Term Paper: Wheat Staple in Upper

Pages: 10 (3347 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 1+  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Agriculture  ·  Buy This Paper


[. . .] "The large overseas export of wheat from the Richelieu valley was almost counterbalanced by the importation of cheap flour from Upper Canada." (McGuigan in Easterbrook, 1983, p 116).

Added to the production problems caused by the agricultural methods employed in Lower Canada, pest infestation had a huge impact on wheat crops in the early 1800s. The wheat midge, in particular, interfered with the ability of Lower Canada to maintain its wheat export growth.

Norrie, Owram and Emery (2002) discuss how the economic history of Lower Canada went through two phases. The first phase was one of growth and continued prosperity that was prompted, in part, by the new British regime, and the new settlers that came with it. This influx of settlement fueled the growth that buoyed the seigneurial habitants. Although it may be an oversimplification, the new wave of immigration to Lower Canada in the late 1700s did seem to enable rapid growth.

This phase of growth had its effects in the greater prosperity of the colony. Agriculture that had previously been devoted primarily to providing a subsistence level of crops and livestock to a settlement, were increasingly devoted to serving the wheat export market. As Lower Canada grew beyond the main centres of Montreal and Quebec, some of the money (mainly) from the export of wheat made its way into the villages. "The growing population and the increased amount of cash in rural areas provided opportunities for ancillary activities...the domestic market for products was gaining in importance." (Norrie, Owram & Emery, 2002).

This economic success of the late 1700s, and the lucrative wheat export market especially, seemed to point to continued growth at the turn of the nineteenth century. A confluence of factors, though, led to the decline of the wheat staple, and by 1830, Quebec was a net importer of wheat. "The failure of wheat as a staple meant that, whether there was an agricultural crisis or successful adaptation by farmers, wheat exports were not a primary force in driving the economy." (Norrie, Owram & Emery, 2002, p85).

The reasons for this change in circumstance are varied. As mentioned, the farming practices might have made it more difficult to sustain a substantial wheat crop year after year. The land around the St. Lawrence was more suited to other agricultural pursuits than to wheat cultivation. Some historians believe, as well, that the stability of the wheat export market itself, made reliance on this staple a risky situation. Additionally, wheat cultivation suffered from pest infestation that crippled an already flagging sector.

This downturn in the fortunes of farmers in Lower Canada fomented dissatisfaction that was as political as it was economic.

This dissatisfaction reached a climax in the rebellions of 1837, where a revolt of agricultural protesters was thwarted. Marr (1980) says,

Rebellion erupted in both Lower and Upper Canada in 1837; among other complaints the farmers demanded more favoured entry to the British market and high tariffs against agricultural produce from the United States entering Upper Canada."

As a result of the agricultural crisis that gripped Lower Canada in the years preceding union with Upper Canada in 1841, the initial tide of immigration into the area was reversed. Emigration from Lower Canada was often the response to the crash of the wheat staple, to cities such as Montreal or Quebec, or south into the States.

While the agricultural sector was in crisis in Lower Canada, in Upper Canada, this part of the economy was booming. The prosperity of Upper Canada in this period was a result of a thriving wheat export business, the economics of which were governed by tariff policies of Britain as well as the United States. Marr (1980) observes,

The year 1794 witnessed the first exports of agricultural produce from Upper Canada; in 1846 the British North American farmers and grain merchants were set adrift from the imperial system of trade which, by means of the British Corn

Laws, had protected and stimulated colonial agriculture from the beginning." (p87).

The effect of the wheat staple in Upper Canada had an important impact on the transportation of the region as well. Initially reliant on the waterways for transportation of crop, the growth of wheat exports expanded land infrastructure to facilitate the movement of product from farm to market.

Upper Canada was a sparsely populated and scarcely developed settlement in the mid to late-eighteenth century. The initial settlement areas were related largely to their role in the fur trade. A major event that attracted immigrants to Upper Canada was the American Revolution. Loyalists, principally from New York, flooded into Canada, attracted by the availability of land, and access to main transportation routes such as the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River. These initial settlements, however, were not yet great agricultural outposts, as they were more military in character. "As the revolution neared its end, Loyalist units and communities realized that what had been a military base was now likely to become a permanent home." (Norrie, Owram & Emery, 2002). As the settlers came to realize that Upper Canada was to be a permanent home, crop cultivation took on a larger role.

This immigration into Upper Canada, as a result of the Revolution to the south, developed settlement in the region when its appeal as a homestead location was limited. Ostensibly, Upper Canada lacked most apparent economic assets; it was poorly settled and was located at the extremes of the British Empire, making transportation once again, a problem to be surmounted. From a strictly agricultural perspective, Upper Canada was not an overwhelmingly attractive settlement option. Successful crop cultivation was ultimately hindered by the distance that products had to travel to be sold. "The main obstacle to settlement in Upper Canada at this time, however, was the high cost of transporting products to market and bringing in equipment and supplies." (Norrie, Owram & Emery, 2002, p100).

Despite the initial motivation to settlement in Upper Canada, agriculture soon became a major part of the economy. This growth in the agricultural sector owes much to the preferential treatment given to Upper Canada grain imports by the British government. This system of variable tariff levels was known as the Corn Laws, referring to the British term for wheat.

The Corn Laws were designed to protect domestic grain crops from imported ones, ensuring that British farmers wouldn't suffer from a market over-run by foreign imports. "Basically they prohibited imports of grain and flour when British prices were very low but permitted them when prices were high." (Marr, 1980, p88). Because demand for wheat in Britain was high, and exports from British colonies were given preferential treatment to non-colonial shipments, the Corn Laws ensured a lucrative market for Upper Canada wheat. This market fostered the burgeoning wheat farming in Upper Canada and encouraged settlement on any land that could be used to farm.

In the early 1800s, Upper Canada wheat farmers enjoyed high prices for their crop on the British market. Wars in Europe, and poor domestic crops in Britain created a demand for wheat from the colonies, and maintained high wheat prices. This reliance on Britain as the main purchaser of wheat led to an economic boom when demand and prices were high. However, the situation reversed by the 1830s.

In the mid-1830s, the Upper Canada wheat market suffered several years of reduced production and crop failures. This coincided with bumper crops in Britain that triggered the protectionary measures of the Corn Laws and made imported wheat relatively more expensive. The impact of the Corn Laws on farmers' income was unpredictable and led, alternately, to times of boom and subsequent downturns. The reliance of Upper Canada on the wheat staple led to a depression, and the economic unrest that fostered the 1837 rebellions.

The British Corn Laws were the instrument, which encouraged specialized agricultural production on the frontier of Upper Canada. They protected

British North America from its principal trade rival, in this case, the United

States." (Marr, 1980, p.96).

The British Corn Laws were finally repealed in 1846, and wheat and flour production in Upper Canada declined somewhat.

Innovation was an important aspect of maximizing agricultural output (and therefore, profit) in the settlements of Upper Canada. (Lack of innovation, on the other hand, is often cited as a contributing factor to the agricultural crisis of Lower Canada in the early nineteenth century.) Another effect of the wheat staple and the growth of the agricultural sector in Upper Canada was the founding of agricultural colleges to spread innovation, such as the one in Guelph that dates to the 1830s.

Although the development of a wheat staple went a long way towards developing Lower and Upper Canada, the specific effects were very different in each region.

Lower Canada had a very different institutional culture than Upper Canada. The land was divided into seigneuries that evolved into narrow tracts of lands (mainly along the St. Lawrence) not well suited for maximizing agricultural output. With British rule in 1763,… [END OF PREVIEW]

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