Archive for the ‘agriculture’ Category


April 13, 2009



By George Siamandas

© George Siamandas

Baldur Stefansson is one of Manitoba’s most distinguished plant scientists and the father of the new breed of canola which he derived from selections of rapeseed. Stefansson’s father had come from Iceland in 1910 and settled in Vestfold in the Interlake between Lundar and Inwood. He was a cattle farmer. Baldur was born in April 26, 1917. The area was not very prosperous. The area’s soil lacks phosphates, as he would later discover. It was so bad the cows would chew the 2×4 lumber.

Baldur went to WW2 and when he returned decided against becoming a farmer. Why? Because he saw it as being too competitive. Every one of your neighbours is a competitor he maintains. And to get into farming takes a large investment. In the final analysis, the profit margin is very low. Instead, like many returning soldiers, he went to university, studied agriculture and settled on plant science. He earned an MA and a PhD.


He became interested in finding new sources of edible oil. While hemp was an attractive possibility, Stefansson and his colleagues knew that the govt would not permit research with this plant. Instead they concentrated on rapeseed. He wanted to develop an edible oilseed for large-scale production on the Canadian prairie.


Canola is the bright yellow crop, growing across the prairies. It is an oil seed. It came from selection of rapeseed, which is part of the mustard family. Rapeseed originated 2,000 years ago in India and was introduced to Asia during the time of Christ. It arrived in Europe in the 13th century. It became popular on the prairie because of its ability to grow in cooler climates. Grown for the oil contained in the seed, it was a particularly favoured lubricant because it could stick to metals in the presence of water. In 1936, a Saskatchewan farmer imported some rapeseed from Poland and began to grow it in Canada. It seemed to do well.


Rapeseed had two difficulties in being utilised as edible oil. If it was to be for human consumption the amount of erucic acid had to be substantially reduced. And the by product of crushing which is used for livestock feed, had to be made more palatable by reducing anti-nutritive glucosinolates. Stefansson was able to do both. In 1974 he succeeded with the double low “Tower” variety of canola. And to differentiate it from rapeseed the new name canola was coined from “Canadian Oil.” The other choice was CanAbra, but the name was appropriated by a member of the committee who started an Alberta company with it.


After developing the in the double low “Tower” variety, Stefansson then began work for Calgene a corporate plant breeder that developed the round-up resistant variety of canola. Calgene was later bought out by the giant in plant varieties: Monsanto. Stefansson has no regrets about the work and how its value had remained with the companies. He was well paid as were literally hundreds of scientists and support staff for years while the company took the risk. He is happy his canola has allowed some farmers to be a little more productive and to be able to make a slightly better living.


He has won many awards over the years and a room in his modest house in Fort Garry now houses the collection. The Wolf prize from Israel, Order of the Buffalo Hunt, the Royal Bank etc. About two dozen in all. He is glad not to doing his plant breeding work in the corporate “dog eat farmer” environment of today.



April 12, 2009


Western Canada’s Farmer Political Philosopher & Practitioner

by George Siamandas

A strong promoter of farmer’s rights, Thomas Crerar, the prairie apostle of cooperation dominated the early grain trade. Crerar was born June 17, 1876 near Molesworth Ontario. Of Scottish immigrants, his dad Wiliiam relocated to the Silver Creek municipality 360 km north west of Winnipeg. Thomas Crerar attended school only till age 12 because he was needed on the farm to replace the hired hand his dad could no longer afford to pay because of a crop failure. It was not until age 18 that Crerar was able to return to school at Portage La Prairie. Thomas Crerar became a teacher although what he had always wanted to become was a doctor.

Crerar became active in establishing a farmer-owned elevator company so that the farmers could enjoy lower rates and to force a more competitive attitude by the big grain companies. Crerar rose fast in the grain industry. First as manager of the farmer owned elevator and then as President of the Grain Growers Company which ran from 1907 till 1929. It became UGG in 1917.


Because the grain industry was taken over by the government during WW1 Crerar went into Sir Robert Borden’s Union Government as a representative of grain growers. In 1945 he went into the Senate and began to warn of the growing power of the state: growing public debt, bureaucratic power, and the growing culture of dependence. He felt one could not surrender one’s independence for security because both would be jeopardized in the long run.


A classic liberal, Crerar believed in self reliance. He believed in a unrestricted competitive market in free trade, financial thrift, a minimum of government, and a maximum of freedom for the individual citizen. He was against the eastern trade policies that resulted in prices twice as high for farm machinery than farmers would pay if they bought from the US. He established the western Progressive party after WW1 and waged years of western agitation against eastern colonial policies. Crerar stayed on till 1919 when he moved on to federal politics.


Crerar also saw the value of communication with the western farmer, and established the Grain Growers Guide a farm journal. The Grain Growers Guide became a strong advocate for farmer’s interests and of the need for farmers to take political action. It was clear to farmers that the political and economic system allowed the exploitation of western Canada by eastern businessmen with political clout. The farmers wanted to see a restoration of the 1897 crow’s nest pass tariff reduction and to reduce some tariffs.


Crerar became disgusted with the prospects of social legislation after ww2 being planned by McKenzie King’s people. Crerar who believed in individualism and free enterprise felt that growing statism would be ruinous. He resigned from the government in 1945. He spent the last 20 years of his public life in the Senate.


TA played a prominent role in the agrarian and political life of Canada. He felt that people coming freely together in cooperative action could look after themselves much better than any government could. He held cabinet positions in both liberal and conservative governments and was the leader of a the only third party, the progressives, that swept the west. He transformed the Grain Growers Company into the UGG. After 22 years with the company Crerar had taken it to a $15m industry which owned 440 country elevators.

Thomas Crerar died in Victoria on April 11, 1975. at the age of 98. He had survived all his contemporaries: both friends and foes.