The Canadian Grain Commission's innocuous notice reminding the industry of grain grading changes effective Aug. 1 doesn't do justice to the colourful role one variety in particular has played in Prairie Canada's wheat history.
"Registration for Garnet, a wheat variety belonging to the Canada Western Red Spring (CWRS) class will be cancelled. Effective August 1, 2013, this variety will only be eligible for the grade Wheat, Canada Western Feed," the commission release says.
Garnet's role in shaping Canada's wheat grading and registration system dates back to the late 1920s when Western Canada's reputation for exporting high-quality wheat was newly established and when farmers were a political force strong enough to change the face of government.
In a 1990 article prepared for the Manitoba Historical Society, former CGC librarian Jim Blanchard says the controversy over Garnet lasted more than a decade. The variety was popular with farmers and politicians wanting their votes, but not with milling and baking customers. The people both for and against Garnet were passionate; their battle spanned oceans, reached into the Prime Minister's office and in retrospect, left the agriculture minister of the day looking a little foolish.
"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," Blanchard wrote.
Garnet's claim to fame was the fact it matured about 10 days sooner than Marquis, the dominant hard red spring variety available to farmers at the time. While Marquis produced the milling qualities flour processors liked, it was frequently damaged by frost before farmers could get it harvested. Garnet looked the same as Marquis, and it had the sought-after earlier maturity. It yielded a little better too --qualities that made it a winner with producers.
Preliminary tests on its milling quality flagged the yellow colour of its flour but otherwise looked promising. Importantly, however, some key steps in the quality-evaluation checks were missed in the rush to get the variety into farmers' hands, namely, several years of quality testing prior to its public release.
The variety had some powerful advocates in Ottawa, chiefly then-minister of agriculture W.R. Motherwell, a Liberal under the William Lyon Mackenzie King government who had been an influential farm leader before entering federal politics.
Western Canada was a wheat economy in those times and the crop figured prominently in Ottawa politics. The Conservatives, under Arthur Meighen, had decided to return wheat marketing to the open market after the first experiment with a Canadian Wheat Board in the early 1920s.
Farmers were furious. The Meighen government was booted out in the election of 1921, with not a single Conservative elected in the three Prairie provinces. Motherwell was one of two Liberals re-elected in the West, with the remaining 37 seats going to the Progressives.
Motherwell was "naturally interested in protecting Western farmers," Blanchard said.
But based on subsequent milling and baking tests, the federally appointed Board of Grain Commissioners, which had the final say on what made muster for grain quality, determined Garnet wheat was inferior. The board decided it should never be graded higher than No. 2. This meant it was automatically discounted in the marketplace, a decision that pit the board of commissioners against their farmer-friendly bosses in Ottawa.
With support from the grain trade, they stood their ground, in the face of increasing pressure from Ottawa.
Ultimately, the Garnet discount remained in place but the federal government stepped in to compensate growers for the difference. In the end, the introduction of earlier-maturing varieties that had the desired quality traits allowed the industry to move past the Garnet debacle.
Its influence still lingers, however.
"The very public squabble over Garnet had largely resulted from its being licensed before sufficient quality testing had been done," Blanchard wrote, noting the process that resulted requires new varieties to undergo extended testing for quality before release.
That's the very system the present federal government is now reviewing -- with the stated objective of speeding up the process for getting new varieties into farmers' hands.
Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.