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A Fruitful Century

Body Blows to Control

A fruitful century

Although a request for a government enquiry had been part of the B.C.F.G.A. resolution which led to the Produce Marketing Act in 1927, no action was taken by the government. Divided over central selling, the B.C.F.G.A. convention of January, 1929, again called on the provincial government for a commission of enquiry. But conditions had changed from those which spawned the Produce Marketing Act. The feeble and fragmented Liberals had lost the 1928 election to the Conservatives, led by the veterinarian Dr. Simon Fraser Tolmie. The new premier appointed William Atkinson as Minister of Agriculture. “Billy” Atkinson, an auctioneer by trade, lacked the previous minister’s sympathy for cooperation, and was definitely not inclined to support the idea of compulsion. And his cabinet colleagues were no friendlier-they were a “millionaire” cabinet “who ruled more or less by the divine right of Capital”. J.W. Jones, Conservative MLA for South Okanagan, was still “very much interested in the Produce Marketing Act, feeling that it was very necessary for us to have protection of this kind in order to put the fruit districts upon a stable basis.” He was “most anxious that every provision of the Act should be carried out without the slightest delay.” But Jones had been left out of the Cabinet, despite his long political career, and the attitude of those within it may be deduced from Jones’ unsuccessful plea for enforcement of the Act.

Vignette: Evelyn Penrose, Water Diviner

The prolonged drought of the late 1920s and early 1930s brought to public attention one of the more unusual characters to appear in the Okanagan.

By 1931, the water shortage was such that growers were willing to try almost any means to increase the supply. Thus in the fall of 1930, the South East Kelowna Irrigation District (S.E.K.I.D.) engaged Miss Evelyn M. Penrose, an English woman who claimed to have inherited from her Cornish ancestors the ability to “feel” underground streams of water and deposits of oil and metal ores. She was to search for new sources in the area draining into the District’s reservoirs. For this she received five dollars a day for expenses, with a substantial payment promised if successful. She spent October dowsing the hills east of Kelowna with her twisted wire rod, but there is no record that the District actually tried to develop any of the sites she indicated. She did, however, declare that there were strong indications of oil in the area, thus helping to encourage an oil-rush which led to two unsuccessful oil wells being drilled in the Kelowna area in the 1930s.

While Miss Penrose’s efforts for S.E.K.I.D. may not have borne results, she interested others in her talents. The Hon. J.W. Jones, MLA for South Okanagan and provincial Minister of Finance, was persuaded by the drought-plagued farmers that water divining was worth trying, and he arranged for Miss Penrose to be employed by the Department of Agriculture during the summer and fall of 1931. She travelled through the Okanagan, Cariboo, and Peace River areas, dowsing properties wherever the owners had made a request through the Department. According to her own account, she was highly successful: she wrote that she found one young Okanagan fruit grower a “Wonder Well”, giving a supply of more than 324,000 gallons a day, “in a spot that he had been walking over daily for years”.2 The Department of Agriculture’s Annual Report for 1931 stated that “letters received from time to time indicate that settlers are securing satisfactory watersupplies where digging operations are carried on”. Evidently, the success was not great enough to convince the sceptics, for on March 24, 1932, water divining was discussed in the provincial legislature which decided to eliminate the $1500 which had been allocated for that purpose in the Department of Agriculture’s budget.4 Miss Penrose left British Columbia and continued her travels around the world, searching for water, oil, and metals in South America, Africa, the United States, and Australia.

The last word, though, should be hers, particularly as she tells her stories so well. In her autobiography, Adventure Unlimited, she explained that she could even locate ore deposits on a map by running her hands over it. Each metal gave her a different sensation; silver, for example, felt like being stabbed with a red-hot knife. While she was water-divining in British Columbia, a mining man brought her a map of an area near a big silver mine, which he wanted her to survey for gold. While talking to him, she unthinkingly perched on the table and sat on the corner of the map where the silver mine was. The sudden stab of pain made her leap up with a yell. The next day she mentioned this to a friend, who remarked, “But, my dear, how very convenient to be able to work at both ends!”

Finally, after considerable delay, Premier Tolmie bowed to the widespread demand and appointed a Royal Commission. Despite protests from the B.C.F.G.A., the commission was charged with investigating the financial problems of irrigation districts as well as the marketing of fruit. A single commissioner was given this extensive task; the choice of the man for the post was influenced by the philosophical stance of the government. Tolmie went out of the province with the political appointment and gave the plum to W. Sanford Evans, a Winnipeg investment dealer and Conservative member of the Manitoba Legislature. Evans had served on several enquiries and government bodies. There was no doubt about Evans’ politics: he was a staunch believer in free enterprise and in “business principles”. The fruit growers did not get what they had hoped for, a speedy study with results available to help formulate policy at the next B.C.F.G.A. Convention in January, 1930. Instead, Evans took until January 15, 1931, to finish his Report, although he did issue the section dealing with the less contentious irrigation issue earlier. The biased attitude of the Commission may be seen in letters in which F.G. deWolf, the Administrative Officer of the Commission, and J.G. Thomson, its Secretary, attacked the Committee of Direction and the managers of Associated Growers as “overpaid officials” interested only in protecting their positions. (This is an ironic claim from government employees on a slow-working Royal Commission.) And for good measure, they threw in personal smears against F.M. Black.“ Evans’ hostility towards Black may be traced back to the Manitoba legislature, where Evans was the leader of the Conservative opposition when Black was Provincial Treasurer in the United Farmer government.

Loading a C.P.R. barge at Ewings Landing, 1931.Courtesy Vernon Centennial Museum

Sanford Evans’ Royal Commission Report, when it finally emerged, was not what the bulk of growers expected. He raised some valid points, noting that the industry had not given proper attention to the export trade which consumed over a quarter of the crop, and that fruit production per acre was much lower than in comparable areas of Washington. Furthermore, he indicated that the options open to selling agencies, cooperative or independent, were drastically reduced by the lack of cold storage facilities which would allow the crop to be sold over eight months rather than over three. Also, growers’ options were lessened because there were no shippers in the Valley who would buy fruit for cash, instead of on consignment. Considering the man chosen as Commissioner, it was a relatively neutral report; Evans did not attack the cooperatives, and indeed indicated that he considered them integral to a system of free competition. But his comments on the question of legislated control of marketing raised an uproar. Evans himself admitted that his conclusions were based on his politicaleconomic convictions rather than on any careful analysis of the actual performance of any of the collective schemes tried since 1922. He said that the system under the Produce Marketing Act, of partial control, neither fully centralized nor fully competitive, could not possibly work. The alternatives, as he saw them, were either establishing compulsory central selling (where a centralized monopoly should, in effect, expropriate the produce of the orchards, sell it as it saw fit, and divide the returns among the growers), or else returning to free competition, uninhibited by legislative controls. The first alternative he saw as absolutely unacceptable both for economic and political-economic principles, since it would result in a form of socialism. Therefore, the only acceptable solution was a return to open competition.

Packing at Penticton, about 1930. Note the separation of sexes.Courtesy PABC

The independents and other opponents of control legislation, many of whom used the Report for attacks on any sort of cooperation, were jubilant. The convention of the Independent Growers’ Association on February 5, 1931, passed a unanimous resolution thanking Evans.

Growers who supported cooperation were stunned by Evans’ attack on the marketing principles they supported, but they reacted emphatically. Evans, they said, despite the time and expense of his enquiry, failed to give any detailed analysis of the various options which had been tried or proposed.

Courtesy Country Life in B.C.

No public hearing was held during all of this time at which growers and others interested could give evidence. Besides that, offers from such authorities as the Associated and the Committee to supply the Commission with all the information in their possession were largely ignored.

Depression measures. Bulk apples in sacks at Vernon in 1931.Courtesy Vernon Museum and Archives

Many of Evans’ specific statements and assumptions were refuted or challenged, particularly where he denigrated the efficiency of centralization and sang the praises of open competition.The B.C.F.G.A. Convention, after a stormy debate, voted on January 22 by an overwhelming majority to reject the Evans Report.

Hard on the heels of the Evans Report came another blow to the prospects of organized marketing: the legal invalidation of the Produce Marketing Act. On February 16, 1931, Chief Justice Lyman Duff of the Supreme Court of Canada ruled the Act to be beyond the legislative power of the provincial house.

Several legal challenges on various grounds had been made to the Produce Marketing Act since its passage in 1927. The lower courts repeatedly upheld the validity of the Act, but A.C. Lawson, a shipper at Grand Forks, whose argument was that the levies imposed by the Committee of Direction were indirect taxes which only the federal government could legally impose, appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada and won.

The Committee of Direction, unsupported by further. It terminated its operations on March 6, 1931.

Filling from the flume at the Summerland Experimental Station, 1930.Courtesy Summerland Museum.

Both the Evans Report and the Supreme Court decision were in part products of the time, the beginning of the Depression, a period when the deteriorating economy fostered despairing individualism in efforts to save the self from general ruin, and “increasingly competitive conditions made regulatory legislation intolerable to a growing number of people.” Fruit marketing returned to its previous unorganized state, just at a time when the traditional Prairie market was rapidly losing its ability to pay.