Potash Plant

Flat prime prairie stretches out for uncountable miles in the area of Saskatchewan. Here and there in ever diminishing size and intensity small clumps of farm buildings break the skyline. This is a place where if your dog runs away you can watch his departure for days. Reports in the newspaper headline stories such as “Local veterinarian charged with luring deer onto his property with grain” or “A recent ruling by Saskatchewan courts may soon outlaw any expression of the Christian faith”. As a pick-up speeds along straight country roads, a plume of dust rises like the tail on a dog.

In the heart of this featureless landscape, the giant structure of the Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan (PotashCorp) looms like an ominous headquarters of Dr. No in a science fiction movie. Hulks of square buildings crisscrossed with diagonal elevators seem incongruous in this rural farming area. This is a mine head, the processing area for potash that has journeyed up from 1,000 meters below the surface, after its six kilometer subterranean trip.

These box-like buildings house the operation for washing the clay from the ore. Deep injection wells are then used to dispose of the excess brine which has been collected in the tailing storage areas. The tailings are vast mountain-like features that barricade the entire east side of the plant owned by the PotashCorp. Although Canadian potash has only been mined since 1962, at present Canada provides three-quarters of the potash for the United States, the world’s biggest user of this fertilizer. This is a very important part of the agriculture operation as potash regulates the formation of protein and starch in crops.

The potash idea is not new. Pioneers knew that potassium carbonate was necessary for making soap by evaporating water through filtered wood ash. This process was the first registered U.S. patent in 1790.

In 1988 when I was composing a mural for the National Trust Company, I was cautioned not to emphasize too strongly the importance of potash to the Saskatchewan segment of my work. Although this financial institution had been a primary lender for the start-up of the mining operation, the fortune of potash had dimmed and great gobs of red ink splattered the balance sheet of the PotashCorp. Now fifteen years later, the red has turned to black.

Besides my interest in the inclusion of PotashCorp in my mural which now hangs in the head office of the Bank of Nova Scotia, I was also drawn to the Lanigan area because I have relatives there. Around 1900 a number of Mennonites from Ontario homesteaded in that locale. Many of those farms are still in family hands. When the late summer sun creates long, long shadows over the wheat land at the end of day, there is a visual connection between the farmer in his air conditioned stereo infused combine cab and the mine where men work so far underground to help that farmer produce a good crop between the small dust-covered towns of Guernsey and Lanigan.