was sold. If the wheat market went up, farmers pocketed the profits. If the market went down, the government absorbed the loss. Nothing was subtracted from the farmer’s share except the cost of marketing and delivery. In 2011-12, the Board sold $7.2-billion worth of grain to more than 70 countries, $4.9 billion of which was paid back to farmers—the third-highest sales year for wheat in its history.

Dissent had always been around, however, starting in the grassroots and finding its way into the ear of people like Jim Downey. Now 72, Downey grew up on a farm in Southern Manitoba and learned the business from his father. He ran for the provincial Conservatives in 1977. When the Tories defeated Ed Schreyer’s NDP government, incoming premier Sterling Lyon asked the well-respected Downey if he would serve as minister of agriculture. “I pretty much still had mud on my boots when I showed up for work,” Downey remembers. “I’d been in the legislative building once in my life, and he handed me 853 employees and the keys to the office.”

Downey is a classic prairie conservative, but says it’s a mistake to see the CWB as a socialist institution. “I knew a lot of staunchly conservative farmers who loved the Wheat Board,” he says. “A lot of farmers work very hard all day. They come home, they’re tired, and they don’t want to spend the evening trying to figure out how to sell their wheat. A lot of decent people like Andy McMechan had legitimate complaints about the Board, and when they protested, the Wheat Board overreacted and disgraced itself. But a lot of decent farmers like what the Wheat Board was trying to do.”

Glenn Tait is one of them. He operates his great-grandfather’s homestead near Meota, Saskatchewan. Like many hard-pressed farmers, he is coping with the rising costs by working a spread of 2,300 acres with his father and brother-in-law. He says the dismantling of the CWB was presented to the general public as a gift to farmers, but in his opinion it wasn’t a gift the farmers—who owned the Board—actually wanted. “The Wheat Board ran many polls over the years, with a large majority of farmers supporting the old single-desk system. The government spent two years spouting inflammatory rhetoric, and tried to prevent the CWB from holding a final plebiscite on the issue.”

But the CWB had a vote anyway: Out of about 36,000 wheat farmers who voted, 62% were in favour of keeping the Board. The Harper forces dismissed the plebiscite results as unscientific, and argued that whether the poll was valid or not, an electoral majority doesn’t give one group the right to dictate to another (except perhaps in the House of Commons, where the Conservatives shut down debate aboutthe CWB’s future). A group of farmers calling themselves Friends of the Canadian Wheat Board counterattacked by launching a $17-billion lawsuit against the federal government, alleging that by collapsing the CWB and expropriating more than 3,375 CWB railway cars, the Harper government not only interfered with the farmers’ ability to make a living but also seized property that was owned by the CWB’s farmer shareholders.

Although a Federal Court justice struck down parts of the lawsuit, Friends of the Wheat Board is appealing. “This has never been about giving farmers more freedom,” says Manitoba farmer (and Friends member) Ian Robson of the dismantling of the single desk. “It’s about making them compete against each other. With the Wheat Board, the price of wheat was as high as $9 a bushel. Now it’s almost half. And it’s difficult for smaller farmers to do their own marketing and financing. It’s not more freedom for farmers. It’s freedom for the people higher up in the system.”

Of the remaining 366 grain elevators, most are new-style export terminals like Paterson Grain’s operation in Binscarth, Manitoba. Carey Shaw/Report on Business magazine

The businesses “higher up in the system” are constantly evolving, and have been for a century. Most of Canada’s privately owned grain companies are gone, eaten up by the competition, and the industry is now dominated by about half a dozen players. Leading the pack is Winnipeg-based Richardson International, Canada’s biggest agribusiness company. It’s followed by the Canadian arms of Swiss-based Glencore and Minneapolis-based Cargill, the largest privately held corporation in the U.S. by revenue. Then come more Canadian players: Paterson Grain, Parrish & Heimbecker and CWB, which carries on as a shrunken version of its former self and has been obliged by Ottawa to privatize by 2017. (A Saskatoon-based group calling itself Farmers of North America is attempting to acquire a controlling share of CWB.)

As for the major prairie wheat pools, two of them, United Grain Growers and Agricore, merged in 2001. That union was in turn subsumed into the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, which then converted itself from a co-op into a corporation called Viterra. In 2012, Viterra was purchased by the world’s largest commodity broker, Glencore, a company noted both for dealings with dictators and brushes with the law. (It also holds the No. 10 spot on the Fortune Global 500.) All of this consolidation has meant that some elevators have changed ownership so frequently it looks like they have been tagged with a giant spray can.

The Patersons of Winnipeg have somehow prevailed for a century in this Darwinian game of Dog Eat Dog. Andrew Paterson, 53, is the CEO of family-owned, Winnipeg-based Paterson GlobalFoods (of which Paterson Grain is part). He is the grandson of the grain baron and philanthropist Senator Norman Paterson, who in 1908, with all of $25 in start-up financing, bought and sold carloads of grain from a tiny rented office in Port Arthur, Ontario (now part of Thunder Bay). Eventually he built an empire of western elevators and a fleet of Great Lakes ships. Andrew Paterson took over the business in 2001, renaming it Paterson GlobalFoods in 2005; it now brings in more than $1 billion a year. “We’re vertically integrated from top to bottom,” says Paterson. “We provide financing to farmers, sell them their seed and crop inputs, truck their harvested grain to our elevators, and mill the wheat into specialty food products. The only thing we don’t do is farm. Nobody can compete with a good farmer whose family has been on the land for generations.”

Paterson’s head office is in downtown Winnipeg’s Ex-change District, and the office’s stately wood-panelled meeting rooms are hung with original oil paintings chronicling the history of the Great Plains. Paterson is a classic westerner—outspoken, anti-establishment, physically imposing and very successful. He’s expanded his business tenfold since he took over as CEO, but it’s a constant battle, and he says politicalupheavals around the world, drought, floods, strikes, wars and other unforeseen circumstances can overturn the market in weeks. “It’s a very risky industry, and you can lose a lot of money in a very short time. For example, it costs my company $25,000 a day to have a ship sitting empty in Vancouver, and during the winter of 2014, it cost us $800,000 to keep one ship sitting there for three months, waiting for a train.”

He says the dismantling of the CWB will present opportunities to streamline and co-ordinate his firm’s production and sales—and indeed, supporters of the Wheat Board say that by dismantling the monopoly the government transferred power to grain traders. But from Paterson’s perspective, there’s still one monopoly jamming up the system. “The railways are actually a dual monopoly, but in many parts of the West there’s only one railway providing service. CN and CP are not providing timely service. And there’s very little the farmer can do about it because he is a captive shipper. He has no options. The railways make good money hauling grain, but they can take their own sweet time hauling it. They’ve laid off lots of people, downsized their fleet of locomotives, and you can’t forget they’re now controlled by foreign interests.” (As of late October, 73% of the shares of CP were American-owned; the two men shaping the company’s recent history—CEO Hunter Harrison and activist shareholder Bill Ackman—are both American. CN Rail, meanwhile, is roughly half Canadian-owned and half American-owned.)

At Andy McMechan’s farm. The CWB “disgraced itself,” by punishing rebel farmers, former Manitoba agriculture minister Jim Downey says. Carey Shaw/Report on Business magazine

The debate over the Wheat Board is like the eternal argument over gun control—a sort of endless town-hall debate in which aggravated delegates keep showing up with armloads of statistics to prove that their opponents are underhanded, unpatriotic and just plain wrong. The Farmers for Justice blame current problems in the industry on the Wheat Board and its socialist legacy. The farmers who support the CWB call their opponents “The Farmers for Just Us,” and say they’ll be sadder but wiser when they figure out the Conservative Party’s agenda. Academics criticize the grain companies and their alleged history of profiteering on the backs of farmers. Left-wing bloggers blame Stephen Harper and his secret plan to sell Canada on the open market. And everyone blames the railways, which are making an awful lot of money these days, but never seem to pick up the phone when agriculture calls.

Paterson says that while the railways concentrate on providing good returns for their shareholders, the rest of the people in the system sit waiting for service. “The railways don’t care what grain executives think because we’re captive shippers too. And Ottawa doesn’t care either. What are we, eight or 10 voters? But the farmers, that’s different. They’re Harper’s constituency. And when you get 50,000 angry farmers calling their MPs and writing letters to the Minister of Agriculture, you’d better believe the Prime Minister is going to start putting some heat on the railways.”

In March, 2014, the Harper government decided to get tough and announced that it would fine CP and CN up to $100,000 per day if they didn’t double the amount of grain they shipped every week. CN president Claude Mongeau argued there was “no structural problem to fix” and cautioned the government against pursuing a “regulatory agenda it announced in haste in the midst of a very difficult winter.”

Andrew Paterson doesn’t buy the weather excuse. “I notice the cold weather didn’t stop them from moving thousands of additional carloads of oil.” Ottawa was likewise unconvinced, and on Sept. 17, 2014, after repeatedly emphasizing that the fine was “per day,” Transport Minister Lisa Raitt’s office finally took action. As her spokesperson put it in an e-mail, “As CN was not able to meet the minimum volume requirements [under the Fair Rail for Grain Farmers Act], the minister has decided to issue administrative monetary penalties to the company. The penalty is up to $100,000 per week and that is up to the minister’s discretion.”

NDP agriculture critic Malcolm Allen was pleased to hear about the fine, but was surprised and disappointed that the government back-pedalled and said that fine would be only $100,000 per week rather than per day. “I have dealt with both presidents and they are two-fisted, tough railroaders. You need a big stick to get their attention. But the fines were supposed to be levied by the day, and the government obviously lost its nerve and made the fines weekly. Their big stick is actually a twig.”

Wade Sobkowich, executive director of the Western Grain Elevator Association, a group that represents grain handlers and exporters, was likewise disappointed that the fine was reduced. “The railways have been increasing their profitability by reducing their capacity, which means we can’t get the rail cars we need. Even in warm weather we’re not getting the service we need. So the government must get involved with meaningful sanctions, and $100,000 per week is not enough.”

The “weekly versus daily” distinction was more than mere semantics. If, as critics suggest, CN missed its shipping targets for three straight weeks in March, the weekly fine would total $300,000 compared to a daily fine total for that period of $2.1 million—which is still loose change to a company that generates revenues of roughly $200 million per week.

Meanwhile, the government may have decided not to levy a fine at all, according to CN director of communications and public affairs Mark Hallman, who on Oct. 8 declared, “Media reports are wrong. CN has not received a notice of violation, nor has it been fined.”

Raitt was non-committal on the issue. On that same day, her office responded, “An enforcement officer has been designated…to determine if a notice of violation is to be issued. As this process is under way, it would be inappropriate to comment further.”

Needless to say, CN and CP have their own bulging folders of statistics, and are eager to make their case. “While some shippers might feel that CP did not move ‘enough’ grain for them in the 2013-2014 crop season, the fact is that the railways moved more grain in Canada than ever before,” says John Brooks, CP’s vice-president, marketing and sales bulk. “CP specifically moved 21% more grain this past crop year than the three-year average. These are particularly impressive results given the harshest winter conditions in decades.”

At CN, Hallman says the company “posted a record performance in the 2013-2014 crop year—our movement of Western Canadian grain was a full 25% greater than past average performance. Today, as a result of hard work and normal commercial incentives, the grain supply chain is back in synch and is handling the new crop efficiently.”

Paterson believes that whether the railways are fined or not, it won’t make much difference. “The first duty of any company president is to maximize profits for his shareholders, and that’s what the railways are doing. They can make more money hauling oil than grain, so that will continue to be their priority. And you know what? If I were a railway president, I’d probably do the same.”

Ian Robson’s great-grandfather helped start the co-operative pool system. Post-CWB, farmers can no longer work together, Robson laments.

Canada’s old $1 bill shows the storied prairie landscape—the farm fields, the dirt road, the towering wooden elevator and a wrathful sky getting ready to deliver another biblical serving of wind, rain or hail. At one time, those wooden elevators rose up every 10 miles or so. But like the tattered greenback itself, most of those elevators and their surrounding hamlets are gone. Some 5,000 have dwindled to 366 across the Prairie provinces, and many of those are concrete mega-elevators and export terminals, where the grading and cleaning that once took place at the seaports is carried out on site. The new terminals will never get framed in a pretty landscape and hung on a boardroom wall. Unlike the old broad-shouldered elevators, which were nicely scaled to their farm-town settings, an export terminal is about as aesthetically appealing as an oil refinery.

One of Paterson’s biggest and newest export terminals is in Binscarth, Manitoba, about 300 kilometres west of Winnipeg. On a cool autumn day in the middle of harvest season, trucks line up there to deliver their loads of No. 1 Red Spring wheat, the best grain in the world. Since the demise of the Wheat Board, some farmers have started selling their wheat by forward contract, which offers the certainty of a guaranteed price upon delivery, but has the potential downside of contractual obligations and foregone price increases in the world market. There are farmers who still negotiate deals at the elevator. An arriving farmer drives into a cavernous bay and positions the truck on a weigh scale. The elevator manager takes a sample of the wheat, scatters the kernels on a grading desk, spends about 15 minutes analyzing the texture, size, colour and protein content, checks for disease and insect damage, and then offers the farmer a price based on “grade,” or quality.

If the farmer disagrees with the grade and thinks he can get a better price elsewhere, he trucks his load to another elevator. If he agrees, he dumps the wheat into the receiving pit and the truck is then weighed again, empty, to calculate the size of the load. Spot prices for wheat can change hourly, and a truckload of Red Spring that’s worth $6,800 this morning might be worth $500 more this afternoon, or $500 less. After delivering 250 truckloads to the Paterson terminal, a local farmer might stuff a cheque for $1.7 million into the pocket of his denim shirt before heading over to the hotel for coffee. Most city folks would consider that a nice payday, but all those zeroes won’t make the farmer happy if his costs for fertilizer, fuel, insurance, land taxes, labour and machinery amount to even more. As one farmer at the elevator puts it, “Invest a couple of million dollars in a farm, and you’ve bought yourself a net income of maybe 20 grand a year.”

John Byskal sells crop inputs for Paterson at the terminal. He says it costs around $300 per acre to grow wheat, and a good crop will produce about 60 bushels an acre. “At the current price of about $5 per bushel, that means most local farmers are just breaking even,” he said in September. “I’m an ex-farmer myself, and I would still be farming if I could afford it. Farming is a great life, being outside with the big sky, the smell of the dirt, the bright green of a new crop. But about the only way you can stay in business is to go deep into debt, buy more land and more machinery. A lot of farmers don’t want to take that risk. I always wanted to take over the family farm, but my father advised me to get out of it, so here I am.”

Andy McMechan, who’s now 64, has gotten out of wheat farming too. As for Henry Kuhl, he mainly sells real estate now. In 1991, there were about 391,000 farmers across the country. Now there are about 294,000, or 25% fewer.

The old multigenerational family farm is gradually being replaced by the vast acreage managed by the partnership, the corporation or the absentee owner. Harvesting machinery keeps getting bigger, more efficient and more expensive. Basic equipment for a small farm—trucks, tractor, swather, combine and so on—might cost well over $1 million. A couple of generations ago, a good-sized farm was a square mile (640 acres). Now, 2,000 acres is considered small. Rising costs keep pushing in from one end of the bench and farmers keep dropping off at the other. Is that such a bad thing? Farming, after all, has been in a state of constant revolution since the first nomadic hunter poked holes in the ground with a stick and scattered seeds of einkorn grass. What’s wrong with corporations taking over?

“Well, for one thing, they’re not as good at it,” says Byskal. “The small family farmer is often the best farmer. He’s been on the same land all his life, and he’s got a feel for the soil. He lets the land tell him what crops to grow, and the cropschange from year to year. The corporate guy doesn’t have that same rapport with nature. He’s got a very businesslike approach. And that’s not always the best for the land, in the long run.”

The corporatization of farming is producing other impacts. There’s an old saying that “rain makes grain.” But in recent years, flooding has been more of a problem than drought, and that too is traceable to intensive corporate farming. Conservation group Ducks Unlimited estimates that 70% of prairie sloughs and wetlands have been removed, mainly by farmers bent on higher yields. Without the moisture-holding capacity of these features, and that of disappearing tree belts, rainfall sluices quickly into drainage ditches and rivers, causing flooding downstream. In the summer of 2014,floods devastated large areas of Western Canada, forcing mass evacuations and causing billions of dollars in damage. Some of the flooding was caused by record rainfall. But many conservation experts believe that exceptional rainfall events have been turned into floods by a landscape that increasingly resembles a barren, open-air factory floor.

As a former farmer himself, salesman John Byskal of Paterson Grain’s Binscarth terminal knows how risky his customers’ business is. Carey Shaw/Report on Business magazine

At the end of a long gravel road in southwestern Manitoba, a grove of trees forms the windbreak around Ian and Lois Robson’s farm. The farm was part of his pioneer great-grandfather’s land. Another great-grandfather was on the first board of the Manitoba Pool. Ian says that the demolition of the CWB will harm the ability of farmers to earn a living. “It removes the ability of us to work together and co-operate in supporting a fair price for our wheat.”

What’s a fair price? He smiles. “Anything better than losing money would be a good start.”

His farm looks like the setting for a Hollywood movie about the struggles of decent farmers in the heartland—neat yard, well-kept home and garden, antique tractors and thick sheltering trees. Robson’s 84-year-old mother lives in a pretty little house in the corner of the yard. A nearby slough provides habitat for wildlife, and the woods around the farm are a sanctuary for birds. “It’s important to keep the natural landscape intact,” he says. “The birds take care of pests on the crop, and the trees and wetland hold water in the soil.”

Robson believes that most multigeneration small farmers like himself supported the CWB. “We needed the power of the Wheat Board to balance the power of the railway. Those farmers near the border did fine because they could just truck their wheat into the States. But you can’t truck wheat more than a couple of hundred miles or you lose money. We’re captive to the railways, and you can see how that’s turning out. Transport Canada is supposed to safeguard our interests, but they’re afraid to antagonize the railways. So we’re on our own, again.”

He may turn out to be the last member of his family to work this piece of land, but he’s accustomed to hardship and isn’t ready to go down without a struggle. He’s a calm, fit-looking 59-year-old, and his voice is patient as he describes how the bumper crop of 2013 worked out for him. “The crop looked really promising. Then on July 13, at 5:30 in the afternoon, I could see the dark wall coming across the field. I took shelter in the machine shed and the hail started coming down. It’s a metal building and the storm was hitting the roof like a machine gun. The hail took out the whole crop. We lost a year of work.”

Tonight there’s frost in the forecast and the crop is still in the field. If the temperature gets much below zero, Robson figures they might be out of pocket approximately $60,000, and another year will be lost. He shrugs. “There’s nothing you can do. Just hope for the best.”

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