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Grain milling is the process of grinding and separating wheat and other cereal grains into flour, animal feed, and other products such as rolled, flaked or dehulled grain products. In Saskatchewan's crop-based agriculture sector, wheat milling has historically been and remains the most important milling activity. Since the 1990s, milling of oats and other cereal grains and special crops has also become an important sub-sector. In the 1800s, wheat was ground using millstones; but by the early 1900s a new technology used a series of rollers to reduce the grain into varying sizes of flour particles, which were then separated into various product streams using machines called sifters and purifiers. The evolution from stone mills to roller mills enabled hard spring wheat to be ground into the high-quality, whiter flour with less bran content favoured for some food uses.

Flour mills were vital industries, especially for the early settlers, and played an important role in the development of agriculture in Saskatchewan. As evidenced in the literature of the early 1900s that promoted settlement in Saskatchewan, flour mills were seen as cornerstone industries fit to attract new settlers, additional business, and economic development. Hauling their wheat to the nearest mill, farmers obtained flour which was not only a staple food but also served as barter for other commodities. A portion of their crop was also sold to the mill for cash and exported from the prairie region.

In small communities, flour and grist mills were often the only industries to provide off-farm employment to rural people. Because of the services they offered, access to a mill was crucial to the settlement of the prairies, and difficulties in transportation necessitated a dense network of mills throughout the countryside. In 1915, at least thirty-seven flour mills were located in the towns of Annaheim, Asquith, Balgonie, Battleford, Blaine Lake, Canora, Cupar, Duck Lake, Esterhazy, Foam Lake, Grenfell, Hague, Herbert, Humboldt, Indian Head, Jasmin, Lanigan, Leney, Lloydminster, Lumsden, Maple Creek, Melville, Moose Jaw, North Battleford, Outlook, Prince Albert, Radisson, Regina, Rosthern, Saltcoats, Saskatoon, Shellbrook, Swift Current, Verigin, Weyburn, and Wilkie. Thrashing mills were found in an additional twenty-three towns.

Flour milling companies based in eastern Canada and the United States constructed grain elevators in the prairies to ensure a supply of grain. The Lake of the Woods Milling Company (est. 1887) owned thirty-two elevators in Saskatchewan by 1911; by 1927, the Ogilvie Flour Mills Company (est. 1881) was operating thirty-one elevators. The prairie milling trade was dominated by these two companies until Western Canada Flour Mills and Maple Leaf Mills (both est. 1907) also entered the grain trade. By 1911, Western Canada Flour Mills operated fifty-one elevators in Saskatchewan, which it later sold to Parrish & Heimbecker in 1940. Maple Leaf Mills operated thirty-one elevators which were later sold to the Federal Grain Co. (est. 1912) in 1929. These companies transported grain to their milling operations, and did not mill grain in Saskatchewan.

The Leslie and Wilson Milling Company in Saskatoon, which started operation in 1902, was equipped with electric motors which could process 100 barrels of flour per day; as the town's largest building, it was a proud symbol of modernity. Saskatoon's role as a supply centre was strengthened in 1912 when the Quaker Oats Company opened a mill on the site of the A.P. McNab mill. Expanded in 1936, the mill had an important role in the economic and cultural life of the city until the company withdrew from Saskatoon in 1972. For many years, the local hockey team was called the “Saskatoon Quakers.” Built in 1904 in Moosomin, the Sutcliffe-Muir Mill, which had a capacity of 250 barrels per day, was seen as a key industry capable of attracting business, investment and settlement to the region. Yorkton's flour mill, built in 1898, was by 1912 considered a pioneer industry whose products had become household words in eastern Saskatchewan.

The Moose Jaw Milling Company, founded in 1900 by miller Donald Mclean, was purchased in 1908 by the New Prague Flouring Mill (Minnesota), which by 1970 was renamed International Multifoods; a state-of-the-art oat mill was added in 1911. Six months later the oat and flour mill burned down but was immediately rebuilt in 1912. The company marketed the Radium, Keynote, Saskana and Robin Hood brand of flours, the latter of which remains popular today. Through the 1930s, a company newsletter, The Grist, informed residents of local news including the activities of the Robin Hood bowling league. The company's logo, an image of Robin Hood, was first painted on the mill elevator in 1922 and was a Moose Jaw landmark for over fifty years. At its peak, the mill employed 200 people and could produce 4,000 barrels of flour and 1,200 barrels of rolled oats per day. The mill had tremendous influence on economic and social life in Moose Jaw, which came to be known as the “Mill City.” Owing to milling overcapacity in Saskatchewan, decreasing export markets, as well as its location far from major markets, the mill closed in 1966.

The Esterhazy Flour Mill, constructed by James Saunders in 1906-07, operated until its closure in 1981. The plant was built with an elevator section powered by a kerosene engine and with a mill powered by a steam engine, which was replaced by a diesel engine in 1947. Designated as a seventy-five barrel mill, the operation was capable of producing 600 pounds of flour per hour. At one time, mills such as this were common across the prairies, but succumbed to fire or were closed down and razed. The Esterhazy mill, which operated until 1981, was designated a Provincial Heritage Property in 2004 and is the only remaining example of a flour mill of wood-frame construction in the province.

In Radisson, a 200-barrel mill and 16,000-bushel wheat elevator was built in 1908 by J. McLaren; serving the surrounding district, it was central to Radisson's role as a trading centre until it was destroyed by fire in 1942. In Humboldt, a 100-barrel mill, the McNab Flour Mill, was established in 1913 when A.P. McNab moved a mill from Saskatoon to the town. Destroyed by fire in 1956, the mill was rebuilt and now mills primarily mustard but continues to produce flour, albeit on a smaller scale than in the 1960s.

By 1929 there were forty-five flour and grist mills in the province, with a combined daily capacity of 7,000 barrels; but half the mills were inactive. During the Great Depression, low wheat prices and poor wheat crops encouraged the growth of small mills, which offered cheaper products to cash-strapped farmers. By 1935, the number of small milling operations had increased to fifty-five, with a combined daily capacity of 7,860 barrels. Throughout the 1930s small mills, challenged by inadequate supply and restricted by limited markets, sold their own brands of cereal breakfast foods. In 1941, Saskatchewan had at least fifty-seven flour mills, with a combined daily capacity of 12,592 barrels. The majority (96%) were small operations with a capacity of less than 300 barrels per day. However, the most common mills had a maximum capacity of 100 barrels per day and comprised 75% of all mills. These local businesses served as grist mills, supplying local farmers with flour as well as selling flour commercially. Few of the small mills were able to survive in an increasingly competitive market, and most had closed by the mid-1900s. Some mills found local niches and continued operation into the 1980s and 1990s. Expansion of farms, rural depopulation, and inability to compete with large companies eventually ended the era of the small mills.

The Viscount Flour Mill, which closed in 2001, was the last of the small fifty-barrel mills that were once so crucial to Saskatchewan's rural society. Built in 1929 by Harry Carnation in Viscount, it was equipped with an Ontario-built roller mill and a European-built stone mill manufactured in the late 1800s. First powered by a diesel engine, the mill was converted to electric power in 1969 and could produce one ton of flour per day. Bought by Aloise Koller in 1964, approximately 60% of milling work involved providing grist for farmers, the remainder being devoted to commercial sale of flours to Federated Co-op, the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, and health food stores. By the early 1990s, the mill no longer supplied grist for farmers and depended entirely on commercial sales. The Viscount mill, its building and equipment unchanged since 1929, is one of the few small flour mills that still exist in western Canada.

The Saskatchewan Wheat Pool built its first mill in 1949 as a way to add to the co-op's economic control, ensure fair treatment of farmers, and provide value-added manufacturing for prairie grain. In 1975, the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool and Manitoba Pool Elevators invested in CSP Foods, a major milling operation as well as manufacturer and distributor of baking products, as a value-added business for prairie grain. This partnership bought Can-Oat Milling in 1997.

After World War II, and until the early 1970s, Canada sold wheat to many food-deprived countries and was the world's largest exporter of wheat flour, holding 20% of the world trade. As war-torn nations rebuilt, export demand for Canadian flour decreased. In the 1970s, export subsidies introduced by the European Union and the United States caused the international market for wheat flour become extremely competitive. Canadian federal and provincial governments chose not to compete, and by 1989 Canada's share of world trade in flour diminished to 4%. The loss of off-shore markets, a limited domestic market, and over-capacity led to plant closures.

Following the elimination of Canada-USA tariffs in 1991, exports of wheat flour to the United States increased gradually throughout the 1990s, resulting in the US becoming the most important export market for wheat flour and other milled grain products. At the same time, American milling companies, facing the high costs of refitting outdated mills, began purchasing Canadian mills to meet increasing demand for grain products. Since 1990, milling companies based in the US and Japan have invested substantially in the Canadian milling industry. Currently, 70% of Canada's milling capacity is owned and operated by large US interests. In Saskatchewan, Grain Millers (Minnesota) acquired Popowich Milling in Yorkton in 2001; and in 2002, Michigan-based Dawn Food Products bought CPS Foods from the Wheat Pool, as well as Humboldt Flour Mills Ltd. However, most of the smaller cereal grain and special crop milling companies operating in Canada are still owned and operated by Canadian interests.

Canadian grain-milling capacity increased significantly from 1994 to 2004, and two new mills - the first in thirty years - were built in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, close to the source of prairie grains. Mills located in prairie provinces account for 32% of Canada's milling. Export profits from milling in Saskatchewan increased 22%, from $25 million in 1997 to $32 million in 2001. Currently there are three large flour mills in Saskatchewan: J.M. Smucker (Canada) Inc. in Saskatoon, and the Dawn Food Products mills in Saskatoon and Humboldt. Oats are milled by Popowich Milling (Yorkton) and CanOat Milling (Martensville). Peas and flax are milled by Parrheim Foods (Saskatoon), and Randolph and James Flax Milling (Prince Albert). Nutrasun Foods, the largest dedicated organic flour mill in North America, began operation in 2000. Smaller processors of organic flour, oat flour and wheat flour are also found in the province. Future areas of growth are likely to involve organic flours, higher-value foods, and nutraceutical ingredients made from a growing range of cereal grains and special crops.

Raymond Ambrosi

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