Manitoba History: The Garnet Wheat Controversy, 1923-1938

by Jim Blanchard

Manitoba History, Number 19, Spring 1990

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Garnet wheat arrived on the scene in the mid 1920s when Canada was the leading exporter of wheat in the world. The end use quality of Garnet—its value for making flour and bread—was the source of a great deal of controversy for almost a decade, until Garnet was finally abandoned by growers and quickly disappeared from the scene. The controversy is instructive because while it lasted it gave a focus for many of the issues that have always surrounded and continue to surround the Canadian grain industry. By studying this controversy and the positions the various sectors of the industry adopted during the squabble over Garnet, we can learn a great deal about how the industry worked within Canada and as a part of the world grain trade. It also gives us a useful glimpse of W. R. Motherwell, a major figure in western Canadian politics, toward the end of his career. What has been called the Garnet fiasco gave rise to many of the present scientific and bureaucratic systems which control the introduction of new varieties in Canada.

Wheat production replaced the fur trade as the most important industry in Manitoba in the mid-1880s. [1] In the years before 1929 its growth was phenomenal, catapulting the three prairie provinces from the status of wilderness to that of the major wheat exporting region of the world. Drought and low prices slowed the wheat industry down in the 1930s, but it recovered and the trend ever since has been one of almost continuous growth in production and exports.

This growth is due to a great many factors. In the early years the coming of the C.P.R. and the influx of homesteaders provided transportation and producers for the wheat. The integration of the Canadian production into the world grain trade and the assured market in the industrial cities of the United Kingdom and Western Europe provided the initial impetus for wheat production. Over the years the markets have changed but the volume of grain exports has continued to grow, achieving new records in each decade. Wheat is an ideal crop for the hot dry prairies and the short fierce growing seasons produce very high quality grain, when all conditions are right.

The Canadian system of standards for grain has contributed to wheat’s success as an export commodity. Standards which carefully monitor such things as kernel weight and color, the amount of foreign material in a sample, and the presence of benchmark varieties have been established in federal law since the 1870s. In the 1880s and 1890s the Winnipeg grain trade community lobbied successfully to get separate western standards monitored by a western standards board. At the same time an inspection system to safeguard the standards was being built. Final inspection and grading of western grain in Winnipeg insured that western traders would control the trade and western grain would pass unadulterated to the outside world.

Ogilvie Mill, Winnipeg, circa 1890.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Winnipeg - Buildings - Business - Ogilvie Mill 5, N5177.

The varieties or types of wheat that have been growing in the Canadian west have also had a major influence on the course the wheat industry has taken. The Canadian Seed Growers’ Association, a self regulating body unique in the world, has, through its by-laws, carefully controlled the integrity of the country’s seed stock over the years. This has meant that the variety grown is a decision which farmers take very seriously, because they can be assured that its characteristics will not vary from year to year or field to field. In Manitoba and the rest of the prairies, varieties of the hard red spring type have predominated since the growing of wheat for export began in the 1880s.

Hard red spring wheats are, as their name implies, hard and reddish in color and seeded in the spring. These wheats generally grow well in the short season of the Canadian west and often have more desirable bread making qualities than softer wheats. Demand for hard wheats was rising in the 1880s because a revolution had taken place in milling technology. The stone grinding method of crushing wheat into flour had been largely replaced by the steel roller method which is still in use. Instead of crushing the grain, the rollers scrape the kernels apart in successive stages, during which different layers of material are re-moved and separated with sifters. A skilled miller can produce many different grades and combinations of flour using this technology.

Large factory type mills, fitted with banks of steel rollers, were replacing the traditional mills all over the industrialized world in the 1880s. The Olgilvie company built a roller mill in Winnipeg early in that decade. At the same time, Minneapolis was establishing itself as a great milling city. Hard red wheats, which had not performed well in the stonegrinding operations because they could not be broken into fine enough particles, performed well in the new mills.

The most successful Canadian red spring varieties have always been, and still are, those that “add strength” to a flour blend. Part of the miller’s art is to improve the quality and value of low grade wheats by adding enough higher quality wheat to bring the resulting blend up to an acceptable level. Millers in Britain and Western Europe took high quality hard red wheats and mixed them with lower quality and cheaper soft wheats that were grown domestically or imported. The hard wheats had the effect of producing a strong, springy dough that would stretch and rise during baking to produce a loaf of excellent volume. The dough would also absorb more water. This meant the wheat was a baker’s dream. He could sell larger and more loaves with less flour and more water. Put crudely, this is what is meant by adding strength to a blend.

Western Canadian red spring varieties were traded under the name Manitoba from the introduction of that designation into the Canadian grading schedules in 1885 until changes were made in 1971. Grades like Number One Manitoba Hard were synonymous with the kind of high quality red spring wheats that millers wanted for their blends. The reputation enjoyed by the Manitoba wheats was based upon the excellent varieties that were grown in the west. This intrinsic quality coupled with the integrity of the grading system established by the Dominion in the Canada Grain Act of 1912, were major factors in the boom the Canadian industry enjoyed in the years before 1929.

The first of these great varieties was Red Fife. It was probably brought to western Canada by American settlers around 1869, and may have originated in Poland. It proved to be the gold that many homesteaders came to the new land to find. It yielded well, produced excellent flour and flourished in the newly broken soil of southern Manitoba. The milling industry, the Manitoba Board of Agriculture and the C.P.R. actively promoted Red Fife. It is worth reproducing in full the text of a poster distributed in Manitoba by the milling companies in 1882 and quoted by Dr. G. N. Irvine in his excellent study, Wheat Grading in Western Canada. It gives a clear indication of the careful attention the grain trade paid to the question of what varieties should be grown.

IMPORTANT TO FARMERS. The standing of Manitoba wheat abroad has been seriously injured by the large proportion of Canada Club and other soft mixed varieties produced last year (1881). Pure Red Fyfe is the most valuable wheat that can be produced here, and it is the variety upon which the reputation of the “New North-West” as a wheat producing region will mainly depend. No soft or mixed wheat is worth as much by fifteen cents per bushel, and this difference in price will hereafter be made by the undersigned millers and wheat buyers. Farmers will do well to consider that soft wheat can be raised anywhere, while pure Red Fyfe is always sought for by millers, while other varieties are frequently rejected. Sow only Red Fyfe, and after you have harvested it do not risk spoiling it by careless stacking. [2]

Red Fife brought a good price on the world market and it was seen, therefore, as the sort of commodity that would support the costly elevator and railroad system necessary for gathering wheat and moving it out of the prairies to distant ports. Low quality, cheap grains would never support this infrastructure or the sort of boom everyone was dreaming of. It has, therefore, always been the policy of the Canadian grain trade, as well as the Canadian government, to promote the production of high quality wheats on the prairies. However, from time to time this position is challenged by those who argue that the production of a larger volume of lower quality grain would bring as much or more profit.

By 1887 the first small wheat boom in the west was underway, fuelled by Red Fife. Then in 1888 there occurred one of those natural disasters which have had so much influence on prairie agriculture. An early frost struck the wheat crop and caused spectacular and wide-spread damage. On the recently established experimental farms of the Department of Agriculture, the staff set to work on their first great project in support of the western farmer. They would discover a wheat equal to Red Fife in quality that would mature earlier and avoid the frost. Charles Saunders and his colleagues began to search the world for early maturing hardy wheats. Varieties were brought from Russia and northern India and anywhere else that had conditions resembling those of Western Canada.

At the same time a relatively novel technique was applied to the problem. Attempts to breed a new variety especially suited to the prairies began in 1892 when the first crosses were made between promising varieties by Dr. A. P. Saunders at Brandon Experimental Farm. In 1903 Charles Saunders became Dominion Cerealist and was able to devote all his time to the breeding program. By 1906 his work had led to the production of the first great purely Canadian variety, Marquis.

Marquis dominated the prairie wheat economy from 1909 to 1929—a period of immense growth. Marquis had Red Fife amongst its ancestors but it matured earlier and produced superior flour and bread. It became the standard by which other varieties have been judged ever since and it strengthened Canada’s reputation as an exporter of high quality blending wheat. In 1911 the first of many world prizes was won by a sample of Marquis grown by Seager Wheeler of Rosthern, Saskatchewan. In the specialized world of red spring wheat, Marquis was truly an aristocrat.

It was during the Marquis era that Canada became the leading exporter of wheat in the world. Production grew from 166 million bushels in 1909 to over 566 million bushels in the record year of 1928. The dislocation and chaos of the First World War removed other wheat producing areas, like Russia, from the market place and for much of the 1920s Canada led the world in exports. In 1912, for the first time, the value of wheat exports from Canada surpassed that of all other commodities, including forest products. In most of the years until 1929, wheat continued to be Canada’s single most important export, earning hundreds of millions of dollars. Even during the 1930s, when low prices and drought battered the industry, western Canada continued to hold its own in relation to the other wheat exporting regions.

During this period of growth, the private grain trade prospered, as it did in many other parts of the world. But developments also took place which were uniquely Canadian. The Grain Growers movement grew out of dissatisfaction with the farmers’ position in the grain industry around the turn of the century. Unlike its predecessors, this farm organization was very skillful and successful at getting the ear of government. Its leaders—men like W. R. Motherwell—often built on their early successes in the movement and went on to assume positions of great influence in provincial and national politics. In response to well organized pressure from the Grain Growers, the federal government put into place a relatively strong regulatory system, administered by the Board of Grain Commissioners. The system evolved over the years between 1900 and 1912, when the passage of the Canada Grain Act gave it its final form. An appointed Board was responsible for ensuring that inspection, weighing and handling of grain was done fairly and honestly and according to regulation.

W. R. Motherwell, 1906.
Source: Saskatchewn Archives Board

Another significant development of these years was the growth of farmer–owned companies set up to handle and market grain. In 1906 the Grain Growers’ Grain Company (later United Grain Growers) was founded; then came the Saskatchewan Cooperative Elevator Company in 1912, the Alberta Farmers’ Cooperative in 1913 and in the mid-1920s the three provincial wheat pools came on the scene. By the end of the 1920s farmer owned companies were major players in the handling and marketing of grain within Canada.

Although Marquis matured earlier than Red Fife it was still not early enough to escape frost damage completely. The problem became more pronounced as new areas in the northern parkland belt and the Peace River country were opened for wheat farming in the years after 1910. When Garnet wheat appeared, many people hoped that it would solve the problem of frost and weather damage.

The first crosses which resulted in Garnet wheat were made in 1905, at about the same time that Dr. Saunders was developing Marquis. Garnet was the offspring of Red Fife as well as a number of other wheats from northern Russia and the foothills of the Himalayas. These cold climate forebears gave Garnet its most important quality—it was ready for harvest a full ten days before Marquis.

In the spring of 1923, L. H. Newman became the Dominion Cerealist in the Department of Agriculture with responsibilities for developing new varieties of cereal grains. In taking stock of the seed left behind by his predecessor Dr. Saunders, Newman decided Garnet appeared worthy of further development. In 1924 he shipped Garnet seed to twenty–eight wheat growers in the west and to the Department’s western experimental farms. The wheat was grown in experimental plots, and in the fall the grain that was taken off was sent back to Ottawa for testing in the Department’s cereal laboratory.

The harvest of 1924 was a large one but, as was the case with most of the other harvests of the 1920s, millions of bushels of grain were damaged by poor weather conditions, in this case a devastating early frost. Early frosts and wet harvest conditions resulted in considerable losses for wheat farmers in the 1920s because the damaged grain was given lower grades and thus fetched a much lower price. There was, therefore, a good deal of pressure on L. H. Newman and his colleagues to develop an early maturing variety to replace Marquis.

Newman’s tests of the 1924 crop revealed that Garnet was an early maturing variety. It was also a fine looking wheat, with full red kernels, and very difficult to distinguish visually from Marquis. It was found to be resistant to smut but not to the more devastating rust. Garnet was found to yield as much or more grain per acre as Marquis. One small difficulty was noted in 1924 and that was the slightly yellow color of the flour, but that was not considered significant enough to halt work on the promising new variety. If Garnet could offer a solution to the frost problem, so much on everyone’s mind, then it would maintain the Department’s reputation and establish Newman’s.

In 1925 seed was again distributed and more tests were done on the Garnet harvested that fall. Samples were sent to mill chemists in Winnipeg, Kenora and Montreal and to the Pillsbury and State Testing Laboratories in Minneapolis. An important Canadian cereal chemistry laboratory, the Grain Research Laboratory manipulated by the Department of Trade and Commerce in Winnipeg, was closed at this time because of a dispute between the crusty Chief Chemist, Dr. F. J. Birchard, and the Minister. The fact that one of the dominion’s most experienced cereal chemists and one familiar with the requirements of the milling industry did not have an opportunity to test Garnet for end use quality prior to licensing meant that a crucial step in its development was missed.

In the spring of 1926 Newman received favorable reports about Garnet from the various chemists he had consulted. The yellowish flour color was noted but this was discounted by Newman as being a problem that millers could solve by bleaching. The new variety was released on a large scale to growers in Western Canada and its reputation quickly spread. The Minister of Agriculture, W. R. Motherwell, began receiving demands from farmers that the new wheat be licensed.

The Liberal Agriculture Minister was naturally interested in protecting western farmers, having been an important farm leader since 1900 when he helped found the Grain Growers movement. But in 1926 he and the whole Liberal party were especially interested in courting western voters. In the Progressive landslide of 1921, the Liberals had elected two members on the prairies, and Motherwell was one of them. Following the inconclusive election of October 1925 the Liberals clung to power in a parliament where the balance was held by the twenty-four Progressive members, all but two of whom represented prairie constituencies. The Liberal standing was improved in the election of 1926, but they naturally wanted to please the powerful wheat grower voting block on the prairies, to keep the Progressives on their side and to make future gains at the polls.

Harvesting wheat near Stonewall, 1915.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

It was unlikely, therefore, that Motherwell would ignore the demands of western farmers, and his licensing of Garnet as an acceptable variety under the Seeds Act, and his fierce defense of the wheat in the years ahead must be seen in this context. Although he would deny it later, Garnet was for Motherwell an important political issue rather than the subject of a rational scientific debate.

In 1927 L. H. Newman continued his examination of Garnet by sending samples of flour to three large bakeries in Liverpool. The flour was well received and one of the bakers actually stated that he preferred it to Marquis.

In the same year, Newman published a Department Bulletin entitled ‘Garnet Wheat.’ [3] In it he gave a detailed description of all the tests that had been done up to that time. The pamphlet was, on the whole, very positive about Garnet and this position was supported by most of the scientific evidence gathered up to that time. The strongest arguments in favor of the new wheat had to do with its performance in the field—its agronomic qualities. It matured a full ten days earlier than Marquis and yielded well. It was more resistant to weather damage than marquis and did not lose its red color when it had been exposed to moisture. This was important in the visual grading process. Newman even argued that although the wheat was not rust resistant, its early maturity meant that it would avoid some of the ravages of the disease. The general tone suggested that Newman felt he had found a replacement for Marquis, at least in the parts of the country where frost was a concern.

But Newman’s position was not to go unchallenged for much longer. The first cloud on the horizon appeared in early 1927 when the Grain Research Laboratory reopened as a department of the Board of Grain Commissioners in Winnipeg. Dr. Birchard did a series of milling and baking tests on Garnet and, based on its performance, stated that it was not equal in quality to Marquis. The published specifications for Number One Manitoba Northern grade clearly stated that wheat must be “Marquis or equal to Marquis.” J. D. Fraser, the Chief Inspector, decided, on the basis of Birchard’s work, to order his inspectors to restrict wheat shipments containing Garnet to Number Two Manitoba Northern and lower. When the crop of 1927 began to move, this was done.

What this meant for wheat growers was that Garnet could never bring them the top price and in the controversies that lay ahead it was sometimes calculated how many million of dollars western farmers had lost by being denied the best price for their wheat. The Board of Grain Commissioners, and its employees Dr. Birchard and J. D. Fraser, argued that they were doing their duty in maintaining the standard of quality that had been established for western grain. All the arguments in favor of concentrating on producing high quality grain were placed in evidence. These arguments are summarized in what is sometimes called the “equal-to-Marquis” principle. Perhaps the most eloquent statement of the equal-to-Marquis principle was made by Dr. Tory, the President of the National Research Council, in a 1931 report on Garnet wheat:

Canadian Wheat is especially valued in Europe because of its ability to confer strength on a blend. It achieved a reputation for this special quality in the days when Red Fife was the standard variety, a reputation which has been fully sustained by Marquis which is the present standard variety. Any new variety which departs from the general type and characteristics of Marquis must be judged unsuitable for admittance to the standard grades. [4]

On the other side of the argument, L. H. Newman was so committed to Garnet that he went so far as to challenge the equal-to-Marquis principle. In his testimony before the Agriculture Committee in 1928 he said:

To base Number One on Marquis alone would be absurd nowadays in my judgement. You must consider varieties grown in certain areas, where you hardly ever find Marquis, entitled to be graded Number One. [5]

That an important figure in the grain industry should depart from the official policy in this way is a measure of Newman’s support for his variety. Although the principle has been challenged by maverick wheat farmers, it is not often that an official of the Department has broken ranks in this way. It is probable that the political situation already mentioned and Newman’s desire to maintain the reputation of the Department of Agriculture were at work.

The battle over Garnet was joined in earnest in 1928. On the one side was L. H. Newman and his Minister W. R. Motherwell. On the other, at this stage, was the Board of Grain Commissioners, under the Minister of Trade and Commerce. Both departments of government had a stake in the Garnet controversy and its outcome. Agriculture wished to maintain its status as a leader in the farm community and Trade and Commerce was interested in maintaining and expanding Canada’s export markets by safeguarding the quality of the Dominion’s commodities.

Events in 1928 contributed to an atmosphere in which a rational decision on Garnet was unlikely. The prairies produced the largest wheat crop in their history that year but an early frost damaged or destroyed vast amounts of grain. Demand for the early ripening Garnet was therefore intensified. As well, Prime Minister King received a letter in March from the Secretary of the Liverpool Corn Trade Association complaining about the declining quality of Canadian export wheat. Complaints about quality were endemic but an official letter from the major grain trading port in Britain to the Prime Minister was an unusual occurrence and indicated that there were real problems to be addressed. The complaint was given front page coverage in the Manitoba Free Press and many other papers.

The matter of wheat grading was referred by the Prime Minister to the Standing Committee on Agriculture of the House of Commons and in April of 1928 the Committee devoted the entire month to the problem. Garnet wheat was discussed as both a part of the problem and as a potential solution.

Many theories were advanced. A good deal of attention was paid to the admixture of inferior varieties with Marquis both in the fields and in export shipments. Farmers desperately searching for a variety which would mature early enough to avoid frost damage were willing to try any seed that held the promise of early ripening. Some of this material was of very low quality indeed.

It was also suggested that the complaints from overseas resulted from a deterioration of the grading done by Board of Grain Commissioners inspectors. In his testimony before the Committee, L. H. Newman attempted to place the blame squarely on the grading system. The following exchange illustrates his position:

Question: You do not think that this complaint that we have in England concerning our wheat is based on varieties at all. Answer: I cannot find any evidence to that effect. Question: Where do you find the cause of the complaint? Answer: The only complaints that they made to me over there were on the question of grading. [6]

In talking specifically about Garnet, Newman filed a Departmental Experimental Farms Note entitled “Garnet Wheat To Date.” The publication updated the Bulletin of the previous year and detailed the favorable results achieved by Garnet during the intervening months. It concluded by arguing that Garnet was going to solve the problem of the growing of inferior but early maturing wheats by providing producers with a quality alternative.

The introduction of a variety such as Garnet which attracts immediate attention by reason of the remarkable degree to which it combines quick maturity with high yield is destined to have the effect of purging great sections of our finest wheat growing lands of these discredited varieties and mixtures and to this extent should reduce the difficulties which at present confront the official graders of our grain. [7]

In defending Garnet against the criticism that had started to come forward, Newman said:

The precocity of Garnet, coupled with its productivity, bids fair to have an effect on the quality of Canadian wheat not fully appreciated by those who, just now, are disposed to discourage the propagation of the variety in Western Canada. [8]

Experimental farm, Brandon, circa 1905.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

He said the Inspection Department was quite right in wanting to go slow in judging Garnet but that he was “afraid they may overdo it.” He stated that he had given the favorable reports from British bakers to J. D. Fraser and “the next move is up to the Inspection Division.” He brought two loaves with him to the committee room, one baked with Garnet and one with Marquis, to demonstrate that there was no difference between them.

He then made his most telling argument, by bringing the producers of Western Canada into the debate.

We have reports from about 1100 farmers this year, who have grown Garnet for two years, and these reports indicate that in many cases the variety came in the nick of time. They advised that they would have had to move out if they had not had a good yielding wheat made available to them. [9]

The Agriculture Committee was convinced by Newman ‘s eloquence and on the recommendations that were made after their hearings was that Garnet be allowed into the top grades of Canadian wheat.

The Board of Grain Commissioners took the unusual step of questioning the Committee’s recommendation. In August 1928 the Secretary of the Board, F. J. Rathbone, asked the Deputy Minister of Trade and Commerce if the recommendation of the Committee should be considered an order for the Board to follow. He said that the Chief Inspector had not changed his opinion of Garnet and that the Board was concerned that the level of quality of Number One wheat would be reduced by introducing Garnet. The Deputy, T. C. O’Hara, answered that the Board could use its own judgement because it had access to evidence not available to the Committee. The Minister, James Malcolm, agreed with this advice. The restriction of Garnet to Number Two and lower continued. [10]

In November of 1928 W. R. Motherwell wrote to the Chief Commissioner of the Board of Grain Commissioners, Leslie Boyd, and attempted to apply pressure. He said he felt it was reasonable to be cautious about grading in 1927, but to continue with the policy in “the face of what appears to me to be abundant evidence to the contrary” was incomprehensible. He assumed the role of advocate for western farmers.

Motherwell placed before the Chief Commissioner all the favorable evidence Newman had gathered and then pointed out that Fraser and Birchard and the National Research Council had all continued to pronounce against the wheat. In fact the Associate Committee on Grain Research of the National Research Council, of which Birchard was a member, had not yet looked at Garnet, although its members would test the wheat thoroughly enough in the years ahead.

Motherwell expressed some of the frustration of the producers when he said:

... when the grower of Garnet complains to me, as he is doing in increasing numbers and earnestness, for redress from this, to him, unwarranted discrimination, I have difficulty in determining just where to apply and at what segment of such, sometimes called ‘vicious circle’ I am to lay the case. [11]

Swathing and combining on the prairies, circa 1928.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

When one looked at all the favorable evidence and the continued opposition to Garnet, said the Minister, “it makes one wonder where the kick against Garnet comes from and why thus far it has been so effective.” [12]

The involvement of the Agriculture Committee and the intervention of the Minister in an advocate role was highly significant in that it elevated the Garnet controversy from a difference of opinion between scientists and officials to a matter of broader political significance. Motherwell’s combative nature and his personal and political need to appear on the stage as the champion of western grain growers ensured that the question would not be easily settled. His voice would be heard throughout the next six years, defending his Department’s support of Garnet and suggesting there were sinister hidden motives behind the opposition to the variety. The success producers were having growing the new variety ensured that pressure would continue to be exerted from that quarter. The growing opposition of the milling industry guaranteed strong counter pressure. Which side triumphed would tell a good deal about where power lay in the Canadian grain industry.

Canadian millers registered their opposition for the first time during 1928. Samples of Garnet were processed in a number of Canadian flour mills and the mill chemists independently tested the wheat. The results were stated in a memorandum released in November 1928. At a noisy and acrimonious meeting with Motherwell in his office in the Langevin Block in February of 1929, the Canadian National Millers Association stated that they found Garnet to be sufficiently different from Marquis to justify a separate schedule of grades. [13]

The objections of the millers arose from the difficulties Garnet presented during the milling process. The problem of flour color, so easily dismissed by Newman, was of great significance to them. Bleaching was not allowed in some countries and even where it was, it was an extra procedure which was unnecessary with wheats like Marquis. The extraordinary hardness of Garnet meant that it had to be tempered or soaked in water for a longer time than Marquis before it could be milled. If the moisture level of Garnet were not raised sufficiently it tended to break up in chunks and had to be discarded as waste. Proper tempering, however, was clearly impossible when Garnet was mixed with Marquis.

Motherwell, refusing to accept the millers’ evidence, continued to defend the quality of Garnet. The meeting appeared to be a stalemate. Dr. Tory of the National Research Council was also present and he eventually proposed a compromise. His plan, to which everyone present agreed, was to send Dr. Birchard and L. H. Newman to Britain and the Continent with a quantity of Garnet wheat. They would arrange for millers in the different countries to grind the wheat and pronounce upon its quality. If there were no adverse reports then Garnet would be allowed into the top grades.

The two scientists visited twenty different mills in England, Scotland, Germany, France and Holland and distributed 6700 bushels of grain. The results of the trip, published in a Department Bulletin in March of 1930, were not conclusive, but tended to support the idea of separate handling. [14] Newman wrote that amongst the millers contacted there was almost universal support for separate grades, so that Garnet could be dealt with by itself and not as an admixture. News stories reporting on the tests tended to give the impression that Garnet had been vindicated by the process. This was far from true.

The Garnet issue became more urgent in 1929 and the years which followed because of the percentage of the wheat that began to appear in export shipments of Number Two and lower grades. Fort William Number Two cargoes contained an average of 3% Garnet in the 1928 shipping season. The next year the proportion had risen to 26% and by 1930 it reached 33% and stayed there until the grade changes of 1935. In Vancouver the percentages were much higher and averaged 65% of Number Two shipments in the early 1930s. [15]

The high percentages of Garnet wheat in export cargoes were attributable to the drought which began in the summer of 1929 and continued almost unabated until the summer of 1939. The dry weather and heat greatly reduced the volume of grain produced in the southern prairies, although what was taken off was often of very high quality. This meant that the more recently settled northern parkland areas of Manitoba and Saskatchewan and Alberta as well as the Peace River country, where Garnet was grown on a greater scale than in the south, contributed more than their normal share to the pool of export wheat. Garnet was present in much larger percentages in shipments from Vancouver than those from the head of the lakes, because of its prevalence in the more westerly wheat growing areas. In normal times the percentages of the total shipments represented by Garnet would have been much smaller.

The Canadian National Millers Association, not satisfied with Motherwell’s response, turned to the Minister of Trade and Commerce in 1929 and 1930. His answer was to refer the matter to the Associate Committee on Grain Research of the National Research Council, which reported to him. The Committee met in September of 1930 and advised that separate grades not be instituted for the time being because of the potential effect such a move would have on the already disastrously depressed grain prices. The laboratories represented on the Committee—those of the three prairie universities and the Grain Research Laboratory—began an extensive series of quality tests on Garnet, replicating the procedures in each of the facilities.

In February the following year the Committee produced a report which was not released to the public but which recommended caution in establishing separate grades. It suggested that Garnet was a variety surrounded by problems and a better way to discourage its use would be to advertise the benefits of planting some other early maturing variety such as Reward. They argued that in this manner the use of Garnet would die out naturally without altering the grading system. The report was not released because of concern about the effect it might have upon prices. Dr. Tory also claimed in 1932 that “It was objected to by some officials of the Department of Agriculture as likely to be considered as casting a reflection upon them.” [16]

The Western Standards Committee, a body appointed by the Minister of Trade and Commerce and made up of western farmers with some representation from the grain trade and the Board of Grain Commissioners, became involved in the controversy in 1930. The Committee met once a year to establish the standard samples upon which the grades of grain would be based. They also made recommendations regarding the grading system. In 1930 they recommended that separate grades not be established for Garnet. The next year they changed their position.

E. B. Ramsay, who was now the Chief Commissioner of the Board of Grain Commissioners, chaired the Standards Committee. In a letter written to L. H. Newman in the spring of 1931 he said that it looked as though the Committee would pass a resolution recommending that in 1932 Garnet be graded separately. Ramsay’s own position was that it was too soon to take this step. He felt that separate grades would result in a drop in the price offered for Garnet and resultant losses to producers. He said that a good deal of preliminary work was necessary to build a market for the wheat before it was offered under its own grades. [17]

During the summer, the Minister of Trade and Commerce, H. H. Stevens, made it clear that he was in favor of separate grades and Ramsay accepted the inevitable. At the Standards Committee meeting in October, he was the one who actually made the motion to recommend separate grades. The fact that the Committee, on which producers were in the majority, would opt for separate grades demonstrates that the opinion of western farmers was probably shifting in the face of the evidence against Garnet.

A change to the grade schedules required an amendment to the Canada Grain Act and in the course of time the matter was once more placed before the Agriculture Committee, in April of 1932. The testimony by the various players in the drama, at this time and two years later, when the matter was again discussed in May and June of 1934, represents all the points of view on the Garnet issue. The question before the Committee on both occasions was whether or not to establish separate grades for Garnet Wheat. The Agriculture Committee voted in support of the government’s proposed amendment of the Grain Act in 1932, but no action was taken to change the grade schedules until 1934 when the amendment was brought before the House again, and the Committee heard evidence for the second time. Changes were finally made effective at the beginning of the crop year 1935-36.

Many witnesses at both sets of hearings testified to the shortcomings of Garnet. Two of the most damaging to the reputation of the wheat were C. H. G. Short, the President of the Canadian National Millers Association, and Dr. R. Newton, Professor Field Crops at University of Alberta and a member of the Associate Committee on Grain Research of the National Research Council.

During his testimony in 1932 Short read into the record the memorandum containing the results of various Canadian mill chemists’ tests of Garnet, done during 1928. This was the same report which had been released in 1928 and presented to W. R. Motherwell at the meeting in his office in February, 1929. Quoting from the document, Short read:

Knowing what we do of the requirements of our trade, we know that in milling quality, color and strength, these differences render Garnet a much less desirable wheat than Marquis for our purposes and we believe they are of sufficient commercial importance to justify us in asking that Garnet should be placed in a separate class for grading purposes. [18]

Short made the point that flour was also a major export from Canada and that high quality Canadian flour was the standard bearer for the country’s wheat. Separate grades were essential to keep Garnet out of Canadian flour exports, “... so that we will be able at all times to maintain a uniform quality for our flour export markets.” [19]

Threshing wheat, 1937.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Testifying in 1934 Dr. Newton summarized the considerable body of evidence that had accumulated over the previous seven years to show that Garnet was inferior not only in color of flour and milling characteristics but also in terms of its protein content and the volume of the loaf that it produced. He quoted extensively from British and German trade papers to show that support for separate grading of Garnet was widespread in the United Kingdom and Europe. He hinted that Canada might lose its markets to Russia, at this time re-emerging as a wheat exporting nation. [20]

Another powerful voice raised in opposition to Garnet was that of James Richardson, called in 1932 to give evidence on behalf of the Winnipeg grain trade. Richardson gave a clear statement of support for the policy of producing high quality wheat:

Wheat can be produced anyplace in the world in almost any latitude or altitude; but we enjoy an advantage on high quality wheats, and I do not think we should avoid taking any steps necessary to preserve the reputation and high character of the wheat that we have been producing. [21]

He was also very clear in his opinion of Garnet wheat.

I do not think we want to take any chances on lowering the whole standard of our wheat, and I do not think Garnet wheat is going to be what the farmers thought, and I think we ought to switch the farmer off it. [22]

Standing almost alone against all this evidence, W. R. Motherwell persisted in his defense of Garnet. He hectored both Dr. Newton and C. H. G. Short, as well as anyone else whose evidence he saw as a threat to Garnet staying in the regular grade schedules. He accused the millers’ association of mailing a magazine article critical of Garnet to the European and British mills involved in the 1929 tests of Garnet samples. He claimed the millers were interested in separate grades only because they would result in discount prices for Garnet. He was especially contemptuous of chemists, saying at one point “Oh well, we get lots of funny and contradictory things from Chemists.” [23] When the President of the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, L. C. Brouillette, testified that the support of the Pools for separate grades was based on the evidence of the ‘technical men,” Motherwell counselled him, “You will agree they are not infallible, and we ought not to tie up to anybody these times except one’s own judgement. [24]

Motherwell, in all of this, was maintaining his role as the advocate of western farmers. He summarized his position in this statement made in 1932:

Now that northern country is being peopled by farmers who have been driven out of the south by drought, grasshoppers and what not and they are flocking up to grow Garnet wheat in the north—or whatever wheat is best in that country. We follow them up and say that they cannot put their wheat into Manitoba grades. That is the proposal. You can make a separate grade. If that could be carried out in a practical way I suppose that would be the solution, but with regard to separate grading in the past it has meant the death of that variety. Manitoba wheat has got such a good reputation that anything that is not Manitoba wheat is unfavorably considered ... We might as well face this fact that when you put Garnet wheat into a separate grade it is as good as a gone goose. Now, with so many farmers growing Garnet, we have to study their side of it also. [25]

He went so far as to suggest that producers be paid an indemnity to compensate them for losses they would suffer as a result of the institution of separate grades. He said, “The same state which encouraged these farmers to grow Garnet should surely somehow let them down easily.” [26]

What might be termed an intermediate position was taken by H. G. L. Strange, a prominent wheat producer who had gone to work for the Searle Grain Company as their research officer. He supported the view that if other varieties, such as Reward, were encouraged, it would not be necessary to alter the grades because farmers would voluntarily abandon the growing of Garnet.

While farmers had no other option in the late 1920s but to grow Garnet if they wanted to avoid frost and weather damage, the same was not true by 1932. He asked:

... is it worthwhile disturbing, perhaps disorganizing, an important Canadian trade that has taken years to build up, for the sake of attempting to overcome a temporary condition that, in part at least, is correcting itself before our very eyes. If separate grading is set up should we not be magnifying a temporary situation into a permanent weakness and advertising it to the whole world to the lasting impairment of Canadian Hard Red Spring Wheat now marketed under the brand name ‘Manitobas.’ [27]

L. H. Newman appeared before the Committee a slightly chastened man. He had come to accept the necessity for separate grading for his wheat, but he continued to point out its good qualities. He argued, for example, that it had eliminated the growing of many inferior but early maturing wheats by giving the producer a better wheat to plant. But on the whole, his tone had changed by 1932, and he was anxious to leave the Garnet problem behind him and go on to new projects.

The Agriculture Committee voted in 1932 to support the amendment of the Grain Act to establish separate grades for Garnet beginning in 1933. Only W. R. Motherwell did not concur in this opinion, introducing an amendment to the motion which was defeated and which read in part:

... no change in the grading of Garnet wheat has been shown to be either desirable or advisable at the present time, particularly in the interest of stability of grades and grade names in world markets, so long as quality is preserved, and also in the best interests of many already over—disturbed and hard—pressed producers even in high—production areas. [28]

In any event the Minister of Trade and Commerce, H. H. Stevens, did not proceed with the amendment to the Grain Act in 1932. This was no doubt in part because of the losses growers of Garnet would experience once the new grades were in place. It also stemmed from administrative difficulties. In memorandum written in June of 1932, E. B. Ramsay, the Chief Commissioner of the Board of Grain Commissioners, cautioned that opening the Grain Act for amendment would involve the government in a much broader discussion of grain industry issues, many of them quite controversial. In addition, said Ramsay, the elevator system was full of Number Two wheat with Garnet admixtures which would be technically illegal once the amendments passed. If there were a fall in price, as seemed likely, the owners of the wheat would experience losses. He suggested the changes be delayed until more of this wheat could be sold. [29]

Ramsay travelled to Europe in the fall of 1932 to once again poll the milling community on the question of separate grades. He returned convinced that Canada’s customers wanted separate grades but would pay less for Garnet alone than they were paying for it mixed into Number Two wheat. He called again for delays in implementing the new grades in his annual report for 1932.

The amendment was delayed until 1934 when it was finally passed. The new Garnet grades took effect July 31, 1935. The grades were Canada Western Garnet Numbers One and Two. No Garnet was to be allowed in Number Two Northern wheat, although it would be acceptable in Number Three and lower.

At the time of the change, there were 38,000,000 bushels of Number Two wheat containing Garnet in storage. A delegation from the Winnipeg Grain Exchange visited the new Minister of Trade and Commerce, R. B. Hanson, to request compensation for the owners of this wheat. Money was voted by parliament to pay the owners any difference between the price they paid for the wheat and the price they were able to get for it. Rather than simply degrading all this Number Two wheat to Number Three, the certificates covering it were stamped “Old Number Two.”

In a last attempt at promoting Garnet, Parliament also voted $75,000.00 to pay for the shipment of a cargo of the wheat which would milled in Britain. These milling tests were even less encouraging than previous ones. It seemed clear that for Garnet the end was near.

Further changes were made to the grade schedules in 1938 to exclude Garnet from Number Three wheat and create another Garnet grade. By this time, however, the variety was quickly disappearing from export cargoes. Its place had been taken briefly by Reward, but after 1937 Thatcher, An American variety that had proven to be at least partly rust resistant, was being promoted as the new Marquis. By the end of the Second World War Thatcher had assumed the dominant position in Canada’s exports once held by Marquis.

The Garnet controversy is illustrative of the workings and power structure of the Canadian grain industry. The buyers of Canadian wheat did not want Garnet and the Canadian grain trade therefore turned against it, sensing ruin would follow if it were encouraged. The Canadian wheat industry was, by the 1920s, firmly established on the foundation of high quality grain and the trade applied all its considerable weight and influence to “switch the farmer off” Garnet.

Grain growers had seen Garnet as an answer to a specific problem—losses due to frost damage—and they had pressured the government first to license the wheat and then to allow it to be graded Number One. Once it became clear to them that the wheat had real quality shortcomings their support for it diminished, as evidenced by the actions of the Western Standards Committee in 1932. The growers had no real interest in producing anything that would not sell and took a very practical approach to the matter.

W. R. Motherwell was, therefore, left with less and less support as he continued his fight to defend the actions of his Department and his government in promoting Garnet. In the end, the man who had been one of the lions of the Grain Growers movement was reduced to proposing amendments for which he alone voted. His suggestion that compensation be paid to producers of Garnet was ignored, although the grain trade was able to secure a vote of money from Parliament to cover their losses. The economic disaster which struck the prairies in the 1930s led to a diminution of the influence western grain growers could bring to bear in Ottawa and a corresponding reduction in the influence of men like Motherwell.

The very public squabble over Garnet had largely resulted from its being licensed before sufficient quality testing had been done. This mistake would not be repeated. The Associate Committee on Grain Research assumed a leading role in the testing of new varieties and its successor committees continue to do so today. No new variety can now be licensed before it has undergone detailed scrutiny by scientists in a number of different laboratories. The strengthening of the procedures for quality testing of new varieties can be seen as the most important legacy of the Garnet controversy.


1. Gerald Friesen, “Imports and Exports in the Manitoba Economy, 1870-1890,” Manitoba History, Autumn/88, p. 33.

2. G. N. Irvine, Wheat Grading in Western Canada, 1883-1983 (Winnipeg: Canadian Grain Commission, 1983), p. 3.

3. Canada, Department of Agriculture, Garnet Wheat (Ottawa: Kings Printer, 1927).

4. Canada, National Research Council, Proceedings of the Second Conference on the Grading of Garnet Wheat (Winnipeg: February 9, 1931), p. 50.

5. Canada, House of Commons, Select Standing Committee on Agriculture and Colonization, Minutes of Proceedings and Evidence (Ottawa: King’s Printer, 1928), p. 98.

6. Ibid., p. 98.

7. Ibid., p. 185.

8. Ibid., p. 185.

9. Ibid., p. 97.

10. Public Archives of Canada, (PAC), RG 80, Vol. 9, Telegram of August 22, 1928.

11. Canada, National Research Council, Proceedings of the Seventh Meeting of the Associate Committee on Grain Research, Winnipeg, December 3rd and 4th, 1928, p. 10.

12. Ibid., p. 19.

13. Canada, House of Commons, Select Standing Committee on Agriculture and Colonization, Proceedings of Evidence and Report (Ottawa: King’s Printer, 1932), pp. 124-25.

14. J. G. C. Fraser, “The Varietal Composition of Canadian Export Wheat, 1926-1946,” Scientific Agriculture, Vol. 29(3), 1949, pp. 117, 121.

15. House of Commons, Agriculture Committee Proceedings, 1932, p. 81.

16. PAC, RG 80, Vol. 9, Letter of March 10, 1931.

17. House of Commons, Agriculture Committee Proceedings, 1932, p. 128.

18. Ibid., p. 125.

19. House of Commons, Agriculture Committee Proceedings, 1934, p. 206.

20. House of Commons, Agriculture Committee Proceedings, 1932, p. 152.

21. Ibid., p. 157.

22. House of Commons, Agriculture Committee Proceedings, 1934, p. 219.

23. Ibid., p. 181.

24. Ibid., p. 219.

25. Ibid., p. 127.

26. Ibid., p. 190.

27. House of Commons, Agriculture Committee Proceedings, May 19, 1932, p. vi.

28. PAC, RG 80, Vol. 9.

29. Canada, Department of Trade and Commerce, Annual Report of the Board of Grain Commissioners for Canada, 1932, pp. 5-6.

Page revised: 26 July 2010