Chapter 1

Introduction to AG 150

Farmers feed us, we all know that. We know that from the time we get up in the morning and have breakfast, and we know that from when we were taught as children, and we know that from the famous 1890s protest song:

            When the banker says he’s broke,

            And the merchant’s up in smoke,

            They forget that it’s the farmer feeds them all.

            It would put them to the test,

            If the farmer took a rest,

            Because the farmer is the man who feeds them all.

Okay, but how many people do Manitoba farmers actually feed? Can we calculate that number? It’s perilous territory but we have given it a try. The advantage of being an e-book is it can always be changed if a better figure comes along.

One way to determine how many people Manitoba farmers feed is to calculate how much of Manitoba’s farm and processed food production is consumed in our province, versus how much we export.

It’s more detailed in the footnote but it takes about 24 per cent of Manitoba production to make up the entire diet of the province’s 1.4 million people. That’s after adding and subtracting interprovincial and international imports and exports. Then add the 75 per cent of production we export. It comes to about 4 x 1.4 million = roughly six million people. That is, Manitoba produces the equivalent in food to feed about six million people their entire diet in a year: breakfast, lunch, dinner and a bedtime snack.[i] That’s from about 15,000 farms, according to the 2016 Canada Census. If you counted just the 6,000 largest farms that make up 85 per cent of the acreage in Manitoba as feeding six million people annually, that comes out to about 1,000 people per farm. That’s back of the napkin math, of course. It should be noted that not every importing nation enjoys our standard of living and factoring that in could add another one or two million more people to the total.

Lord Selkirk would be impressed. It’s often forgotten that Lord Selkirk recruited the Scottish Highlanders here expressly to start the first European-style field agriculture in this part of the world.[ii] Lord Selkirk wanted to feed the fur trade, at least the trade of Hudson Bay Company. It was common for members of the fur trade to be short of food and go hungry and on many occasions experience near starvation. Some new age thinkers proffer the idea that the agricultural revolution 12,000 years ago was a big mistake and we’d be better off hunting and foraging. Yes, as long as you don’t mind not eating regularly. Lord Selkirk wanted agriculture to provide a more stable source of sustenance so people here didn’t have to rely on hunting, fishing and foraging for food. A term used frequently in the past is he wanted to create a “sedentary economy.”

Another aspect that gets overlooked is that the Selkirk settlers weren’t the first farmers. Indigenous people were cropping before Europeans showed up. There are accounts of Indigenous people feeding those hopelessly unprepared Scottish settlers from produce grown at Netley Creek. An archaeological dig at Lockport uncovered remnants of an Indigenous farming community dating back more than 700 years, well before the arrival of Europeans.

As for today’s farmers, how many diets around the world include at least some food that originated in Manitoba? It’s incalculable. It might be a billion people or more. Manitoba exports agri-food products to more than 80 countries. Our grain is mixed with other grain from across the Prairies and shipped all over the world. Our canola oil and seed alone may reach a billion people. Manitoba’s two largest buyers are the U.S., with a population of 330 million, where canola is the second leading food oil, and China, with a population of 1.4 billion.

But everyone knows that. Everyone knows farmers feed the world. What’s less well known is that farmers employ the world, too. Or at least they employ a lot more people than you think. When people go looking for global conspiracy theories, they should cast a glance at the countryside and the wire fencing and the long driveways.

Farmers employ the world so the world will have money to buy their food. It’s a clever plan. Farmers employ the world in processing and trucking and financial sectors and farm machinery and farm inputs and retail industries. That’s what it requires to both grow the food and get it onto people’s plates. Farmers produce the jobs so people earn enough money to buy their food. It’s a very Gaia-like loop when you think about it.

So farmers stuff your wallets and your stomachs. Now here’s where you get snowed under with obligatory statistics. Don’t despair as it will be brief.

About 16,095 Manitobans were employed in the food and beverage industry in 2019, and about 24,735 were employed on the farms themselves, either as farmers or farm workers, for a combined total of 40,830 direct jobs, or 5.9 per cent of the 689,335 jobs in Manitoba.

Now, using a Statistics Canada economic multiplier, you can estimate how many indirect jobs are needed to support those 40,830 direct jobs. Indirect jobs are those jobs created to support agri-food in sectors like banking, transportation, crop inputs (like fertilizer), etc. The total is 51,200 indirect jobs. These are jobs that exist wholly or partly thanks to agriculture.

Finally, estimate what the 40,830 people in direct agri-food jobs spend on food, housing, vehicles, recreation, etc. That creates another 13,147 jobs, according to the StatsCan multiplier. That comes to about 105,000 jobs in Manitoba that exist wholly or significantly (but not necessarily only) due to agriculture.

The Statistics Canada’s economic multiplier looks at what agriculture buys from the rest of the economy, and what it sells to the rest of the economy. “For every direct dollar output from the agriculture sector, the model can estimate the amount of additional output that will be created somewhere else in the economy,” said Mengistu Wendimu, economic analyst with Manitoba Agriculture.

The direct output from agri-food is about $11.6 billion. The economic multiplier says the total impact on the economy is more like $18 billion. “It means the contribution of agriculture and food processing doesn’t stop with the direct contribution but goes far beyond the direct contribution,” said Wendimu. 

There are agriculture-made jobs all over the place. The Manitoba government’s agriculture department alone employs about 350 people. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada employs almost 400 people full-time in Winnipeg, and 200 more when counting the entire province, including 60 part-time workers. The Canadian Grain Commission employs an additional 274 people in downtown Winnipeg. Then there are all the grain companies in downtown office buildings employing many hundreds more in Winnipeg, and many more jobs at grain elevators and crop input supply centres. A farm equipment manufacturer like Buhler Industries, which is responsible for building Versatile tractors, Canada’s last remaining home-made tractor, employs several hundred people, as does MacDon Industries at its Winnipeg plant.

And financial institutions? It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the first banks were formed to serve farmers and traders in farm product. That was in about 2000 B.C. in an area between India and Turkey.

It’s hard to calculate how many people are employed in financial industries in Manitoba because of farmers. Manitoba farms borrowed a total of $10.6 billion in 2019—28 per cent from chartered banks, 26 per cent from credit unions, 24 per cent from federal agencies like Farm Credit Corporation, and the rest from other sources including the province. That’s for mortgages and equipment purchases but also for operating loans to get a crop in the ground.

Now figure how much grain companies in downtown Winnipeg borrow every day from downtown banks to back their international grain sales. In the same manner that farmers borrow in spring to seed, and repay in fall after harvest, grain companies borrow to cover the period between when they take delivery of farmers’ grain at the elevator, and when they deliver it to the customer at port.

For example, for the 2019-2020 crop year farmers delivered a record 63 million tonnes. If you take an average price of $400, that’s $25 billion that grain companies may have borrowed. It may not be all of that because some grain companies are very large and may have ways to lessen borrowing, but it will still be a substantial amount. The lending on grain sales over the last 150 years has been a massively lucrative business for the cluster of banks positioned around Portage and Main, the grain industry headquarters of Canada, and has accounted for a lot of jobs.

I’m one of those people, too. I’ve received a paycheque from farmers. My first real journalism job was at the Manitoba Co-operator. The farm press in Manitoba and the country remains exceptionally strong. It’s a tough time for print media but the farm print media has weathered the storm of the last two decades better than most. Those are not just farm press jobs like at the Manitoba Co-operator and GrainNews and Country Guide but all the local farm reporters. Golden West Radio has a full-time farm reporter and other weeklies like the Neepawa Banner & Press have a reporter whose responsibility is largely to cover agriculture. And think of all the communication staff in everything from government to grain companies to commodity group organizations. Farmers have created a big industry for us.

Why do farmers employ the world? To make a living, yes. But it’s also because they love farming. They take all the risk for everyone else. None of the people in the jobs they support have the same risks. It’s because farmers love what they do. They’re their own boss. They love the lifestyle. They love the country. They love growing crops and produce and raising animals. They love creation and being close to creation.

It may not always seem that way but other people are envious. You just have to look at all the people fleeing the city to the bedroom communities if only to have a quasi-rural lifestyle. Gordon Daman, president of appraisal company, Red River Group, said in 2020 the pandemic only accelerated the exodus from Winnipeg. Everyone wants a piece of the country and the functionality of home offices during COVID-19 made that even more possible.

Then look at the movement of small farmers starting up. Direct farm marketers, small farms that sell directly to consumers and may or may not be certified organic, total about 900 in Manitoba. The popularity of farmers markets, both among the people who supply them and the consumers who frequent them, has never been greater. There are now about 50 around the province. If they can’t farm, people want at least have a connection to the farm.

When I started this project, my wife mentioned that her father once said if he could have been anything, he wished he could have been a farmer. You can be married to someone for many years and think you’ve heard everything but that was the first time I’d heard that. I was shocked. It’s shocking because my wife’s father was raised by a single mom on one of Winnipeg’s poorest streets in the inner city, and may not have ever stepped foot on a farm. He was sent off to live with relatives in Transcona during the summers, which was quite rural back then, and that was the closest he came. So for him to say that farming was a dream occupation seemed to suggest the yearning to farm is much more widespread than we think.

I have my own farm story. My father grew up in Winnipeg, his family being refugees in the mid-1920s from Russian-controlled Ukraine. He was an infant when his family settled in Winnipeg. He was in his early- to mid-teens when his parents sent him to a farm on the outskirts of the city to work for the summer. All the money he earned would be sent home to help support the family.

He told the story a few times but I wish he was still around to tell it once more. I’d have more questions now. He went to work at the Holtmann farm in the RM of Rosser. This wasn’t a camp for kids but working alongside grownups. This would have been in the late 1930s. Holtmann family members still farm in the area and have a large dairy operation. My dad cried himself to sleep those first few nights. He had never been away from home and it’s a cold, cruel world out there. He fed cattle and cleaned the barn but wasn’t called upon to do the milking. They would rise at the crack of dawn and he recalled one morning not being dressed properly and he just lay down in the tall grass and shivered. I always thought it was a weird story to tell and not sure why he told it.

But he recalled the kindness shown him by the family, especially by Mrs. Holtmann, and how great the meals were. I can’t help but think Mrs. Holtmann took a maternal interest in him, and was probably a bit bemused by the rough-hewn customer that was my dad, this Mennonite kid who got into more schoolyard scraps than he was supposed to considering his upbringing. My dad remembered how good the food tasted at the Holtmann farm, especially after he’d been working outside or in the barn all day.  And after a week or so, a change came over him. He started to love it. He loved farming. He loved his summer there. It was the best. And that memory stayed with him his entire life. When he was grown up and married with four sons and living in the city, he did what I and my older brothers thought was a very uncool thing. He bought a little farm in the Interlake, just off Highway 6 on the road to Steep Rock. We didn’t know any other dad that went out and bought a farm and made his kids spend weekends and summer holidays doing farm work. I took to it more than my brothers, perhaps because I was younger and didn’t feel I was missing out on weekend parties with friends like they were.

We would spend our summers there as he tried and failed at various farm enterprises from vegetable gardening to cattle, but eventually, he settled on beekeeping. The annual August honey harvest became a tradition. The light would be on until midnight in the honey house, a building my dad put together out of sheets of chipboard—he’d run his own house-building company in an earlier life so he could throw up a farm building in a weekend. It would be summer and we had electric heaters on full blast so the honey would flow. My dad would be in a chair, a smoke in his mouth and leaning over with an electric knife to cap the honey frame, a sheet of hexagonal cells that the bees fill with honey. Capping was where you cut off this fine white coating the bees produced to cover the cells. Then he would hand the frames up to whoever was manning the big barrel with the crank on it. We’d slip two frames into slots and then crank them round and round in the barrel until all the honey sprayed out against the walls and poured down the sides and out a spigot into a pail on the floor. I was pretty young, maybe not quite in my teens, and remember sweating in the sauna-like room while spinning that crank as fast as I could.

Because of the farm, we always had the Manitoba Co-operator lying around the table at home. I never read it. But that’s how I eventually applied for a job at the Co-operator after graduating from journalism school, and was lucky enough to be hired and mentored by great newspapermen like Bill Morriss, Bob Hainstock and Rod Edwards; and got to meet and interview men of character like Manitoba Pool Elevators presidents Wallace Fraser, Bill Strath and Charlie Swanson. And that started my writing career. That eventually saw me go to the Winnipeg Free Press as a farm reporter, and when its farm coverage was terminated, I became a general assignment reporter for about a decade, and eventually became the rural reporter.

That’s what led to me writing this book. Blame it on the Holtmanns.

Manitoba’s 150th birthday party got rudely interrupted by an uninvited guest called COVID-19 in 2020. This book was written during the height of the pandemic when there were few resources for anything but the pandemic. So this is a whirlwind tour through Manitoba agriculture in late 2020, early 2021. I know I didn’t get everything, not nearly. But something needed to be said. This province was founded on agriculture.

– Bill Redekop

[i] It takes about 24 per cent in dollar value of what Manitoba farmers produce to feed Manitoba’s 1.4 million people. We must factor out interprovincial trade, which is a net gain for us. We import 19 per cent of our agri-food products from other parts of Canada but export 26 per cent to other provinces.  We must also account for the 11 per cent of our food that’s imported from outside Canada. That comes off the 100 per cent of food we eat, so it doesn’t change our figures drastically. The figures are from Statistics Canada’s Supply and Use Table.

So it works out that about 24 per cent of Manitoba’s agri-food production would be required to feed our population if there were no imports whatsoever. That means the equivalent of over 75 per cent of our production is exported internationally and to the other provinces. Now the math becomes easy. Manitoba farmers feed four times Manitoba’s 1.4 million population for a total of nearly six million people.

[ii] “Agriculture in the Red River Colony,” by W. L. Morton, The Canadian Historical Review, University of Toronto Press, Volume 30, Number 4, December 1949, pp. 305-321.