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The Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) building is shown in Winnipeg on Wednesday, December 7, 2011. The CWB has annouced that it will axe about three-quarters of its workforce as it prepares to lose its monopoly on western wheat and barley this summer.

Trevor Hagan/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The axe is swinging monthly at the Canadian Wheat Board as the agency moves to cut about three-quarters of its staff after losing its monopoly over western wheat and barley sales.

"We indicated right from the beginning of the planning process that the Canadian Wheat Board would be a much smaller entity, would need to right-size its staff complement ... now that CWB no longer markets all the wheat and barley from western Canada," spokesperson Maureen Fitzhenry said Wednesday.

Ms. Fitzhenry said jobs are being cut every month. The number of employees will be down to 288 by the end of May and will drop to about 100 by the end of the year. There were 430 people on the payroll, mainly at the headquarters in Winnipeg, at the beginning of 2011.

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The cuts follow the federal government's decision last year to make the government-backed but farmer-controlled agency a voluntary route for producers, ending a six-decade-long monopoly.

The move divided the farming community. Some producers said they deserve the right to seek higher prices on the open market, as their counterparts in Eastern Canada do. Others have predicted prices will drop as producers compete with each other instead of banding together under the wheat board.

The controversy spawned several court battles led by pro-monopoly producers and former directors of the wheat board who were elected by farmers.

A group called the Friends of the Canadian Wheat Board has filed a class-action lawsuit in Federal Court, asking the court to restore the board and give farmers $17-billion in damages. There is also a lawsuit filed by wheat board supporters last month, which seeks $15.4-billion in damages.

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz has criticized the lawsuits and has urged critics to let farmers move on and prepare for the new crop year, which starts Aug. 1.

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