McInnis on Exagerated Rumours of the Prairie Wheat Rollercoaster

Marvin McInnis challenges the widely held belief that Canadian agriculture was adversely affected by the First World War. His talk at the University of Guelph Rural Roundtable yesterday, marvin.jpgpresented a nuanced and revisionary look at the common story that wartime demand drove Canadian farmers to double acreage devoted to wheat and unwittingly create a dangerous monoculture. A situation that led to a massive collapse in GNP when the price of wheat collapsed after the war. McInnis’ earlier paper “Canadian Economic Development in the Wheat Boom Era” sets an appropriate stage for this further discussion. In this paper, McInnis questions the conclusion that Canada’s rapid economic growth during the first decade and a half of the twentieth century rested on western settlement and the ‘wheat boom.’ This has been a persistent and widely accepted view until more recent re-examination has questioned the role of wheat in this growth and determination that other factors were of greater consequence to this growth. This story though has supported the consequent one that envisions wartime demand and response to it as greatly affecting Canada’s agricultural economy.

McInnis’ counter analysis separates western agriculture from eastern/central agricultural models to determine real growth determinants and also evaluation of the rather sluggish rebound in GNP growth following WWI. The commonly held vision of mass migration to the prairies and the subsequent breaking of new land leading to verdant crops of wheat has gone hand in hand with a picture of Canada as the wheat bowl for the Empire during the time of the First World War. It seems plausible and has remained largely free of scrutiny. The approach adopted by McInnis is to break the story down into component parts and test the veracity of each. What he is able to demonstrate is that wheat settlement took place prior to the war, specifically during 1910-1912. Additionally, there was subsequent population and acreage growth that naturally continued during the war and is unconnected to wartime to impetus. The initial claim that there was a 48% increase in wheat acreage in the west during 1915 begs examination. Where did this acreage come from? As McInnis shows, there didn’t seem to be any complementary drop in acreage dedicated to other crops, or claims of this vast amount being newly brought under cultivation. So where do the numbers come from? Through analysis, he found that circular reference between census enumerators and agricultural reporters led to a double counting of the number of farms and the number of acres under cultivation. This starts to lend some greater appreciation of a truer picture of this supposed growth. By revising for these findings, McInnis shows that growth was far less rapid, and was actually relatively stable throughout the entire period. While this doesn’t suggest that wartime demand had no effect, it does suggest that what demand there was probably balanced a possible slight decrease in the natural trend.

There were other factors at play as well that had huge impact of the Prairie wheat crop. Environment and disease have an impact on the crop, but don’t fit as well with the traditional story and thus have substantively been ignored. Moreover, trying to extnd the wartime hypothesis as leading to a drive to bring less advantageous areas (such as parts Palliser’s Triangle) under cultivation and sloppy practise due to depleted workforce similarly don’t hold up under scrutiny. McInnis identifies the spread of rust, hailstorms and major July frosts as leading to a protracted period of low yields in the west. Additionally, trade factors such as the removal of the US tariff on livestock imports led to greater increase in production than war time demand. The demand rose before the war, continued through, and only fell when the tariffs were coincidentally reimposed shortly after, but unrelated to wartime issues.

The ignorance of the place of Eastern agriculture in the traditional story is another missing facet. As McInnis asserts, well over 50% of agricultural product during this period. In central Canada, agriculture is reliant primarily on the production of pork and cheese. Cheese in particular was a huge export product, 90% of which was being shipped to Britain. Butter never had this dominance in trade, nor did beef. Beef exports rose by 25% between 1912-14 to the United States, largely because of tariff reductions. The US produced 5-6X as much pork for export and changes in their production had greater impact. However, livestock production in Eastern Canada experienced no tremendous growth during wartime, despite soaring prices, raising questions as to why Ontario farmers were not more responsive to economic demand.

As a conclusion, McInnis leaves us with a variety of questions for further pondering. However, he very solidly demonstrates that questioning simple economic stories is both necessary, possible and can help us to better appreciate the truer national story of the Canadian economy.

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