Legacies: Canadians in Agriculture

This July 1, FCC Ag Economics is pleased to celebrate our collective birthday with a feature of a Canadian in agriculture who has made a difference. In this post, we pay tribute to Dexter Beach from Ernfold, Saskatchewan.

Dexter Beach had grown into a young man during the 1930s. Growing up in Ernfold, Saskatchewan, the oldest of 12 children, he finished high school and returned to the farm to help provide for the family. These were some of the toughest years to be a farmer, especially on the prairies.

It took him nine working years to save enough money to attend the University of Saskatchewan, and in 1945, he graduated as an agricultural engineer then returned to farming. He loved the farm, loved working the farm the most.

He might have died a happy farmer, husband to the woman he met at university and father to three daughters, had hail not ravished the land three years running. Having taught and done research at U of S during this time on the lubricating properties of rapeseed oil in internal combustion engines, he left farming for good in 1954, and in 1958-1959, completed a Master’s degree in mechanical engineering in Australia.

It was the start of a career devoted to working with rapeseed and vegetable oil. It would end with a life of successes, most notably a 2010 induction into the Saskatchewan Agriculture Hall of Fame, six years after his death.

Canola: the quintessential Canadian

Canola is a superstar in Canada’s agricultural arsenal. In 2014, exports amounted to almost 9.7 million tonnes of seed, 2.4 million tonnes of oil and 3.5 million tonnes of meal, destined primarily for the United States where a recent ban on trans fats may further boost use of canola. It’s Canada’s second largest produced crop after wheat and proponents claim it’s the healthiest edible oil on the market today.

And how very Canadian it is: the word “canola” – now used globally as the generic commodity name - is a combination of “Canada” and “oil”. It was designed for production on the Canadian prairies, where conditions hindered the growth of many crops. But in the 1950s, Canada needed at least one other crop for prairie production, for those years when wheat economics weren’t optimal.

During the Second World War, rapeseed had been that crop. Suitable to help lubricate steam engines used in the war effort, Canadian rapeseed production soared until 1949, when prices dropped to a fraction of their earlier high. Although valuable as a lubricant, rapeseed could neither be used for food nor feed. It was only when Canadian scientists developed a seed that was low in erucic acid and glucosinolate that suddenly, Canada could produce an oil for human consumption and meal for animal feed. Moreover, the new breed thrived in the prairie cold and soil, grown by farmers who didn’t need to buy new equipment.

The first canola seed suitable for human and animal consumption was developed by B.R. Stefansson and R.K. Downey, who would go on to receive the Royal Bank Award and Order of Canada in recognition of their contributions.  The research to develop the seed, conducted largely in Saskatoon and Manitoba, had taken thirty years and by 1974, Canada lead the world with the introduction of “Tower”.

In the meantime, Dexter had returned to Canada and was teaching at the University of Saskatchewan. It was there that he met Dr. Chuck Stewart and Ben Torchinsky. Together, the three men established Agra Vegetable Oil Products and in 1961, opened Saskatchewan’s first extraction plant in Nipawin.

Dexter was the engineer behind the manufacturing process. In 1971, he became the General Manager of the plant. In 1973, the plant expanded to include margarine packaging, doubling Nipawin’s production capacity. It allowed Agra to enter the international market with the first major export of Canadian crude rapeseed oil to Chile, Mexico and India. He went on to consult on different global projects as a Canadian expert in oilseed crushing.

Today, the plant they built by Nipawin is still in operation as the modern day Bunge plant. The crude rapeseed oil they originally processed has become canola, the processing of which has grown well outside Saskatchewan’s borders. A global industry in 2014, there were 13 crushing and refining plants located throughout Canada. According to the Canola Council of Canada, the industry in Canada alone provides more than 249,000 jobs and $19.3 billion to the economy. It’s a true Canadian success story, with its own roots dug deep in the toil and the soil of the Canadian prairies.

Martha Roberts, Economic Research Specialist