High-yielding, short-season wheat controversy comes to official end

A new variety of wheat with earlier maturity, higher yield and better disease resistance has been developed by a department of agriculture breeder, but is being opposed for registration by grain commission officials in Winnipeg.

Sounds familiar, except that it was actually the Board of Grain Commissioners, as it’s a story that dates to 1924, and finally comes to an end this August 1, when Garnet is officially cancelled as a variety eligible for the Canada Western Red Spring wheat class.

A detailed history of the Garnet controversy was prepared by Winnipeg historian Jim Blanchard for the Manitoba Historical Society in 1990. Blanchard wrote that it started in 1923, when L. H. Newman became the “Dominion Cerealist” in the Department of Agriculture with responsibilities for developing new varieties. He succeeded Dr. Charles Saunders, the developer of Marquis, the famous variety which helped establish the quality reputation for Canadian wheat.

Newman’s tests of the 1924 crop revealed that Garnet was early maturing, 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.

Those characteristics made it attractive to farmers, who found an ally in Agriculture Minister W.R. Motherwell, formerly a leader in the movement to found the Grain Growers Grain Company. As one of only two Liberal MPs on the Prairies (also sound familiar?), and fighting a challenge from the upstart Progressive party.

However, later tests at the Board of Grain Commissioners determined that Garnet was not equal to Marquis, which led to a battle which even reached the office of Prime Minister Mackenzie King, who in 1928 received a letter from the secretary of the Liverpool Corn Trade Association complaining about the declining quality of Canadian export wheat.

King referred the matter to the House Standing Committee on Agriculture which in April of 1928 devoted the entire month to the problem. Frost that year led to more demands from farmer to license the earlier-maturing variety in the Canada Northern class. One way or another they continued to grow it and by 1933 there was an average of 33 per cent in export cargoes.

The controversy raged until 1935, with the Motherwell and Newman on one side and the Board of Grain Commissioners, the grain trade and milling customers on the other. Grain traders were concerned that Garnet’s effect on export quality could mean that Canada could lose sales to Russia, which was beginning to re-emerge as a wheat exporter (sound familiar?).

Finally, a separate class was established in 1935. Ironically, presumably when Garnet had been replaced by better varieties and there was not enough to affect export quality, it was apparently allowed into the CWRS class.

A vigorous defence of Garnet co-written by Newman is available online.

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