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

Yet the struggle goes on to prevent small villages from withering away as young people move to the cities – or to the oil fields.

Indeed, Leader (population 1,000) keeps reinventing itself each time it encounters an external shock. It explains why the grain terminal survives as a core institution, and a key supporter of sports teams, charities and the local golf course. It’s why main street bustles with activity and farmers and merchants meet every morning for coffee at the hotel. For many, this vitality is linked to the wheat board.

Yet there are those who argue it is futile to stand in the way of the inevitability of change. It means that, in Leader, friends agree to disagree.

“I’m not a big supporter of the wheat board,” says Tim Geiger, a farmer who is reeve of the municipality adjoining Leader and sits on a local board with Mr. Major. Over the years, Mr. Geiger has grown disenchanted with the board’s exclusive role as the selling agent for his wheat. The agency is now largely irrelevant to him, he says, since he has moved much of his farm’s output into crops like canola, lentils and seed grain that he sells on open markets. He also believes the pace of farm consolidation will likely quicken, as more small producers feel compelled to leave the business.

Mr. Major, who still advises Great Sandhills Terminal, emphasizes that the board doesn’t just sell wheat and barley. He cites a list of its other, critical services – weather information, rail car allocation and logistics, and international business relationships. When China wants to buy a large volume of Prairie wheat, it is the wheat board that represents the farmers. It provides quality assurance and service for end buyers. The board arranges for producer rail cars that farmers can order to ship their own product to port, savings thousands of dollars.

“Be careful what you wish for because once it’s gone, it’s gone,” warns Wayne Hittel, chairman of the Great Sandhills terminal, who works as a mechanic at Leader’s John Deere dealership.

Yet if the board ultimately disappears, Leader will no doubt survive – it always has. In this community, “they just don’t just give up. They say ‘We were dealt a new hand here, so what do we do about it?’ ” says Lloyd Steier, a University of Alberta business professor who grew up in the nearby village of Prelate.

The town was originally called Prussia, but in the anti-German passions of the First World War, a renaming contest came up with Leader – honouring the fact that the Regina Morning Leader newspaper arrived each day by train.

By the 1990s, the region’s future hung in the balance, as wooden elevators on the branch line running through Leader came under pressure. So local investors banded together and, in partnership with the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, built a 20,000-tonne concrete terminal.

But the new terminal was found to lean because of a construction flaw. What was intended to be a 20,000-tonne storage space could hold only 13,000 tonnes. Litigation among the partners ensued, and the local terminal investors ultimately bought out the wheat pool. A metal annex now provides extra capacity.

Then three years ago, when Canadian Pacific Railway wanted to shed the Empress Short Line running through Leader (with another short spur into Alberta), municipalities and investors – including the terminal company – stepped forward to buy it. Railway and terminal now gross more than $8-million from handling, storing, moving and marketing grain.

The key to Leader’s survival has been a redefinition of community. At one time, the village and nearby smaller places – Prelate, Sceptre, Mendham and others – saw themselves as separate communities. They had their own schools, their own main streets, their own hockey teams. They were each the hub of a 20- to 30-kilometre swath of prairie.

But in an age of faster transport and communication, these places are part of a much broader community, centred in Leader and stretching at least 60 to 80 kilometres in each direction. The terminal lies at its economic and psychological heart.

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