Chapter 2: Central

Grain farming is an essential part of life on the prairies. Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba grow much of the grain we eat in foods like bread, pasta, and oatmeal. Even the peak-roofed grain elevators are prairie icons – a symbol of how agriculture has shaped central Canada.

In the early 1800s, thousands of immigrants arrived on the prairies. They brought seed grain and began growing wheat on small farms. When the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed, settlers shipped their wheat to Britain and eventually, across the world. Over time, farmers expanded their crops to include grains such as rye, barley, flax and lentils.

Settlers on the trail, north of Edmonton, 1910
Source: Carl Engler/Library and Archives Canada/PA-018755
Horse drawn plow, Montmartre SK, 1928
  • Wheat

    High in essential
    vitamins and minerals.

  • Canola

    Rich in healthy fats.
    Low in
    saturated fat
    and trans fat free.

  • Corn

    High in vitamins A, B, E
    and many minerals

  • Soybeans

    Provides high-quality
    Excellent source
    of calcium
    and iron.

  • Barley
    & Oats

    High in soluble fibres. Helps
    to reduce cholesterol

  • Lentils

    High in fibre and folate.
    100 grams
    of dry split red
    lentils has more
    than a large banana.

  • Flaxseed

    Contains omega-3 essential
    acids that can improve
    heart health.

  • Mustard

    High in selenium and
    which can
    reduce inflammation.

  • Canary

    Not just for birds. High in
    and naturally

  • Sunflower

    Good source of vitamin E,
    healthy fats
    and protein.

  • Chickpeas

    High in fibre. Can help
    blood sugar
    and lower cholesterol.

  • Quinoa

    A complete protein that
    all 9 essential
    amino acids.

  • Green peas

    High in antioxidants.
    Could help
    to prevent
    stomach cancer.

  • Pulses

    Rich in fibre, protein and
    essential nutrients.

Marquis Wheat
A high quality, quickly maturing grain that first put Canada on the world’s wheat map.
Durum Wheat
A gluten-rich wheat that’s prized around the globe. Perfect for making high quality pasta.
Red Spring Wheat
A premium wheat that bakers use to create exceptional bread.

While much of Canada’s wheat goes into making bread, pasta, cereal, biscuits, and crackers, there are many other uses for this versatile grain. Today, wheat is used to create products including:

  • Paper
  • Cups
  • Golf tees
  • Cosmetics
  • Hair conditioner
  • Laundry detergent
  • Plastic bags
A number of products that use wheat in their production

Just 100 years ago, over half the people in Canada were farmers. Now, we have a population of 35 million, but there are less than 730,000 farmers.

We’re producing more food per acre on less land, and using less water, fertilizer and other resources to do so. In 1900, one farmer produced enough food for 10 people. Today, that same farmer Feeds more than 120 people. The use of new technology and modern, efficient equipment to farm with plays a big role in this.
Farm and Food Care Canada
Art Napoleon

Art Napoleon begins his exploration of grain production in Saskatchewan with a trip to the farm, and a debate on organic vs conventional practices.

Grains are the harvested seeds of grasses like wheat, oats, rice, sorghum, millet, rye, corn and barley. In every culture around the world, people get about 48% of their calories from grains. For example, they grind wheat into flour to make bread, steam rice, and mix oats with water.

Grains provide carbohydrates for energy, and contain important vitamins and nutrients. They are easily stored for year-round use. Canada’s First Nations traditionally harvested and dried grains like corn, wheat and wild rice.

Supply and Demand

In 2016, farmers around the world produced about 2,500 million tonnes of grain. Canadian farmers contributed about 82 million tonnes to that total.

  • Wheat – 31.7
  • Canola - 18.4
  • Corn for grain - 13.2
  • Soybeans - 6.5
  • Lentils - 3.2
  • Barley - 8.8

Studies show that without modern advancements in grain farming, we would need about 50% more land to grow the same amount of food. Estimates also say the world will need 60% more food by 2050 in order to meet global demand. That’s why it’s so important for grain farmers to produce healthy crops in a safe and sustainable way.

In 2014, Canadian farms produced $55.7 billion worth of primary products, such as wheat and barley. These agricultural products are sold in their raw, unprocessed form. Grains and oilseeds (such as soybeans and mustard seed), represented 35.5% of those total farm sales in 2014, which highlights the value of grain farming for Canada’s economy.

In 2016/2017, our grain shipments hit a record high. Canada’s rail network carried 50.7 million tonnes of grain from Western Canada to ports in BC and Ontario.
  • Canada produces an average of 30M tonnes of wheat each year.
  • Canada is the largest producer of high-protein milling wheat
  • Wheat is primarily grown in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba & Ontario
  • Saskatchewan is the largest wheat producer in Canada
  • Wheat contributes $11 billion to Canada's economy every year.

With settlement in the late 1800s Indigenous people living on the plains were moved to reservations and encouraged by the government of Canada to shift from a traditional hunting, trapping, and fishing lifestyle to grain farming. With their primary economic base, the buffalo wiped out, Indigenous peoples signed treaties that promised land, tools, and training.

However, many reserve lands granted to Indigenous people were located in areas not suited to farming, and many grain seeds and farming implements promised to First Nations never materialized.

Nevertheless, many early First Nations farmers were successful, utilizing newly developed dry land farming techniques and working together collectively. Even then Indigenous farmers found their efforts thwarted by harmful policies aimed at making it impossible for them to compete with non-Indigenous settlers.

The sad legacy of these policies is that of the 44,000 farmers in Saskatchewan today, only 500 are Indigenous, and less than 100 of them produce grains. About 80% of the 1.6 million acres of First Nations-owned agricultural land is being cultivated by non-Indigenous farmers.

A First Nations Farmer

Canadian grain farms are at risk from a variety of human and environmental threats.

1. Bigger, more industrialized farms

Prairie grain farms are changing. The number of Canadian farms decreased by 10% in the last five years, but the average farm is 7% bigger. In Saskatchewan, the number of farms dropped by almost 17%, but grew in size by 15%.

The small, single-family farm is being replaced by large agricultural businesses. These farms are usually bigger, more industrialized, and have a whole staff of paid employees.

Using a combine harvester, a vast wheat field is methodically harvested

Agriculture uses more freshwater than nearly any human activity. Farm chemicals, pesticides, fertilizers and manure can runoff into the groundwater, which eventually finds its way into lakes, rivers and the ocean. These chemicals can pollute the freshwater that people, animals and plants rely on.

Pesticides can pose an especially significant threat to freshwater. These chemicals do not harm non-target organisms, including humans. When a chemical targets some species but not others, the ecosystem can become unbalanced. New pest species and diseases can emerge.

2. Biodiversity and genetic modification

Genetically modified (GM) foods are engineered to enhance specific traits and minimize (or eliminate) others. For example, seeds can be scientifically modified to change the colour and flavour of a food. Other GM foods produce crops that resist certain pests, or withstand different temperature and growing conditions.

Genome editing has produced herbicide-resistant canola, soybeans, corn and wheat, which can withstand the chemicals applied to kill weeds and pests.

Some people say GM crops are an important way for farmers to produce more viable crops and meet the world’s growing need for grains. Critics of GM foods say they create superweeds that resist increasingly potent herbicides. Others are concerned that GM seeds will naturally mingle with non-engineered crops, via wind, birds and animals, trucking, grain handling and transportation, and pollen. Farmers who choose organic methods (and need to meet legal requirements for GM content) could see their crops accidentally contaminated.

Scientists, medical professionals and farmers also debate the long-term health effects of eating GM foods. A 2016 report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine determined that there are no widespread health differences between countries like Canada and the United States (where GM foods have been consumed since the late 1990s) and the UK and western Europe, which has not had widespread GM agriculture.


The term biodiversity refers to all the different species, genetics and ecosystems in our world. We need biological diversity for a healthy planet – and healthy people. A strong ecosystem, for example, has plants that produce oxygen and clean our water.

Farms can also promote biodiversity

As farmers work to grow more food for more people, many now rely on seeds that consistently produce abundant crops. In the last 100 years, 75% of genetic plant diversity has been lost. More than 90% of the crop varieties we once cultivated are no longer grown in farmers’ fields.

The decline in agricultural biodiversity (also known as agrobiodiversity) has several main causes:
Large-scale farming
Cultivating fewer crop varieties creates monocultures – where one crop is grown exclusively in a specific area. Relying on one seed or plant type can make the whole crop susceptible to pests and diseases. Nutrients in the soil can also suffer.
Shifting global markets
The rise of industrial patents and global seed companies mean that many farmers now grow similar crops. There are economic reasons for this change, but also consumer ones. Many people around the world now eat similar foods. In response, more farmers are choosing to produce sought-after crops, instead of cultivating the unique, local foods of their ancestors.
As populations grow and cities spread, we lose many of our natural areas. Even cultivated farmland often supports wild animals, fish and birds. When these farms disappear, so does natural plant and animal habitat.

3. Globalization of food systems

Canada grows a lot of grain – and we send most of what we produce to countries around the world. In 2015-16, Canadian farms exported about 48.26 million tonnes of grain, oilseeds and pulses.

Exporting so much grain exposes farmers and producers to unpredictable global factors, including weather patterns, consumer trends, energy prices, commodity exchanges and the stock market. All of these factors affect the price, availability, and sustainability of Canadian grain crops.

According to current estimates, Canadian grain farmers export the following proportions of each total grain crop produced nationwide:

70% wheat
25% barley
75% pulse
90% canola
50% oat
Art Napoleon

Art visits the University of Saskatchewan, learns about Flax breeding and genetics, and discovers there is a European aversion to GMOs.

Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Crops

Formed in 2013 to facilitate cross-commodity collaboration on sustainable agriculture issues and the opportunities for grain sector participants. Includes growers, industry, customers and consumer organizations.

Centre for Indigenous and Environmental Resources

National, First Nations-directed environmental non-profit organisation with charitable status established in 1994 by a group of First Nations Chiefs from across Canada. CIER takes action on climate change, builds sustainable communities, protects lands and waters, and conserves biodiversity.

Crop rotation

Changing crops with each different year and season can help the environment. Once the main crops, such as wheat or barley, are harvested, winter crops like fall rye, winter wheat and legumes can increase soil health. Rotating crops can also break disease cycles, minimize invasive weeds, and help to manage pests without using as much pesticide.

Low, no-till or conservation tillage agriculture

Placing seeds, fertilizer or manure in soil without turning it over can dramatically reduce soil erosion, conserve water and nutrients in the soil, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by trapping carbon in the soil. It also means farmers have to make fewer passes over their fields with heavy machinery reducing the amount of fuel they burn by about 170 million litres per year.

No-till farming can reduce soil erosion by 90 to 95 per cent or more compared to conventional tillage practices and continuous no-till can make soil more resistant to erosion over time.
Ag in the Classroom Canada

Farm gleaning

Gathering leftover crops after the harvest (called gleaning) can minimize food waste. This practice can also promote sustainability and increase local food security.

People work hard in field, harvesting the last of the crop.

Micro farming, small-scale farms and co-ops

Small farms and co-ops can work together to market each other’s products. They can also build and promote a healthy environment and a fair, sustainable and secure food system. Many of these small, local organizations also participate in farmers markets and CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) programs.

Someone buys an apple at a fruit stand

Precision agriculture

New ideas can improve grain farming for everyone. Precision agriculture uses modern equipment and technology, such as drones, to apply fertilizers or other applications exactly where they’re needed.

An artist's rendering of a drone spraying a sunflower crop

Cultivating efficient crops and new foods

In 1936, Alberta grew just 40 hectares of mustard seed. Now, Canada is the world’s largest exporter of this crop. About 67,500 metric tonnes, or 52% of our total mustard seed exports, go to the United States. The prairies are the ideal place to grow this drought-resistant, cool-weather seed. Researchers in Saskatchewan are also creating new yellow, brown and oriental mustard varieties for enhanced nutrition and better crop yields. Mustard seed can also be used to create more natural pesticides and fertilizers, and as a bio-diesel additive.

Crop diversification – Lentils and beans

Canada exports over 80% of our pulses (grain legumes including beans, peas, lentils and chickpeas) to other countries. Canadian scientists are also studying the health benefits of pulses, such as their potential to provide relief from inflammatory bowel disease and control blood sugar levels.

Piles of a variety of legumes make a colourful display

Safer fertilization and pest control

Adherence to 4R nutrient stewardship program for fertilizer application.

Right source
matches fertilizer type to crop needs
Right rate
matches amount of fertilizer type to crop needs
Right time
makes nutrients available when crops need them
Right place
keep nutrients where crops can use them.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada – Turning straw into gold

Manufacturers are working to create paper from wheat and flax straw. This innovation will give farmers a new income stream from a crop byproduct that would otherwise be waste.

Art Napoleon

Art visits a lab developing new varieties of wheat through conventional methods and has his fears about genetically modified crops allayed.

Sustainable agriculture treats farmers, farm works and the land with respect. It balances the need for abundant production with safe environmental practices. It should also provide safe, nutritious food for Canadians.

New technologies and deeper knowledge of sustainable farming practices can enable farmers to produce more food on the same amount of land, while protecting the environment. We are making progress. A Food Sustainability Index report from the Economist and the non-profit, apolitical Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition ranked Canada second in the world for sustainable agriculture.

5 things you can do to support sustainable grain farming

  • Whenever possible, buy local products grown in your community. Buying local minimizes the need for transportation, which saves fuel and lowers GHG emissions. You are also supporting the people who work hard to grow healthy, nutritious food.
  • Don’t waste food. Research shows that almost half of all the food produced around the world is wasted during processing, transport, and after purchase in homes and kitchens.
  • Try new grains. Canadian farmers process everything from quinoa to chickpeas to barley. Look for interesting, Canadian-grown grains when you’re grocery shopping. The internet is filled with recipes and ways to use these high-quality products.
  • Join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. It’s a great way to meet local farmers and eat fresh, healthy food.
  • Support policies and legislation that allows farmers (and farms of all sizes) to make a living growing food, here in Canada.
Art Napoleon

When Art visits the National Seed Bank, and discovers how the scientists there are preserving diversity, he realizes his views on farming and technology have changed.