Thursday, December 2, 2010

The End of Agrarianism: The Fight for Farm Parity in Alberta and Saskatchewan, 1935-48

David Monod
Labour/ Le Travail, Volume 16 (Fall/Automne 1985)

THIS PAPER DEALS with an attempt by the farmers of Alberta and Saskatchewan to have the economy regulated to their advantage. Through parity, the farmers hoped to have the prices of the goods they bought controlled by the values of those they had to sell. The agitation in favour of parity prices lasted ten years, and it culminated in a massive 30-day farm strike in autumn 1946. At the heart of the whole matter was the issue of agrarian survival. The struggle for parity involved marginal farmers who worked small acreages and had large overheads. These producers were being impoverished by their inability to compete with their more mechanized counterparts. The ultimate failure of their protest marked the end of the non-competitive farmers' existence in agriculture. But despite its failure, the agitation reveals not only the similarities between the industrialization process in its urban and rural contexts, but also the difficulties involved in transferring forms of dissent from one sector to the other.

FOR MANY FARMERS IN western Canada, the inter-war years were decades of discontent — decades born in depression and marked with suffering, insecurity, and social upheaval. Except for a brief period in the mid-1920s, when agriculture experienced a significant though short-lived recovery, the prices of grain and livestock were in steady decline after 1919. The impact of this prolonged price depression on the western farmers was devastating as it affected all sectors of their economy; incomes declined sharply while mortgage indebtedness, interest payments, taxes, and labour costs remained high.

There were many causes of this crisis, but part of the explanation lay in the changing nature of the industry itself. With the growing use of mechanical equipment, the farmers' capacity to produce increased at a rate faster than the power of the population to consume. Consequently, prices declined precipitously and unmarketable surpluses became chronic. Mechanization did, however, carry with it certain unassailable advantages: it freed the fanner from a reliance on expensive and transient labour, regularized operations, and in the long term allowed for the reduction of production costs per acre. At the same time, it tied the farmer to the modern economy, with its compulsion to find more income to obtain fuel, machinery, and equipment, and dragged farmers forever into the orbit of the dominant industrial culture.

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